Jason Bruges

Image: Pal Hansen

As Jason Bruges Studio celebrates its 20th anniversary, arc Editor Matt Waring sat down with its founder, Jason Bruges, to discuss his approach to experiential design and how he blends architecture, light, art and design in his work.

For the past 20 years, Jason Bruges has carved out a unique place within the art and design world with his eclectic portfolio of immersive, ephemeral, and experiential installations. As his eponymous studio celebrates its 20th anniversary, Bruges sat down with arc’s Matt Waring to reflect on the origins of the studio, his design inspirations, and where he sees the future of experiential design going.

Before venturing into the world of immersive art, Bruges’ background was in architecture, although his fascination with performative works was always present. “I studied architecture at Oxford Brookes, and then did a post-graduate at the Bartlett at UCL,” he explained. “They were both quite formative; in my degree I was looking at spaces for performance, but there were also a lot of parts of the course exploring areas like psychology, environmental and sustainability aspects – things that were perhaps not ‘classic’ architecture.

“Indeed, for my final year project, I created an experiential, performative media installation and performance space; there were a lot of indicators that I might be interested in other things, or in expanding my architectural repertoire.”

During his post-graduate at UCL, Bruges recalled being part of a unit that was “very much looking at the idea of cybernetics, interactive architecture, reactive and performative architecture”.

He recalled: “There was a mentality of very flexible spaces, performative spaces, buildings that moved and had personalities. It was very much exploring the idea of an architecture that performs and changes. Weirdly, some people have said that you can see a thread of that in the studio’s work today, as we’ve carried on creating performative pieces, interactive pieces and pieces that use different types of media to come alive, including light.”

In between his degree and diploma, Bruges took a year out to work with Norman Foster in Hong Kong, gaining valuable experience in the technicalities of the architecture profession. This experience continued following his studies at UCL. “At Foster + Partners’ London office, I worked on some of the bank buildings in Canary Wharf; but I realised that after having been at the Bartlett and exploring this very experiential, experimental work, I was thinking about what I could do with that, and how I could be a bit more theatrical and experiential with my work.”

This led Bruges to a role as Senior Designer for Imagination, where he worked on the Millennium Dome, among other projects, looking at experiences and early examples of interactive design. “I was looking at how a space might animate, how it might interact with people and come to life. There was a lot about scenography, theatre, early interaction design and performance.”

Alongside Bruges’ role at Imagination, he was commissioned to showcase some of his independent work in exhibitions. It was this interest in his ‘solo projects’ that then snowballed and led to the formation of his own studio.

“I was exhibiting work from about 2000,” he recalled. “People had seen my work from my post-graduate at the Bartlett and were interested in it, so I was asked to show some work. It was largely interactive art installations that experimented with different parts of the architectural world, using light and media and kinetics and various mediums.

“Off the back of starting to exhibit work, I also won a series of competitions that I needed to deliver on, so the studio was set up to deliver the work. It was quite organic and reactive to the needs of being commissioned to create work that I no longer had enough time to do. I suddenly realised that I needed a studio.”

And so, Jason Bruges Studio was born. Picking up where he left off during his studies, he explained that the idea or premise of his work being performative and “living” carried on. “I was really interested in architecture, being usually quite static, and wondering how much that can be explored, how much you can create a performance or something that’s living. The context of public art and public art commissions seemed like an interesting place to experiment with that idea.

“The ethos or idea was still very architectural, in that it was about improving environments, looking at narratives in environments and bringing spaces to life. There was an element of regeneration, creating something from liminal, unwanted, downtrodden spaces and creating a catalyst for change and discussion within that environment.”

Within this approach, technology has formed a key part in the studio’s work, with Bruges keen to merge the boundaries between art and technology. “I could see an opportunity in an area where the world of art, architecture and technology overlapped,” he said.

“I couldn’t see many people operating in that space already, and I realised that there was a chance to explore with a relatively new palette. Digital lighting technology had just come of age with various colour LEDs appearing in the mid-90s and media and control systems becoming more sophisticated. So, the palette of things that we could use, suddenly, was quite interesting.

“We wanted to pioneer the exploration of this application of technology to our environment and creating a hybrid space. We’ve since been fairly consistent in terms of exploring that space and how we can combine the idea of living architecture, living art into a space through a new media palette that largely consists of light, media, and kinetics.”

One of the first large-scale installations created by Jason Bruges Studio, which harnessed the new palette of light and media, was Litmus. Commissioned by the London Borough of Havering – the city’s most eastern borough – Litmus consists of four landmark, 12-metre-high sculptures placed on separate roundabouts near the borough’s raised A13 highway. Responding to various environmental stimuli, the sculptures present information such as light levels, tide levels and traffic news to passing motorists through giant alpha-numeric displays, and were designed to draw attention to the brownfield sites adjacent to the road, and the regeneration of the area.

