Interactive art exhibit swings into OMSI

See why this industrial-strength swing set appeals to both kids and adults – but, it’s only there till January …

The artist and inventor of the OMSI installation, Jennifer Steinkamp, shows visitors this swing-set is also for adults. Typically, participants are seated facing the screen!

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
In addition to unlocking the mystery within Mindbender Mansion’s teasing puzzles, you can also get into the swing of things at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry’s first-ever art installation.

At the top of the escalator on the west wall of OMSI’s Earth Science Hall you’ll find an “interactive swing set” – built sturdily enough to accommodate full-sized adults – with a giant projection screen and audio system, for their newest attraction called “Anything You Can Do”.

“This is the first time that OMSI has done a formal art installation,” commented OMSI’s Communications Director, Lee Dawson. “It’s a dynamic, kinetic piece of art with which people can interact – a feature that’s really important to us.”

It’s a swing set; but, as we observed, it interacts with high technology. “This swing is tied in with visuals and sound effects,” Dawson noted.

Each of the two swings control a layer of the image, and each have its own soundtrack. As the participants swing, the two video layers combine to form a single image. There are progressively-changing sounds for each of the movements, and the experience is heightened through participation and play.

Meet the artist
Jennifer Steinkamp, the artist (or should we say inventor) of the exhibit, was visiting Portland form her home in Los Angeles, California, when we came to see the installation.

“‘Anything you can do, I can do better’ was a song my mother used to sing – almost as a competitive mantra,” Steinkamp said, about her work’s title. “Ideas for many of my works have come into my head in response to song titles or hooks.”

The best thing about her animated swing set, Steinkamp told us, is “Watching people have fun and play. I like for people to have a new experience; I guess that’s what OMSI is all about, right?”

Audio track composer Jimmy Johnson joins Steinkamp to get competitive, while swinging on “Anything You Can Do”.

Technology behind the fun
What makes it work, Steinkamp disclosed, is a computer program that accepts input from sensors on the swings. “They’re like turn-knobs. One set of sensors tracks the swing’s actual back-and-forth swinging motion. The other set measures side-to-side or twisting motion. This input controls the visual images and sounds you hear when you swing.”

The artist introduced her “composer”, Jimmy Johnson, who explained, “I created the sounds, decided where they should go, and when they should happen – as one would compose music. The sounds are all generated with computer code.”

Artist challenges reporter
After showing how the interactive art installation worked, Steinkamp narrowed her eyes, raised her voice, and challenged this reporter, “You aren’t really going to report and write about this without swinging on it – ARE YOU?”

“Is this an official throw-down?” we asked

She nodded her head, crossed her arms, and waited while we set down our camera and mounted the industrial-strength swing set.

Steinkamp looked both surprised and pleased when we leaned back, and pumped the swing high into the air. The stereo speakers on the cross-bar emitted ethereal swishes. The higher we swung, the more animated the music, and the larger the graphics on the giant rear-projection screen in front of us.

Twisting in the swing, while in the air, changed the sounds and images on the screen. Looking up, we saw the silhouette of a family strolling between the screen and the projector, adding to the installation’s interactive feel.

Even adult visitors are more than welcome to climb aboard the swing-set to try out OMSI’s first-ever interactive art installation.

Limited time
The “Anything You Can Do” interactive art installation will be at OMSI through the ending of the museum’s Mindbender Mansion exhibition, scheduled to close in January, Dawson said. “But it may stay a little longer, depending how well our members accept it.”

For more information on the artist, see her web site at To learn more about OMSI, visit

© 2008 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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