The Rooms Festival, Bristol

Exploring the future of reading, relaxation and more in this showcase of new ideas

There’s a sense that exciting things are happening in Bristol, the UK university city that CH visited last year for the “Shadowing” street project, which was the winner of Watershed’s 2014 Playable City award. Watershed is also one of the collaborators that make up the REACT project, which aims to get academia and businesses to work together, a helpful initiative for emerging creatives who need contacts, investment, or both. So far, it has sponsored 53 projects, and earlier this month REACT held a festival, The Rooms, in Bristol’s city centre, to showcase the many creative collaborations it has spawned.

Taking place in a former fire station, police station and magistrates court, The Rooms turned formerly staid institutions into playful, imaginative spaces that invited visitors to wander around and discover the different projects themselves. Outdoors, a light-up swing was nestled in a flowering garden, and a tepee and playhouse contained projects for children. A lot of the projects at The Rooms focused on the increasingly blurred intersection between digital life and “real life,” with fascinating results. Here we have listed some standouts among the curious, innovative products on show.

Mayfly is an app and notebook that brings the physical and digital together. “Our user market was originally travelers, and Mayfly was inspired by a found guidebook to Morocco that was filled with tickets and notes,” says co-founder Lucy Telling. The company has created a journal in which, with the help of the app, users can store not just notes, train tickets and physical photos from a journey or an event, but also digital videos and sound recordings. “As we developed the project further, we realized it might have a broader user scale,” Telling says. Imagine a guest book filled with not just comments, but also videos of the night and spoken greetings, or a photo album that also contains moving images.

Relaxation is becoming more and more valuable as a commodity, as people live increasingly stressful lives. And many urban workers don’t have the time or possibility to relax by walking on the beach or in the forest. One of the most impressive pieces at The Rooms was the simple BreathingStone, which looks like a large, smooth rock, but actually monitors your heart rate and helps you breathe correctly—helping to manage pain and stress. Follow its lead, and as you adjust your breathing, the stone lights up and music starts to play. The “social therapeutic robot” was funded as part of the REACTHub’s Object Sandbox and really works—turning relaxation into a kind of game turns out to be genuinely relaxing.

The Library room contained beautiful old reading desks and an installation of books that came alive, moved and opened up as you got closer. This is also where artist collective Circumstance displayed its storytelling project, “A Volume of Circumstance,” which exists somewhere in the hinterland between print and digital, and pushing visitors to consider the future of the book beyond e-book readers. A story by Audrey Niffenegger on two iPads had to be read by two people simultaneously, while “These Pages Fall Like Ash” is told in two books, one a physical tome and one a digital text that can only be read on your phone, stored on hard drives hidden across a real city. “We wanted to keep the dependency on the platforms, so they don’t work without each other,” said Tom Abba, Director of Circumstance and associate professor of Art & Design at the University of the West of England.

Images courtesy of Max McClure