Artful playground

ImpulseImpulse, an interactive installation presented by the the Office for the Arts, is part of the ARTS FIRST 25th anniversary celebration in Harvard Yard.

By Samantha Neville '19 and Alicia Anstead NF '08

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of ARTS FIRST, the Public Art Program at the Office for the Arts at Harvard will present Impulse, a set of 15 seesaws that emit sound and light, and can withstand the ice and sub-zero temperatures of winter in Montreal, Canada, the site for which they were originally created. The interactive public art installation, which will be in Harvard Yard noon-10 p.m. April 26-May 4, is the work of Lola Sheppard GSD ‘01 and Mason White

Impulse in the winter
Impulse. Photo: Chiara Isserlis.
GSD ‘01, founders of Lateral Office, an experimental design practice devoted to architecture, landscape and urbanism, and their partners at CS Design, a lighting design group. Impulse was first part of a competition during Luminothérapie, a cultural event in Montreal last winter. Now the makers have adapted it for Harvard’s spring arts festival.

The seesaws have a horizontal, silent, dimly lit baseline. Each is fitted with LED lights and speakers activated by an accelerometer, so the faster a person  moves the more light is emitted and the faster the sound. Each component has four or five notes – from a range of two octaves -- that  play randomly.

“The project is interested in this idea of play and some level of whimsy and the idea of part and whole – that there’s a relationship between two people on the seesaw, as one experience. But then, having 20 people or 30 people on the 15 seesaws, it becomes a kind of collective experience, both acoustically and visually,” Sheppard said.

Lola Sheppard and Mason White. Photo: George Qua-Enoo.
Lola Sheppard GSD '01 and Mason White GSD '01. Photo: George Qua-Enoo.
This is not a typical project for Sheppard and White. They typically do work that has to do with environment and urbanism, such as Renewing the Remote and Making Camp.

“We’d been interested in interactivity and public space for a while, and had actually explored in a very early project ideas about sound and public space,” Sheppard said.

Impulse has been displayed in many cities, including Brussels, London, Chicago and Baltimore. Jack Megan, director of the Office for the Arts, looks forward to adding Cambridge to the list. 

"We are committed to an engagement with the visual arts and design for the festival and to the work of Harvard student, faulty and alumni artists," said Megan. "Impulse is an exciting sculptural statement that we are thrilled to share with the community. The Office for the Arts has been bringing artists to campus to create public artworks since 1987, and we are proud of that legacy."

The configuration of the display will be slightly changed for Harvard, which allowed the creators to rethink the artwork.

“A lot of the previous iterations had been a kind of linear arrangements, and the quad creates kind of an interesting geometric complexity of the path, and the trees, and it’s a much more intimate space,” Sheppard said.

Sheppard has been surprised by people’s reaction to the light and sound installation.

Impulse. Photo: Ulysse Lemerise/OSA.
“People seemed to react with a level of delight that you don’t often see people engage in for buildings or even public landscapes, so it was pretty amazing to see people engaged in the installation when it first went up in Montreal,” Sheppard said.

For students interested in design, Sheppard offered the following advice.

“Have a broad a range of interests,” she said, “whether it’s film or photography or literature or music. All these things fold into thinking about design. So the broader one’s interests, the more interesting usually the work and observations coming out the other end.”