Working hand in hand
Pushing the Mouse will see a giant mouse taking over the Tritons Fountain area during Science in the City. Adam Brimmer interviews artists Michael Bachhofer and Stefan Resch to find out more about the artistic aspect of this virtual and augmented reality experience.
What is the aim behind this event?
Michael: The basic idea is that lots of work nowadays is done by ‘pushing the mouse’, including a massive amount of scientific work. When I first started studying biology, as a beginner I thought I would be spending a lot of time observing nature or whatever. But, in real life I spent most of my time ‘pushing the mouse’, by reading articles and writing them; doing online research; and typing in data and analysing it.
This is what Pushing the Mouse is about – making us aware that today’s jobs, especially in the scientific field, involves pushing mice around screens. We live in virtual worlds, and virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are not the future, but the present.
Almost nobody realises this fact. Everybody is talking about virtual and augmented reality as something that will happen in the future, but we are living them since at least the mid 1990s.
Stefan: We usually don’t stop to think that almost every aspect of the daily routine is connected to the virtual world. Computers that control the traffic lights when you cross the street; electronic payments at a shop… these are but two examples. As a civilisation we are already far more dependent on these systems than we usually acknowledge. In the context of this project, the size of the mouse also illustrates this aspect and maybe also draws the attention to this fact.
What are the biggest challenges to make this project a reality?
Michael: From my side it definitely was the logistics, and getting everything that we needed for a reasonable price. If money were no object, it would have been easier. Now, the shipping is the challenge. The question is whether we will manage to ship it as excess baggage on the airplane. From a technical perspective, it would be too complicated to explain the biggest challenges. Each step was a challenge at the beginning, but most also were great fun.
Stefan: I would say that the other big concern was how to make it appealing and robust at the same time. Luckily, Michael had many great ideas concerning the materials. Since I don’t often code graphical user interfaces, it also took a bit longer than expected to get up-to-date on this topic.
For most artists, working with a scientist is not the norm. What has the experience been like for you?
Michael: For me working with scientists was always easy, perhaps because my background is engineering and sciences. Working with most artists is the real challenge. But, as long as both sides are really interested in the point of view of the other, it can be really inspiring and fruitful.
Stefan: Luckily, we got a very capable peer at University of Malta with Marthese Borg. Within just a few e-mails we established a concept for the design and tracking of the game on the tablet of the mouse that fits very well in both worlds.
This event is part of the Valletta 2018 Foundation programme. Science in the City takes place on September 28 at various locations around Valletta.
The scientific point of view
Researcher Marthese Borg explains how art and science worked together on this project.
What will the experience of the users be like – as in, what will people be actually doing?
There are two different elements for the public in this project. The mouse – i.e., the actual physical experience – and the tablet, i.e. the virtual reality experience through which the game will be visualised. The tablet will be situated within the mouse itself, and the idea is for users to look at the tablet, which will immerse them into the game created for this project, while they physically move the mouse to navigate the game.
What has the creative process been like?
Very easy and seamless. All the people involved have been very enthusiastic from the get go, and it has been a pleasure working with Stefan and Micheal, brainstorming ideas, finding which ones would work best for this project and then discussing them even further to make sure we had the best product possible.
How important is it for science and art to work hand in hand?
I am a very big advocate of science and art working hand in hand. I do believe that it is very important for the public to have, at least, a basic understanding of science. This is because, what science does at the end of the day, is explain to us how the world works, from the laws of physics to our behaviour and that of others – and so much more.
Having said this, there are times when science is not so easy to explain to the public, especially if we think of some of the more abstract and conceptual parts. Art supplies an excellent medium to make the explanation of science easier to understand, partly through the sensory experience it provides. Because of this, it also makes things more engaging and interesting.
On the other hand, I believe that art benefits from this collaboration because it gains a different perspective and insight from science, making it able to achieve more ambitious and unique projects. At the end of the day, if science and art work together, we all win.
Sometimes science and art are seen as opposites – an idea that Science in the City seeks to counteract. What attracted you to work in a so-called ‘opposing’ area, incorporating a field that is different to your usual work?
As I’ve mentioned in the previous question, I think that it’s very important for everyone to have a basic understanding of science. It changes your perspective of the world. Art helps us deliver this knowledge in a format that is more engaging and easier to understand. The science world itself is also becoming more interdisciplinary, with different sciences working together and adopting ideas and methods from each other.
I’ve never seen science and art as opposites; on the contrary I believe they go together wonderfully. After all, there is naturally a lot of science in art – for example, look at how paint is created, and the different techniques. There is also a lot of art in science, as creating experiments involves much more creativity than one would imagine.