How can you get visitors to stay for the full length of your video installation?

The success of Swinguerra, the video piece showcased at the Brazilian Pavilion during this year’s Venice Biennale, is as much about content as it is about context. The dance topic is engagingly universal, but the artists argue that the outstanding stayability of the installation was achieved through some unconventional architectural decisions, from the use of light to the layout of the seating. Indeed: there is much installation designers can learn from this project.

Venice – One would think that the subject matter of , this year’s Brazilian entry at the Venice Biennale, is intriguing enough on its own – the boom boom boom beats in the otherwise quiet Giardini herald the musical extravaganza that’s to come inside. The video installation is a 20-minute praise of swingueira, brega funk and passinho do maloka, three marginalized dance manifestations from the (also marginalized) northeast region of the South American nation by the (even more marginalized) .

And according to data from the Brazilian pavilion organizers, most visitors stay for the full length of the loop – something few video installations manage to achieve at attention-disperse events such as this one. ‘They told us it was the first time they saw around the Brazilian pavilion, and they were surprised it was a video piece that actually made it happen,’ laughed co-director .

But the revelation for St-W's intent and purposes is that , the artists behind the piece, have a different idea. To them, the key to the outstanding dwell time has as much to do with the content of their video as with the bespoke viewing environment created in tandem with architect Álvaro Razuk.

So, what can spatial designers take from their experience in order to optimize their own installations? Here are some key lessons from Swinguerra.

[+] GET ARCHITECTS INVOLVED FROM THE GET-GO

Wagner and De Burca had worked with Razuk for the first time during the 2016 São Paulo Biennial, and experienced first-hand the benefits of thinking of a video piece in real-life spatial terms. When they were chosen to represent the country in Venice, they were bent on having the architect on board from the beginning. ‘This was the first time the [local representatives] had invested in getting an architect to visit the venue early on,’ Wagner recalled. ‘As we were dealing with , initially conceived for paintings and sculptures instead of a medium such as video, having him on board changed the way we read the space. We got to turn it into a more dynamic cinema.’

That, in turn, informed the way the duo shot the video: they shared the floorplans with the stars of the film, something that allowed the dance crews themselves to keep into account the angles in which their bodies and facial reactions would be seen inside the space.

[+] TURN SPECTATORS INTO PARTICIPANTS

Most video installations feature a single screen, set in the dark, with a row or two of parallel benches in front of it. Instead of going for this conventional layout, the team decided to split the projection room into a two-channel display, with screens close to the walls, and sprinkled seemingly random benches in between. With this, the audience was effectively placed in the middle of the action. ‘The result with this setup is that, as spectators, you consume this in a very critical way,’ De Burca explained. ‘Whereas in Venice, instead of us bringing something from Brazil, we brought the audience to the centre of Brazil. It’s a more participatory element.’

In other words: it's psychologically difficult for visitors to pull an Irish goodbye if they’re right smack in the middle of the celebration. Spatial designers can use that to their advantage.

[+] MAKE VISITORS CHOOSE (JUST ENOUGH)

The two screens near the walls are placed at a very deliberate angle: it is not possible to go through the main corridor and look at both at the same time – as a spectator, you have to turn your head and pick a side to stand on. ‘This initial movement was very important for us,’ explained Wagner. ‘It meant that, from the beginning, you are changing your perspective in many ways.’

[+] CAREFULLY RANDOM

‘Nothing was symmetrical,’ said De Burca of the liberal position of the benches. ‘It very comfortably accommodated everyone, no matter their watching style – that increased the stayability of the installation.’

[+] LET THERE BE LIGHT

There was another element that was important to the team: the act of looking at the video had to be somehow communal. Most video installations are closed off from the intrusion of light, in order to direct eyeballs to the focus point and to reduce budgets – the more light, the better quality and thus more expensive the projection has to be. The trio, along with curator Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, fought to have a controlled amount of light inside, in order to allow visitors to see each other looking at the video. As some moments in the piece become particularly poignant – it does deal with members of the LGBTQ+ community – and sometimes particularly funny, experiencing the joint reactions of the audience members became another experiential layer.

Put in another way: you’re never watching Swinguerra alone.

‘These matters were intentional,’ Wagner confirmed. ‘The rhythm of the video, the music and the dynamic disposition of the elements in the space made for a hypnotic piece.’


Swinguerra is on display at the Venice Biennale until 24 November

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