Chris O’Shea has a common problem. When asked to describe his profession, he says, ‘I never know whether I’m an artist or a designer, I fit somewhere between the two.’ He is not comfortable with the label ‘interactive’, as it is so hard to define, he says, but although O’Shea struggles to define himself, interaction design’s great and good have no trouble recognising his talent. He has created interactive installations and exhibits for both public institutions and private companies, with his clients ranging from All of Us, Ico Design and Greyworld to Jason Bruges Studio and Moving Brands.
A recent project was Audience, created with Random International for last month’s Ignite Festival at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. The installation featured an ‘audience’ of tiny mirrors mounted on a rotating base. As visitors walked past them, the mirrors tracked their progress, reflecting the viewer and giving them the strange sensation of being both performer and audience.
Another recent job was writing the software for three new permanent installations by Jason Bruges at The Curve, a new performing arts centre in Leicester. As visitors walk through three glass portals into the building, their movements are replayed over the course of a day on a large light display in the space. The installation will also sync to curtain up and down, to signal the start and end of performances.
In all his work, O’Shea finds the technological side as interesting as the idea. He is often called on as ‘the camera guy’, and much of his work makes use of motion tracking. ‘I could be purely a concept artist and pay someone to do all the work for me, but I really enjoy the physical act of building work myself,’ he says. ‘All my work is really heavy on technology, but it’s hidden away.’
His Out of Bounds commission for the Design Museum in London is a case in point. It allowed visitors to use an X-ray torch to shine through the building’s walls, and O’Shea thrives on making people interact. ‘I like to look at play and what it means to be playful,’ he explains. ‘The way people respond is what I enjoy most – making people behave differently from how they usually would.’ In Flap to Freedom, an interactive installation by Ico Design for the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Village Fête – for which O’Shea wrote the software and helped with the electronics, concept and installation – visitors had to flap their arms to make motorised toy chickens run faster.
O’Shea puts his success partly down to his somewhat circuitous career path. Before studying MediaLab Arts at the University of Plymouth, he had already run his own Web design company. And even though he soon got bored with Web design, his experience stood him in good stead. ‘Because of my experiences with the company, at university I wanted to push myself, and I was already familiar with self-promotion and being proactive,’ he explains.
That activity now also includes his well-respected Pixelsumo blog, and last year he co-founded This Happened, a free event aimed to lift the lid on the processes of interaction design. It was so popular that spin-off programmes will soon launch in New York and Utrecht.
Those projects, as well as his curatorial work, such as the 2006 Cybersonica Sonic Art exhibition, are integral to what makes O’Shea tick. He says, ‘The events and the blog help me frame my opinion of what I like and dislike – it helps me re-evaluate what I want to do.’ For now, what he wants is more collaborations and more work of his own. ‘A lot of the work we do is very self-indulgent; I do a lot of work because I’m interested in the technology or because there’s something I want to get out of it as an artist. But it’s actually nice to make something that has an effect on somebody else in a good way,’ he says.