Picture an art museum. What do you see? You might imagine oil paintings hung delicately on a wall or abstract sculptures displayed on platforms. However, in your imaginative museum, can you touch the art? Can you trace the brush strokes with your finger? Can you reach out and play with the sculptures? Better yet, can you morph the sculpture into something of your own imagination? TEDxMileHigh speaker Jen Lewin thinks the answer to these all of these questions should be yes. Discover how her interactive art installations encourage not only human contact, but human connection.

Jen Lewin’s Inspiration 

Jen Lewin spent her childhood in a constant state of wonder at the beauty of her home, Maui, Hawaii. Following in her mom’s professional footsteps, she studied dance but didn’t stop there. Lewin also studied mechanical and electrical engineering, computer science, music, architecture, and film. 

Through her studies, Lewin eventually discovered a deep passion for connecting humans through art. Not just art you can look at from a museum-appropriate distance, but rather, art that you can experience, play with, and transform into your own creation.

Lewin’s first of many interactive art installations was a robotic butterfly that she could incorporate into her dances. “You could walk up to each of the wings and they would move away from you at the same rate that you move towards them,” explains Lewin. “And you’d have this wonderful experience with this huge robotic creature.”

The robotic butterfly, a combination of painted silk and handmade circuit boards, helped Lewin realize she could create experiences for people through art. And through these experiences, people would discover a more profound level of human connection.

Lewin’s Interactive Art Installations

Since the robotic butterfly, Lewin’s interactive art installations have traveled the world. Her pieces can be permanent installments or temporary attractions for any community. The following are some of her most popular creations.

Robotic Moths

This piece taught Lewin the importance of light. “You can use light to bring people into a piece. You can take them from being not just a viewer but a participant and maybe even an actor,” explains Lewin. 

In this piece, viewers touch an orb that can sense capacitance. The orb then wirelessly talks to the giant moths mounted on the ceiling and sends them into flight. 

“For me, there was something really beautiful and ethereal about this, and I loved that I could really bring people into the piece. The piece only happened if you were there and if you were a part of it.” – Jen Lewin

The Laser Harp

Lewin admits she’s not the only person to make laser harps. She is, however, one of the only people in the world who creates giant laser harps. The idea for these musical interactive art installation stemmed from her desire to attract an entire group of viewers to a piece, not just a single person.

Each laser harp is comprised of several laser light beams that create sound combinations when a viewer passes their hand through the beam. “Slow movements create rhythmic pulses and whispering echoes,” explains Lewin. “Fast movements create sharp notes and more jagged sounds.”

A popular installment of one of her giant laser harps is in the Magic Bridge Park in Palo Alto, California. The harp is a permanent installment and operates day and night.

“This park is probably the most accessible park in the world right now.” – Jen Lewin

“It’s really a sculpture that’s about bringing people together,” says Lewin. “You’ll see people dancing in it, people moving through it, and having this wonderful, collaborative, fabulous experience together.”

The Pool

This giant sculpture of individual computerized platforms allows participants to feel as though they are dancing through a massive pool of light. When stood on, each platform lights up. As a person moves in either direction stepping on different platforms they create light ripples.

This sculpture is more complicated than it may look when participants play on it. Lewin explains that there is no central computer that controls all of the platforms. Rather, each platform has its own computer that connects to the others in a giant mesh network. The intricate details of The Pool require this sculpture to have its own management team.

In a video included in her talk, Lewin mentions the light on peoples’ faces. They’re laughing together and moving together, all connected through this giant light sculpture. “This is in a park that would be a lovely park, but now there’s this incredible, dynamic, wonderful community experience,” says Lewin.

Please Touch The Art

Throughout every one of Lewin’s creations, there is a common thread: human connection. Her pieces allow for anyone and everyone to not only experience the piece itself but to experience each other’s experiences, together. 

In Lewin’s ideal world, a child could walk up to a sculpture in a park and use code to create something of their own in a public space. Schools could use art to teach students innovative scientific practices like coding and computer science. 

So, whether you’re dancing with moths or through a giant pool of light, composing music with a laser harp or hacking a sculpture in a park, Lewin encourages you to, “As we say at my studio, ‘Please touch the art.’”