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Unfurl – Air Giants at Norwich and Norfolk Festival

‘Unfurl is a garden like no other. Nature, art and technology have combined to create something spectacular… The plants present different personalities with ever-shifting moods to discover… No two experiences of Unfurl are the same.’

Giant robot inflatable plants that respond to being poked and prodded? Sign me up, you might think! Or maybe it’s not quite your thing… Either way, intriguing right? Read on to find out what our writers thought when Unfurl came to Norwich…

An illustration of a path through dark woods. The scene is lit by neon ferns, plants, flowers and motes, giving the scene an ethereal fairytale quality.
Illustration by rrramble illustrator Cat Crawford

Alec

Biomechanical design is a unique and somewhat newly established aesthetic; influencing both fictional media as well as developments in the scientific world. It’s really interesting to see how a scientific framework designed to give people new limbs or even fight cancer cells has become a recognised art movement. This kind of art is abundant in video game media but rare to see outside of a fictional setting. The idea of a biomechanical art exhibition I could touch without being told off was more than enough to interest me. 

I attended Unfurl in the afternoon and evening to see if the time of day would add anything to my experience. After being welcomed into the display by one of the volunteers, I was greeted by several white, bulbous creations making strange noises and withstanding confident hugs from small children. The display consisted of four main designs: a five metre tall, swaying tentacle, an archway with spikes, a triangular prism with a coiling top and a waist height, bulb-shaped piece. Each design seemed to have a mind of its own, unexpectedly deflating, flailing about or bursting into a fit of beeps at any given moment. In comparison to the afternoon display, the evening showcased the colour-changing lights that apparently indicated their moods. The tentacle would wave from side to side and flash bright pinks and purples whereas the bulbs would remain calm and maintain the same colour. 

One thing I really enjoyed was how Air Giants presented the designs as these fantastical beings who feed off pure energy. I think the choice to personify the designs as creatures capable of emotion is a really fun way of introducing abstract art to kids. The emotional features of the designs act as a clear frame of reference for children – you don’t need an adult to explain what a flashing red, angry tentacle means. The focus on empathising with these inflatable giants is a fun way of showing kids logic isn’t always required to understand something – sometimes a feeling is understanding enough. 

I enjoyed attending Unfurl across the two days but as an experience I would say, at its heart, Unfurl is more a family experience. Not to discredit the hard work gone into the creation of each piece but I would say this is an interactive art display designed to be kid-friendly (and kid-proof) which partnered with the other events on at the Norfolk & Norwich Festival makes it a perfect stopover for kids to see something unique and also let off some steam. 

Pop-up art displays like this are great for bringing in publicity and business to an area but also act as a reminder of the importance of free, public art. With thousands of public libraries closing over the past decade and recent government policies squeezing the budget of various art organisations, the need for easily accessible, free art shouldn’t be understated. Granted, we have just come out of a global pandemic so I don’t blame people for being hesitant when looking at live, in-person events. However, there has been a clear demand for concerts and sport events in the past year and with the summer season coming up, hopefully we’ll see more free and unique displays like Unfurl in the coming weeks. 

An illustration of a caterpillar on a leaf. There are neon ferns around it, and the abstract caterpillar is made up of brightly coloured spheres.
Illustration by rrramble illustrator Cat Crawford

Lois

When I told my Norwich friends I’d made a date with some giant inflatable robot plants, they looked at me sideways. Soft robotics isn’t something any of us have had dealings with. To be honest, I don’t tend to assume that just because something is “giant” it is necessarily impressive, but I’m aware that’s somewhat cynical and when I read about Unfurl on the Norfolk and Norwich Festival website, I was intrigued and fully ready to be impressed.

In their own words, the creators, Bristol based soft robotics studio, Air Giants, “create huge, emotionally expressive soft robotic creatures and spaces.” With Unfurl, they’d used their skills to create a huge living garden of soft robotic plants.

The installation was accessible for free between the hours of 2 and 5pm and 6 and 9pm, with a designated “quiet hour” at 1pm for those with sensory needs, before the installation opened to the public. It had all the ingredients required for making a piece of innovative, high quality interactive art accessible to all.

So it is with genuine sadness that I have to write about my own experience at the first showing.

The brochure tells us that: “The plants present different personalities with ever-shifting moods to discover.” When my friends and I arrived, just after 2pm, they must’ve been asleep. Staff reported that due to “technical difficulties” they hadn’t been able to set up the installation on time. Several of the pieces were still flat on the floor and the staff added that they hoped to have them all stood up by 3pm – but also that it was best to come back at 4pm.

