UPDATED – Cultivating joy through creation: how Kawandeep Virdee uses public spaces to connect people

It’s 9 a.m. in San Francisco, and Kawandeep Virdee is standing brightly at the podium in front of a room of weary-eyed journalists. To wake everyone up, he asks the crowd to pull up a link: www.bloopdance.com. Go ahead, try it.

If you were expecting a photo or video, maybe a webpage or a story, you might be disappointed. When you open it, you find yourself immersed in a mashing of technology and art.

The experiment has done its job: as the audience begins to quiet down, the energy in the room stays active, waiting to see what artistic expression will come next.

Virdee, described in his introduction as a geothermal energy and global citizen, works at Embed.ly.  He kicked off #SNDSF with his interactive keynote presentation in front of the approximately 325 attendees at this year’s Society For News Design conference. Virdee’s passion — which he demonstrated throughout the presentation — is using interactive public art and different mediums to create the “expressiveness of media.”

Interactive art, like the type Virdee works with, needs to be positive and provide collaboration and connection between people — something that’s not always the case in media. It also needs to be interactive.

“Analytics alone are nice, but they don’t really speak to anything,” he said.

Like a cinema where you enter with friends but then can no longer speak to them, old media styles disconnect individuals. Virdee said he aims to create work that helps reconnect and inspire instead.

Virdee noted the visuals that we use in our lives, both interactive and static, can represent our emotions in a way we cannot express through words.

He has created public art like sculptures that can project faces of those who pass by, or lights that respond to sound in public spaces.

One of his examples is a series of interactive sculptures in Boston that change color through text messages. Passers-by could text “blue” or “red” to a number and see the sculpture respond immediately. The most popular request? “Fish.” (Virdee did note the sculptures were near an aquarium, but that didn’t explain that word’s popularity).

These displays have, as Virdee explained, created more welcome public spaces that prompt individuals in communities to become more inclusive and expressive about themselves to each other.

Virdee showed the audience a project he designed  in which selfies and photos could be pixel sorted to create new artwork. The response from the public was overwhelming: he had a flood of response on social media, with others participating in the art project as well.

He believes people want to be a part of something — a change from the past, when individuals could never interact with the media they consumed.

He asked: “How does the media see you?”

Virdee used these examples to emphasize his point: create media that breaks free from what we normally consume.

Why does he think that’s so important? He believes these visual and interpretative projects enable the consumer to build stronger connections with others. Which, in turn, builds empathy and understanding.

Ultimately, for Virdee, it’s about “cultivating joy.”

Another project involved dancing dots on a screen that created sound when individuals interacted with each other on their smart phones.

When playing around with his project, Virdee noticed one of the dots he was controlling began to harmonize with another. He brought it up on Twitter.

“I just harmonized with someone and I don’t know who. Is that weird?”

The response? Overwhelmingly no. Said one Twitter user: “It’s natural and beautiful.”


Watch Kawandeep Virdee explain how he turns selfies into art: