Colossal Crystals That Can Be Played Like A Theremin: Five Questions With ‘Oscillation’ Designer Ryan Swanson

Colorful, musical art is coming to the neighborhood via “Oscillation,” an interactive exhibit created by Brooklyn-based design firm the Urban Conga. The installation consists of colossal crystals that can be played like a theremin, the unique instrument which makes sound without being touched by responding to human activity.

“Oscillation” will be on display at 77 Water Street’s privately-owned public plaza from February 28 through April 20, and the Downtown Alliance spoke to the Urban Conga’s executive director Ryan Swanson about the latest art piece to hit the streets of Lower Manhattan.

What inspired the creation of “Oscillation”?  

“Oscillation” was designed off this idea of using play to begin to interrupt one’s routine within the public realm. We wanted to create a piece that would stop people as they walked by and allowed them to not only spark an interaction with the piece but also the people around them. The theremin-like interaction encourages people to work together — to move and dance around the piece to manipulate and change the sounds coming from the installation. As people move around, they also realize the colors begin to change as well, and our hope is that these playful interactions begin to bring strangers together through this moment of play.

How do you think about this interactive medium in relation to social experiences right now?

People are becoming more disconnected from one another at a personal level, and this mostly stems from a lack of physical engagement with others within the public realm. This is beginning to cause people to view others through the lens of stereotypes and bias. So, with our work, we explore ways to break these barriers and get people to physically connect with one another.  As Plato once said, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than a year of conversation,” and those moments are precisely what we strive to spark with this work.

Are we living in a fun-deficient society? 

Yes, I do believe we are living in a fun- and play-deficient society. Proof of that is, schools across the United States are beginning to limit play to just 15 minutes a week. I believe this stems from the idea of, as we get older, we tend to put a negative connotation on play and feel it is something that should be done as a reward instead of a fundamental activity — as more of a luxury rather than a necessity. But play brings a significant amount of value to not only us as people but also to our urban development. I’m not saying implementing more play within our infrastructure will solve all of our issues, but it will impact our health, identity of place and social value.  

Which aspect of “Oscillation” speaks to you the most and why? 

For me, it’s about the aspect of bring people coming together through its playful interactions — whether it is through a group selfie or a musical dance routine between two strangers.

Would love some recommendations for songs and artists that feature the theremin.

“Please Go Home” by the Rolling Stones, “Incense” by Erykah Badu and “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys.