Looking back on The Universal Set as an experiment in play

The Universal Set was an installation created by New American Public Art in 2015 for the Lawn on D, an outdoor event space in Boston’s Waterfront District, replete with beer, art, and activitiesUnlike most of NAPA’s other works, The Universal Set was not technically responsive, and in many ways, it was a complete failure.

what people are doing when they create art is ‘creating’ deviance.

In place of a summary of technical details, though, a word on the geometric construction of The Universal Set is needed to adequately tell the story of this work. The Universal Set was a dodecahedron—a regular solid of twelve pentagonal faces—made of whiteboards rather than snow. Legend has it that when Plato associated the four elements—earth, air, fire, and water—with the four regular solids, he assigned the sphere of the universe to the dodecahedron, the fifth. Perhaps this was because the volume of a regular dodecahedron is closer to that of a sphere than the volume of any other Platonic Solid (Phillips 1965).

With this in mind, nearly two and a half millennia later, it becomes clear why NAPA’s dodecahedron was aptly named The Universal Set. In its brief life on the Lawn on D, it was at once a shape representing the universe and a work of art presenting to its public an unlimited set of allowable actions…that is, anything that could be done—and undone—to a whiteboard with a marker. 

Art & play are two sides of the same coin

According to game designer Raph Koster, games, like machines, are meant to wiggle. “You poke and prod them to see what comes out the other end.” In spaces of explorable areas, where agency comes in the form of different verbs, this ‘wiggle room’ can be better understood as play. Rather than pointing simply to foolishness or childishness, the play-concept signifies a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition separate from that of ordinary life. Therefore, describing the interactivity of public art in terms of play makes a lot of sense.

In 1955, a Dutch cultural theorist named Johan Huizinga wrote a book on the significance of play in culture and society. In it, he explains that play—like art or creativity more broadly—instantly assumes form as a cultural phenomenon. Similarly, Huizinga observes:

The words we use to denote the elements of play belong for the most part to aesthetics, terms with which we try to describe the effects of beauty: tension, poise, balance, contrast, variation, solution, resolution, etc. (1955)

These terms are more likely in the purview of those interested in game studies than in our common anecdotes about children on the playground. But consider this: it’s important for games to be neither too simple nor too complicated; bound up in this sentiment are all the effects listed above. Moreover, we can draw a parallel between the work of game development and the design of interactive public art. Both increasingly include predicting and governing human behavior through technical and social means. In other words, the mechanics and signs in games, as in interactive art, are configured to provide compelling problems and afford creative opportunities. In the case of The Universal Set, the compelling problem and creative opportunity were one and the same: 12 blank spaces.


New American Public Art, The Universal Set  (2015), Boston, MA.

Even art needs some certainty

Maybe we should think of The Universal Set as a possibility space. In abstract terms, a possibility space is a decision-space or a conceptual space of possible meaning. Of course, when talking about blank canvases, this is not so abstract at all. The Universal Set was materially a 3D space holding nearly limitless potential for playful illustration.

Great games engage players with rule sets and constraints which make only a subset of all possible interactions available. Choice of input, or of agency in such games is therefore limited but consequential. Constraints as well as affordances—what the properties of an object offer to an interacting agent—are two tools for defining a player’s agency. When there’s a single but exhaustive affordance (i.e. unlimited, over-writable space) without any constraints (i.e., prompts or repercussions), the poise and the balance mentioned above are forfeited for the production of otherwise unanticipated results.


New American Public Art, The Universal Set  (2015), Boston, MA.

Thus, it’s fair to say that the intentional physical and conceptual structure of The Universal Set did not go so far as to structure its reception. The forms of expression that NAPA hoped for were not imparted onto the piece by the public. This begs the question of what kinds of affordances and constraints interactive public art needs to incite creative participation.

To design for dynamic expression, one should design for counterplay

A quick and easy detour through statistics may help us pinpoint what kind of participation aesthetic interaction should aspire to. When we’re talking about the expressivity of the public we can think of the variance that may exist among individuals in terms of standard deviation. Behaviors that differ from those of the majority will fall on either side of the standard bell curve.


At the far ends of this figure, we have individuals who either want to offend or delight the majority of the population. On the left, there are “sinister deviants” who will use an entire pentagon of The Universal Set to draw obscenities. And, on the opposite end, there are the “righteous deviants” who have the capacity to pick up a marker and draw the next Mona Lisa amidst the basic autographs and Twitter handles. Sometimes, the righteous and sinister creations may even be mistaken for each other. This is because what people are doing when they create art is ‘creating’ deviance.

To design for dynamic expression, then, I would argue that one should design for counterplay. In game studies, counterplay refers to a constructive form of deviance in which players creatively toy with the rules and their boundaries. Counterplay opens the possibility of an antagonistic relationship between the game and its players. To encourage counterplay, what’s needed are limited but flexible models of interaction—possibility spaces—that afford not only rule-following behaviors, but also opportunities for reconfiguration or modification. Most people enjoy a challenge.


New American Public Art, Neodya II (2012), Boston, MA


The creative interactions prompted by the available magnetic materials of Neodya II can be seen as striking the balance between modularity and fixed outcome, making for a unified aesthetic.

The next element to consider when designing for dynamic expression is behavioral mimicry. While partly left to chance, mimicry has a lot to do with anticipating the potentials and pitfalls of bringing together people and creative objects or technologies in particular places.

An article published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2009 sheds some greater light on this. Its authors argue that

[B]eing mimicked by an interaction partner cues convergent thinking by signalling a social opportunity for collaboration, while not being mimicked cues divergent thinking by signalling a social demand for improvisation and innovation. (Ashton-James & Chartrand 2009)

Another way to look at this would be to say that both being mimicked and not being mimicked, or not having an interaction partner to influence or be persuaded by, signals an opportunity for deviance. In addition, we can gather from this that interactive public art can be a means of social adaptation. The right object or technology put in the right space affords us the possibility of working with others or following their traces to connect dots and also think outside of the box. This is the stuff that “generative expression” is made of.

As Darwin (1859/1999) noted, ‘‘in the long history of humankind, those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” (cited in Ashton-James & Chartrand 2009)

What can potentially emerge from mimicry but also from the right folding together of people, place, and medium—whether anticipated or not—is a kind of curation that can perhaps be best described as a cultural thermometer, with each ephemeral or enduring trace imparted a signifier of the zeitgeist.  

Undirected consensus can make for bad public art

All this in mind and the photos to boot, The Universal Set is perhaps best described as an experiment in random noise whose outcome would make Darwin quite concerned. It failed because it did not provide its audience with enough structure to meaningfully interact or with enough rules to playfully counter. It would be unfair to explain typical participants as compelled by the bad kind of deviants or deviance though. Rather, they were more likely overwhelmed by all the undirected possibility put before them in the environment.



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