Under the Table

Text Karen Ho-Cespedes

Beneath Will Alsop’s iconographic “tabletop” building in Toronto lies Butterfield Park, a newly created urban space where, mysteriously, people don’t linger, reflect, or interact with each other–it is merely used as a shortcut between Beverley and McCaul Streets. Consequently, students from the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) were charged with the task of “activating the park.” The participants were enrolled in a first-year interaction design course, a sub-discipline of design that examines the role of human behaviour and intelligence in physical and virtual spaces as well as the convergence of physical and digital products. Interaction design is concerned with a user/customer/audience/participant’s experience with a designed object, system or environment. Sometimes referred to by the acronyms “IxD” or “iD,” interaction design has recently developed as a field of study in a growing number of universities throughout the world.

It was felt that the imminent transformation of the park would provide for greater opportunities to connect with the neighbourhood and the rest of the city. The possibilities of change being limitless, the park can be both a breeding ground and gallery for artists and designers as well as a gathering place for the local community.

So for a few hours one late spring afternoon, the students installed 17 interactive public space projects in Butterfield Park. Each interaction design class created an environment that changed the park in some way, and developed a range of playful participatory experiences. Some of the activities included interactive graffiti walls, communal music-making, radio-controlled cars that drew, human statues, a food fight, a tiny photo show, paint hockey, a spring-thaw ice block, a Toronto memory map, a race with a “randomizer,” and a series of giant toys. The entire park became a canvas upon which passersby fulfilled the role of subject. With the recent interest in Toronto’s public spaces, these student projects represent what happens when we look at our city’s communal spaces and ask, “How can we engage people?”

The adjacent Art Gallery of Ontario was so impressed with the students’ interventions that a number of them have been asked to participate in the AGO’s Art in the Park summer event in Grange Park.

Preparations will be made to ensure that 2007’s “Activate the Park” will be just as successful as the inaugural event, if not more. But what has this event paved the way for, other than an ongoing exercise? Perhaps it will provide opportunities for future projects to be awarded space in Butterfield Park for permanent installations, transforming the park over time. Perhaps it might inspire students to become actively involved with future plans for the design of the park. At this time, all we know for certain is that a seed has been planted. Only time will tell if it flourishes.

Karen Ho-Cespedes, along with Martha Ladly and Shawn Micallef, are instructors of “Principles of Interaction Design” at OCAD.