“The London Borough of Havering is quite an amazing place,” said Bruges. “It’s both natural, with protected marshlands where amazing species of birds can be found, but then there are these brownfield sites with car plants and wind turbines, with developments and urban areas scattered amongst this, so it’s got an amazing, eclectic environment.

“Thinking about what would be interesting to an audience that is largely on the move, commuting in or out of London, we looked at things that gave information – roadside clocks or thermometers – and thought about how we could disrupt that communication. We talk about data now, about bringing it to life, but this was really early in terms of the idea of visualising data and making invisible things visible. It was quite a critical piece and was quite formative in terms of making me think about how we use data, what interesting data exists in the world and how we can bring it to the foreground.”

The notion of visualising data was present in another of Bruges’ early, standout projects – a piece titled Memory Wall, which was created at the Hotel Puerta America in Madrid, Spain. Part of a wider architectural extravaganza, in which the Silken Hotel Group invited 22 architecture firms to collaborate on one project – including names such as Zaha Hadid, Norman Foster and Jean Nouvel – Jason Bruges Studio collaborated with architect Kathryn Findlay on the lobby space of one of the hotel’s 12 floors. 

For Memory Wall, Bruges transformed the lobby into a real-time, video-controlled environment, where the walls would react as visitors entered. Motion and body mass were captured, filtered, and displayed on a light canvas embedded within the wall, meaning that as guests passed by, they saw distorted images of themselves, and as the day went on the images lingered and changed, moving into one another and creating a wall of memories.

“The piece was like a fashion barometer,” Bruges continued. “The walls responded to you and what you were wearing, and depending on what colours you were wearing, it would mirror these. As far as I know, it was one of the world’s first video-controlled interiors.

Memory Wall was under the spotlight of the world’s media, there was a lot of attention because of the architects involved. I remember sitting on a stage with 10 of these ‘starchitects’ and thinking how crazy it was that I was at the same level as them. But suddenly people were interested in my work; even the other architects were asking how the environment was changing in real time as a piece of reactive, interactive architecture. They saw it as an interesting layer that can be added to the architecture that they’re creating.”

However, when it comes to Bruges’ favourite project, he said that Nature Trail, a piece he created for Great Ormond Street children’s hospital in London holds a special place in his heart. “The projects that really make a difference, where there is empirical evidence of them making a difference, stand out. Nature Trail was the first project that my own children got to see; it was a piece that created a narrative on the journey from the ward to theatre, and was all about distracting children on this journey.

“Working as an artist with ephemeral media, including light and sound and other media, there is an opportunity to create these moments that distract. There are a lot of connotations around wellness at the moment, but in the context of a hospital, the ability to decrease levels of anxiety around the process of what happens around you is incredibly important. The scenario where you see that the work functions beautifully, and it has this magnificent effect is great to see. The team worked so hard to make it work, we took the time to really interrogate the visual poetry of things and bring joy to people.”

This idea of “visual poetry” is something that is a constant amongst Bruges’ portfolio, but rather than thinking of it as a signature style, he believes it is the overall approach that sets his studio apart.

“Our signature style is conceptual, it’s a thought-based style, a thinking process rather than something that is completely visual – more of a signature approach,” he said.

“I think what slightly differentiates our work from that of our peers and competitors is that it is highly grounded in the place and the site specificity of them, taking in the atmosphere of a place rather than things being quite abstract and placed or deployed without any recognition of the place or environment around them.

“Being site specific, in the architectural world is stating the obvious, but when we segue into the media art world or the light art world, creating site-specific work is not always necessarily normal. But the context of a site gives a lot of guidance to form, composition, animation, choreography.

“I never know where inspiration is going to come from. I see inspiration in the natural world, its systems and behaviours, and our interaction with it. I see the work as living, becoming alive, being animated and dynamic; it’s ephemeral, it’s not necessarily all encompassing, but it always creates sensations and interaction. We’re looking at a live connection with our audience that we are then reacting to and interacting with, and the applications become a type of interaction design, it’s omnipresent in that context.”

Across the studio’s eclectic array of past projects, the scale and scope has varied greatly, from vast façade pieces and large-scale installations to smaller, more bespoke works. Despite the ranging scope, Bruges believes that the studio’s approach remains the same in all works. “There is poetry in all these scales,” he said. “There are a lot of sub narratives and layers, and they can exist in really small works, and at a larger scale. The fact that there is this variety, for me, as someone who is continuously curious about the world around me, there’s an excitement. The work being bespoke, or having elements that are very bespoke, means that we’re inventing, pioneering. There’s a lot of research and development happening in the studio, and that helps keep people very engaged, and it means that there is never a dull moment.

“There are some aspects of the studio that are architectural, because we’re building things and we’re sometimes part of big, multi-disciplinary teams. Other times, it might be more like we’re creating a sculpture, or other times it can be a faster process, so it’s like we’re making a film. People can walk in and see an architecture practice, or an art studio, or an agency, depending on what we’re creating. We have a team of nearly 30 in the studio now, from all walks of life and all different disciplines, and that’s really important, because we become like an orchestra – we all have these very specialist functions, but it all comes together to create amazing things.”

As Bruges has always aimed to create ephemeral, immersive, multi-sensorial works, light has always played a prominent role, although he sees it as a small part of a wider palette of materials and textures. “As I’ve worked with media, digital media, new media, light is a very core part of that palette,” he said. “I wouldn’t single it out, but I wouldn’t be able to work without it. It’s essential at its core.

“But for me, being multi-sensorial, relying on other things as well is more important. It needs to be considered alongside a soundscape and sound texture, alongside materials that we’re using. People ask me if my work is all about technology – I’m fascinated by technology, but we very much start with things being site-specific, and work with the context and the stories and narrative first, and then which bits of the palette are used is the next important piece of the puzzle.

“Light has been there, and has been at the forefront of my thinking, but it’s part of a slightly wider palette, and I don’t isolate it. It comes in context with the systems and other materials and sensory devices as well.”

With such a focus on technology within his work, Bruges has always got one eye on the future, and on any new technological advancements that he can harness in some capacity. “We’re continually exploring new technologies,” he said. “I think of myself and the studio as no different to a painter; new pigments of paint arrive all the time and you’re trying them out to see how well they work, how efficient are they, how bright are they, how long do they last, what colours they produce. For us, it’s the combination of systems that we use as well. Sometimes we’re using old technology in certain ways and combinations, or subverting things, changing how they’re used, or disrupting something – taking something from one industry and using it in another. We’re spotting those opportunities, and it gives us the chance to work in spaces that we wouldn’t otherwise work.

“We’ve been working with surfaces a lot in terms of projection, but now I think quite often about voids and in-between spaces, working very subliminally and ephemerally to create work that’s very dynamic.

“We’re also thinking more and more about creating work that is regenerative, building content that creates itself, using AI and developing algorithms so that it can learn to change or update content.”

The idea of self-generating content sounds like science fiction, but Bruges believes that multimedia art can enter into this realm, as well as becoming more experiential and ephemeral in the process.

“There will be some highly crafted pieces where every second is thought out, and then combinations of this and pieces that are very generative, but there is a space for both in certain environments,” he said. “There is no shortage of spaces or immersive spaces, there is a shortage of good ideas and original, interesting, immersive content.

“There are opportunities to carry on with the idea of the experiential – lots of opportunities where we almost become experiential master planners. When you think of things on that scale, it’s like being atmosphere designers, looking at what a space looks and feels like, but not touching anything – all the ephemeral, in-between things, at a larger scale, multiple networks in these interactive, intelligent spaces that are made up of this mixed media, ephemeral space.”

As he continues to look to the future, Bruges believes that there will be a continued push towards experiential design, alongside the ongoing shift to more considerate, reflective design.

“The volume and expectation around experiential is ramping up. I can see the work being embodied in many more environments, commissions and many more types of development, in places you wouldn’t normally think. We obviously think that experiential is important in areas like sports, retail, mixed use developments, hospitals, but everywhere can have experiential moments, whether they’re educating, they’re didactic or purely about happiness and fulfilment,” he said.

“Wellness is a word that crops up a lot at the moment too – we worked on the Museum of the Future recently, and we were commissioned to think about a space that is very much reflecting on the idea of self-transcendence, a space for meditation and reflection and mindfulness. Quite rightfully so, we’re thinking about how we make people feel in the environments they’re inhabiting.

“Within all of that, we’ve always looked at the boundary between the natural and the artificial. I think it is the time of the natural to come into its own, and working with natural phenomena, natural materials, will become more and more important, and that’s what I’m really excited about.”

Although he has one eye on the future, as he celebrates the 20th anniversary of his studio, Bruges remains appreciative of where he has come from, and the support he has had along the way.

“We want to have a giant party to celebrate the anniversary, primarily as a thank you to all the collaborators, friends, past colleagues, commissioners, and patrons. We’re going to reach out as many people as possible as a thank you. There are so many projects, and we’ve collaborated with so many people, so it’s important this is celebrated.

“Looking back, there are some things that are fantastic to have been involved with, but there are also things I would have liked to have done, because I’m always aspiring to push the boundaries. So, there are some regrets about things that we haven’t done, but also an excitement about things still to explore and to do.”

Watch this space then, to see what the next 20 years brings for Jason Bruges Studio.

www.jasonbruges.com