I do have to wonder what that meant for anyone with sensory needs who had tried to book a quiet viewing in the 1pm slot. I sincerely hope they were given another opportunity at their convenience to view the piece, which had so far missed the mark in terms of accessibility for all. Our hope was that we’d come back when it was fully working and see some living responsive structures. At 3:10, we noticed they were letting people in, so in we went.

We saw two groups of plain white toadstools, which didn’t respond to touch. They did deflate when my friend leaned their whole weight against them – in the same way an under-inflated bouncy castle responds to manipulation of the air inside. I ran over to a small curled up tentacle shaped object that appeared to unfurl and hug children who leant on it. When I tried it also didn’t move unless manipulated. That’s when the magic died.

Contrary to the narrative in the brochure, they looked and felt like inanimate inflatable objects. The fans that “sound like whooshing wind” sounded like fans. The vines that “flex and dance” had to be pulled. The children didn’t seem to mind – which was nice – but they could respond to just suggestion. Suggestion wasn’t what was advertised. What was advertised were plants which have “little computers inside them” that “control how they move.”

As we left about 20 minutes later – (we really did try!) – we heard someone asking about the musical element that was promised. A member of staff replied that it wasn’t working but would be eventually. I felt guilty for being disappointed. My friends reminded me that the onus is on the work to impress the audience, not on the audience to will themselves into it. I really wanted to be impressed. It’s possible that a night time visit – when the pieces light up – might’ve proved more fruitful – particularly if all the elements were working by then.

A neon illustration of a fern in different green tones. There are other neon dust motes floating in the background.
Illustration by rrramble illustrator Cat Crawford

Eve W

Unfurl, the giant art installation set up in Chapelfield Gardens, is a dreamy inflatable garden that creates a space of serenity and fun. It’s a dreamscape of towering interactive gentle giants made from fabric and air taking a range of different biomorphic shapes – from ferns, mushrooms, vines and arches. And the most interesting thing about this exhibition is that the plants know you have come to visit, and they are almost reaching out to connect with you. Although mesmerising on a sunny day amongst real life trees, the exhibit takes on a whole other magical, Alice in Wonderland-esque appeal when seen at night when the plants glow a variety of colours: from pinks, to greens, to blues, to reds. It’s an immersive experience that forces you to engage all your senses which we often don’t do when beholding art. Here, you heard a bubbling heartbeat from the vines, felt the soft and squishiness of the air-filled fabric, and saw the change in lighting depending on mood. 

One of the artists that I spoke to, Richard, made it seem like the plants’ lights were not entirely controlled by humans but that they truly had an aura and a human-like sense of place: they would withdraw and squeal when there were too many people invading their space and would emit a range of hues if excited. Although most of the time I just saw them at a constant mood, just a calming presence that took away any anxieties I might have had (like a huge teddy bear), I nevertheless got that sense that they had their own feelings too and I didn’t want to burden them with all my bad ones.

Anthropomorphism was celebrated here, as it was important to remember that these inflatable plants were not imitations of nature, but a display of what humans can create and how we interact with squishy robotics. They exist somewhere between tech and nature. Designed by a team of roboticists, designers and software engineers, the idea was born from designing hand sized robotics and a question of how these could be made on a larger scale. Physically, they are made up of a central membrane and a pocketed membrane, are pumped up by a change of air pressure, have a front and back valve, are installed with a laser to scan the people around and have lights positioned inside. Yet there were more human-like qualities about them: claws in the arches, the hand-like look of the ferns, the look of a towering figure in the vines. Most importantly, though, was that these plants were built with a sensitivity to their surroundings and that is something quintessentially human.

Yet, the spectacle of the installation was observing how people interacted with something that acts like it is alive, which can be likened to the act of puppeteering. These billowy, fleshy-looking fabric plants were controlled by tactile interaction. Without human touch, these plants would exist as lifeless fabric kept up with air rather than string. They came into a life of their own when touched by others. The children had the most delight playing with the bulbous, pillowy plants: some wanted to punch them to see if they would tumble over, others would cradle and sink into them, some would play a game with a vine and see if they could push it to one side to grab the other end, and others would cover their faces with the curl of the fern.

We constantly see aliveness in things that aren’t real. More and more, the things we interact with daily are immaterial and serve a purpose for us, and even nature has become something that serves a purpose to human life. What this exhibition does so cleverly is it confronts us with a realisation that we have lost touch with our natural surroundings and, because of that, our own humanness; our ability to use the many senses we have. When first walking into the installation, I didn’t really know what this was trying to say to me. Now, I understand its message.

Images from Malachy Luckie

Unfurl was created by Air Giants as part of Without Walls at Norwich and Norfolk Festival.

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