Pianos: Playing, Value, and Augmentation

Kathleen Irwin, Jeff Morton


In rejoinder to a New York Times’s article claiming, “the value of used pianos, especially uprights, has plummeted … Instead of selling them … , donating them … or just passing them along … , owners are far more likely to discard them” (Walkin), artists Kathleen Irwin (scenography) and Jeff Morton (sound/composition) responded to this ignoble passing with an installation playing with the borders delineating music, theatre, digital technology, and economies of value using two upright red pianos, sound and video projection—and the sensibility of relational aesthetics. The installation was a collaboration between two artists who share a common interest in the performative qualities of public space and how technological augmentation is used in identificatory and embodied art processes as a means of extending the human body and enhancing the material space of person-to-person interaction. The title of the installation, PLAY, referenced the etymology of the word itself and how it has been variously understood over time, across artistic disciplines, and in digital and physical environments. Fundamentally, it explored the relative value of a material object (the piano) and how its social and cultural signification persists, shifts, is diminished or augmented by technology. The installation was mounted at the Dunlop Art Gallery, in the Regina Public Library (Saskatchewan, Canada, 14 June - 25 August 2013) and, as such, it illustrated the Library’s mandate to support all forms of literacy through community accessibility and forms of public outreach, social arrangements, and encounters. Indirectly, (as this was not the initial focus), it also exemplified the artists’s gentle probing of the ways, means, claims, and values when layering information and enhancing our visual experience as we interact with (literally, walk through) our physical landscapes and environments—“to see the world for what it is,” as Matt Turbow says “and to see the elements within” (Chapeau). The installation reflected on, among other things, the piano as a still potent cultural signifier, the persistent ability of our imagination to make meaning and codify experience even without digital overlay, and the library as an archive and disseminator of public knowledge. The artists questioned whether old technologies such as the piano will lose their hold on us entirely as technological augmentation develops the means to enhance or colonize the natural world, through graphics, sounds, haptic feedback, smell and, eventually, commodified experiences. This paper intends to reflect on our work and initiate a friendly (playful) interdisciplinary discussion about material objects in the age of physical and digital interactivity, and the terms of augmentation as we chose to understand it through our installation. In response to the call proposed by this journal on the subject of augmentation, we considered: 1. How audio/visual apparatuses in the gallery space augmented the piano’s expressivity; 2. How the piano augmented the social function of its physical situation; 3. How the technology augmented random and fragmentary musical phrases, creating a prolonged musical composition; 4. How each spectator augmented the art through his/her subjective engagement: how there is always meaning generated in excess of the artists’s intention.

 Piano installed outside Dunlop Gallery/ Regina Public Library

 Image 1: Piano installed outside Dunlop Gallery/ Regina Public Library (photo credit: Jeff Morton)

To begin, a brief description of the site of the installation is in order. The first of the red pianos was installed outside the main doors of the Central Library, located in the city’s downtown. The library’s entrance is framed within a two-story glass atrium and the red piano repeated the architecture’s function to open the space by breaking down perceived barriers, and beckoning the passersby inside. Reflecting Irwin’s community-oriented, site-specific practice, this was the relational catalyst of the work—the piano made available for anyone to play and enjoy, day or night, an invitation to respond to an object inserted into the shared space of the sidewalk: to explore, as Nicolas Bourriaud suggests, “the art as a state of encounter” (16). It was the centerpiece of the exhibition's outreach, which included the exhibition’s vernissage featuring new music and performance artists in concert, a costume and prop workshop for a late night public choir procession, and a series of artist talks. This was, arguably, a defining characteristic of the work, underscoring how the work of art, in this case the piano itself, its abjection illustrated by the perfunctory means typically used to dispose of them, is augmented or gains value through its social construction, over-and-above any that is originally ascribed to it. As Bourriaud writes,

any kind of production takes on a social form which no longer has anything to do with its original usefulness. It acquires exchange value that partly covers and shrouds its primary “nature”. The fact is that a work of art has no a priori useful function—not that it is socially useless, but because it is available and flexible, and has an “infinite tendency”. (42) 

In the Dunlop’s press release, curator Blair Fornwald also confers a supplemental value ascribed to the reframed material object. She describes how the public space in front of the library, as a place of social interaction and cultural identification—of “being seen”—is augmented by the red piano:

its presence in an unfamiliar setting underscores the multitude of creative and performative possibilities inherent within it, possibilities that may extend far beyond playing a simple melody. By extension, its presence asserts that the every day is a social, cultural, and physical environment rich with potentiality and promise. (Fornwald)

Juxtaposed with the first red piano, the second was dramatically staged within the Dunlop gallery. The room, painted black, formally replicated the framing and focusing conventions of the theatre: its intention to propose other ways of “being seen” and to suggest the blurring of lines between “on stage and off,” and by extension, “on line and off.” A camera embedded in the front of the piano and a large projection screen in the space provided a celebrity moment for anyone approaching the instrument and implied, arguably, the ubiquitous surveillance associated with public space. Indeed, a plausible way of reading the red piano in the darkened gallery was as a provocation to think about how the digital and physical are increasingly enmeshed in our daily lives (Jurgenson). Lit by a chandelier and staged on a circular red carpet, this piano was also available to be played. Unlike the one outside of the building, it was augmented by speakers, a microphone, and a webcam. Through a custom-built digital system (using MaxMSP software), it recorded and played back the sound and image of everyone who sat down to perform, then repeated and superimposed these over similar previously captured material. Enhanced by the unusual stark acoustics of the gallery, the sound filled the reverberant space. Affixed to the gallery’s back wall was the projection screen made up of sheet music (Bach, Debussy and Mozart) taken from the Irwin family’s piano bench, a veritable time capsule from the 1950s.

 Piano installed inside Dunlop GalleryPiano installed inside Dunlop Gallery

Image 2: Piano installed inside Dunlop Gallery (photo credit: Jeff Morton)

In addition to the centrally placed piano, a miniature red piano was situated near the gallery entrance. It and a single red chair placed near the screen, repeated the vivid colour and drew the eye into and around the space underscoring its theatrical quality. The toy piano functioned as a lighthearted invitation, as well as a serious citation of other artists—Eikoh Sudoh, Margaret Leng Tan, John Cage, and Charles M. Schulz’s “Schroeder”—who have employed the miniature instrument to great advantage. It was intended as an illustration of the infinite resonances that material objects may provide and the diverse ways they may signify contingent on the viewer.

Considered in a historical context, in the golden age of the upright and at the turn of the twentieth-century, piano lessons signified for many, the formation of a modern citizen schooled in European culture and values. Owning one of these intricately engineered and often beautiful machines, as one in five households did, reflected the social aspirations of its owners and marked their upward economic mobility (Canadian Encyclopedia). One hundred years later, pianos are often relegated to the basement or dump. Irretrievably out of tune, their currency as musical instruments largely devalued. Nonetheless, their cultural and social value persists, no longer the pervasive marker of status, but through the ways they are mediated by artists who prepare, deconstruct, and leave them to deteriorate in beautiful ways. They seem to retain their hold on us through the natural impulse to engage them kinetically, ergonomically, and metaphorically. Built to be an extension of the human hand, body, and imagination, they are a sublime human-scale augmentation of a precise musical system of notation, and a mechanism evolved over centuries through physical augmentations meant to increase the expressivity of both instrument and player.

In PLAY, the use of the pianos referenced both their traditional role in public life, and our current relationship with forms of digital media that have replaced these instruments as our primary means of being linked, informed, and entertained—an affirmation of the positive attributes of technology and a reminder of what we may have lost. Indeed, while this was not necessarily clear from the written responses in the Gallery’s guest book (Gorgeous!: Neat!; Too, too cool!; etc.), we surmised that memory might have played a key role in the experience of the installation, set in motion by the precise arrangement of the few material objects – red piano, the piano bench, red chair, and toy piano, each object designed to fit the shape of the body and hold the memory of physical contact. These were designed to trigger a chain of recollections, each chasing the next; each actively participating in what follows. In the Gallery’s annual exhibition catalogue, Ellen Moffat suggests that the relationship the piano builds with the player is important: “the piano plays and is played by the performer. Performing the piano assigns a posture for the performer in relation to the keyboard physically and figuratively” (Moffat 80).

Technically, the piano is the sum of many parts, understandable finally as a discrete mechanical system, but unbounded in imagination and limited only by our capacity to play it. Functionally, it acts as an affective repository of memory and feeling, a tool to control the variables of physical and expressive interaction. In PLAY, the digital system in the gallery piano captured, delayed and displayed audio and video clips according to a rubric of cause and effect. Controlled by computer software designed by Morton, the installation captured musical phrases played randomly by individuals and augmented these notes by playing them back at variable speeds and superimposing one over another—musical phrases iterated and reiterated. The effect was fugue-like—an indeterminate composition with a determinant structure, achieved by intertwining physical and digital systems with musical content supplied by participants. The camera hidden in the front of the piano recorded individuals as they sat at the instrument and, immediately, they saw themselves projected in extreme close up onto the screen behind. As the individual struck a note, their image faded and the screen was filled again with the image of a previous participant abstracted and in slow motion.  The effect, we suggest, was dreamlike—an echo or a fleeting fragment of something barely remembered. Like the infinite variations the piano permits, the software was also capable of expressing immense variety—each sound and image adding to an expanding archive in an ever-changing improvised composition developed through iterative call and response.

Drawing on elements of relational aesthetics, scenographic representation, and digital technology, in PLAY we attempted to cross disciplines in ways that distinguished it from the other piano projects seen over the past several years. Indeed, the image of the upright piano has resonated in the zeitgeist of the international art scene with colourful uprights placed in public places in urban centers across Europe and North America. Wherever they are, individuals engage enthusiastically with them and they, in turn, become the centre of attention: this is part of their appeal. The pianos seem to evoke a utopian sense of community, however temporary, providing opportunities to rediscover old neighbours and make new friends. In PLAY, we posed two different social and aesthetic encounters—one analogue, real, “off-line” and one digital, theatrical, and “on-line,” illustrating less a false binary between two possible realities that ascribes more value to one than the other, than a world where the digital and the physical comingle. Working within a public library, this was a germane train of thought considering how these institutes struggle to stay relevant in the age of Google search and the promise of technological augmentation.

The piano also represents a dichotomy: both a failure to represent and an excess of meaning. For decades replete with social signification, they have now become an encumbrance, fit only for the bone yard.  As these monumental relics come to the end of their mechanical life, there is more money made in their disposal than in musical production, and more value in their recycled metals, solid wooden bodies, and ivory keys then in their tone and function. The industry that supported their commodification collapsed years ago, as has the market for their sale and the popular music publishing industry that accompanied it. Of course, pianos will be with us for a long time in one form or another, but their history, as a culturally potent object, has diverged. The assumption could easily follow that they have been rendered useless as an aesthetic, generative, and social object. What this installation offered was the possibility of an alternative ending to the story of this erstwhile entertainment console even as we seek our amusement by other means and through other devices.

Not surprisingly, the title of the installation suggests that the consideration of “play,” as social and recuperative engagement, is significant. In his seminal work, Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga discusses the importance of play, suggesting that it is primary to and a necessary condition of the making of culture. He writes, “In play there is something in play, which transcends the immediate needs of life and imparts meaning to the action” (Huizinga 97). According to games theorist Mary Flanagan, playing may serve as a way of creating something beautiful, offering frameworks for new ways of thinking, exploring divergent logic, or for imaging what is possible. She writes, “Games, both digital and analog, offer a space to explore creativity, agency, representation and emergent behaviour” (Flanagan 2010). In reaching out to Regina’s downtown community, the Dunlop Art Gallery dispersed some of the playfulness of PLAY in planned and accidental ways, as the outdoor piano became a daily destination for individuals who live rough or in the city’s hostels, some of whom who have enviable musical skills and considerable stage presence. One man came daily with sheet music in hand to practice on the indoor piano—ignoring the inevitable echo and repeat that the software triggered. Another young woman appeared regularly to perform at the outdoor piano, her umbrella raised against sun and rain, wedged under her arm to keep both hands free. Children invariably drew parents to it as they entered or exited the library—for some it may have been the first time they had touched such an instrument. Overall, in press, blogs, and the visitors’s book, responses to the pianos were enthusiastic and positive. One blogger wrote in response to an online publication, Art, Music, News (Beatty),

chapeau June 13, 2013 at 11:51am
this is most definitely up and running, and it would be interesting to see/hear all that will go on with that red piano. my two-and-a-half year old daughter and i jammed a bit yesterday morning, while a stranger watched and listened, then insisted that i play the same mostly crappy c-blues again while he sang! so i did, and he did, and my daughter and i learned a bit about what he feels about his dog via his singing. it was the highlight of the day for us—I mean really, jamming outside on a very red upright piano with strangers—good times! (Simpson)

As evidence of public approbation, for the better part of the summer it stood unprotected on the sidewalk in front of the library encountering only one minor incident of defacement—a rather fragile tag in white spray paint, someone’s name in proper cursive writing. Once repaired and retuned, it became a dynamic focus for the annual Folk Festival that takes over the area for a week in August. In these ways, PLAY fulfilled the Library’s aim of encouraging literacy and reinforcing a sense of community—a social augmentation, in a manner of speaking. As Moffat writes,

it encourages the social dimension of participation through community-engagement and dialogic practices. It blurs distinctions between spectator and participant, professional and amateur. It generates relationships between people or social actions. (Moffat 76) 

Finally, PLAY toyed with the overtones of the word itself—as verb, noun, and adjective—signifier, and metaphor. The title illustrated its obvious current potential and evoked the piano’s past, referencing the glittering world of the stage. While many may have more memories of seeing pianos in disrepair than in the concert hall, its iconic stage setting is never far from the imagination, although this too changes as people from other cultures and backgrounds recognize little cultural capital in such activity. In current vernacular, the word “play” also implies the re-imagination of ourselves in the digital overlays of the future. So we ask, what will be the fate of the piano and its meme in the 22nd century? Will the augmentation of reality enhance our experience of the world in inverse proportion to a loss of social interaction? 


In her essay, Moffat notes that as digital technology replaces the analog piano, a surplus of second-hand uprights has become available. Citing artists Luke Jerram, Monica Yunus, and Camille Zamora (among others), she argues that the use of them as public art coincides with their disappearance, suggesting a farewell or memorial to a collective cultural icon (Moffat 76). What is there in this piece of furniture that speaks to us in art practice? The answer, it would seem, is potential. In a curatorial interview, Irwin suggested the possibility that beyond the artist’s initial meaning, there is always something more—an augmentation. The pleasure of discovering this supplement is part of the pleasure of the subjective experience of the spectator. Similarly, the aleatoric in music composition, refers to the pursuit of chance as a formal determinant and its openness to individual interpretation at the moment of reception. For Morton, the randomness of memory and affect are key components in composition. They cannot be predicted, controlled or quantified; nor can they be denied. There is no correct interpretation or response to music or, indeed, to relational art practice. Moffat concludes, as a multi-faceted media installation, PLAY proposed “a suite, chorus or a polyphony of things” (Moffat 76). Depending on your point of reference, the installation provided a dynamic venue for considering our relationships with material objects, with each other and with new technologies asking how they may or may not augment our reality in ways that supplement real-time, person-to-person interaction.


Beatty, Gregory. “Exciting Goings-On at Central Library.” Prairie Dog Blog 11 June 2013.

Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics. Trans. Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods. Paris: Les Presses du Réel, 1998.

Canadian Encyclopedia. “Piano Building.” ‹http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/piano-building-emc/›.

Chapeau [David Simpson]. “One Response to ‘Exciting Goings-On at Central Library.’” Prairie Dog Blog 13 June 2013.

Fornwald, Blair. PLAY. Regina, Saskatchewan: Dunlop Art Gallery. 2013.

Flanagan, Mary. “Creating Critical Play.” In Ruth Catlow, Marc Garret and Corrado Morgana, eds., Artists Rethinking Games. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2010. 49-53.

Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995.

Jerram, Luke. Play Me, I’m Yours. Site-Specific Piano Installation. Multiple Venues. 2008-2013.

Jurgenson, Nathan. “Digital Dualism versus Augmented Reality.” Cybergology: The Society Pages 24 Feb. 2011. 1 Dec. 2013 ‹http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2011/02/24/digital-dualism-versus-augmented-reality/›.

Moffat, Ellen. “Stages and Players” in DAG 2 (2013). Regina: Dunlop Art Gallery, 2013. 75-87.

Walkin, Daniel J. “For More Pianos, Last Note Is Thud in the Dump.” New York Times 29 June 2012.

Yunus, Monica, and Camille Zamora. Sing for Hope Pianos. Site-Specific Piano Installation and Performance. New York City. 2013.


interactive installation, scenography, digital composition, socially engaged practice

Copyright (c) 2013 Kathleen Irwin, Jeff Morton

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

  • M/C - Media and Culture
  • Supported by QUT - Creative Industries
  • Copyright © M/C, 1998-2016
  • ISSN 1441-2616