Five minutes with Dr Luke Hespanhol

13 November 2018
From IT consultant to digital artist
We catch up with IT consultant turned digital artist Dr Luke Hespanhol, from the Design Lab within the Sydney School of Architecture, Design and Planning.
Dr Luke Hespanhol

What is your background and how did you come to join the University?

I did my Bachelor of Computer Science at the University of São Paulo in Brazil where I grew up. I worked for many years as a software developer. In 2004, I came to Australia as a skilled migrant and became an IT consultant in Sydney.  I didn’t find that fulfilling enough.

After turning 30, I started to contemplate what to do with my life. I started painting classes, educated myself in drawing and eventually enrolled in an online master’s program in art and design at UNSW’s College of Fine Arts. It was through that degree I experienced creative placemaking for the first time, creating and exhibiting temporary sculptures at Wynyard Park.

In my final semester, I discovered media art and interactive design. This was a complete revelation to me - suddenly my experience in computing turned into a strong creative asset that could take my career into a new, exciting direction.

That was my last semester and once again I didn’t know what to do with my life. Searching online, I discovered the Master of Interaction Design and Electronic Arts (MIDEA) at the University of Sydney. Eventually I was brave enough to drop to part-time work and enroll. That changed my life. Through MIDEA, I got the opportunity to develop devices and public installations, including the Design Lab’s first participation at Vivid Sydney.

After graduating ( and not knowing what to do with my life again), I embarked on a PhD in media architecture. Just after graduation in 2016 and a one-year stint at UNSW Built Environment, I got offered a full-time position as a lecturer in Design and Computation at The University of Sydney. I was back home.

What is “digital placemaking” and how are you applying this to your work with Campus Infrastructure Services (CIS) on campus?

Placemaking is defining the identity and use of a public space. This often involves local communities and usually progresses from small scale and temporary, to large scale and permanent. It can involve elements of branding but is more closely related to storytelling about a place and its community. Digital placemaking is placemaking via digital media and technologies, such as digital displays, lighting devices, media facades, responsive audio and interactive elements in the urban environment, which can ‘decorate’ the city with dynamic content.

Since the start of 2017, I have been working closely with CIS to design and implement pilot placemaking initiatives within our Darlington/Camperdown campus.

We considered two main strategies from the outset. Firstly, involving our students in rapid prototyping (i.e. creating 3D models) of temporary interactive applications for those precincts. This culminated in Pilot Lights, a VIVID-like public exhibition of media installations by our Master of Interaction Design and Electronic Arts students in 2017 and 2018.

The second strategy was developing media platforms that could run content created by students or staff, across faculties, to showcase their learning and research. CIS selected the area around the Footbridge Theatre for the first larger-scale pilot project. The media facade outside Holme Building – what we called The Dash Wall - is one of them. The second is a public stage equipped with speakers that currently plays a responsive audio installation that translates the traffic noise of Parramatta Road into sounds of chirping birds and breaking waves. The third is a soon-to-be-launched program of short outdoor projections. Watch that space!

Light installation at Westmead Hospital

Wall of Light installation at Westmead Hospital by Dr Luke Hespanhol as part of NAIDOC Week 2018


What interests you about this area of research?

My interest in interactive media installations is almost existential. Digital placemaking provides novel and different ways of mediating our relationship with the world around us and, most importantly, with each other. This can lead to provoking experiences we could not possibly have experienced as humans before - such as augmented reality or controlling street lighting with your heartbeat, for example.

It can also strongly facilitate more prosaic, yet equally powerful ways of breaking the ice between strangers, increasing awareness of cultural differences and similarities and strengthening social cohesion and bonding.

This is why I’m so fascinated with digital media in public urban spaces, particularly given the current disconnect between increasing urbanisation, megacities and collaborative workspaces on one hand. And the fragmentation of our social selves through filter bubbles and siloed social debate on the other. Interacting and playing together in public, as well as establishing safe layers of conversations with ‘the other’, is more important now than ever.

You’ve recently undertaken a three-month residency with Liverpool Council. What have you been working on there?

The project has two dimensions. The first is a participatory digital storytelling project developed with members of the local community who came to Australia as refugees from Iraq and the civil war in Syria. I have been working with them and community coordinators from the Western Sydney Migrant Resource Centre (WSMC) who recruited the participants and have strongly supported the project alongside the Council. Their stories and sketches will inform digital animations that will be exhibited on a large urban screen at Macquarie Mall in the Liverpool CBD.

The second dimension of the project explores the impact of reflecting those local stories back to the local public, in terms of support towards refugees and on the perception of that precinct as a shared community arena. I want to explore how that would compare to the reaction caused by those stories when they are played to other communities, in different public spaces.

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