Instruction Set for Strangers: Playing the bench

Sound Installation
Wood, Found & Made Musical Instruments
by Yuchen Zhang, Melanie Bosser, Annelie Koller.
This project explores interaction as a connector between people in socially mobile contexts.


Parsons MFA D+T


Sound Installation
Public Space




“If you develop an ear for sounds that are musical it is like developing an ego. You begin to refuse sounds that are not musical and that way cut yourself off from a good deal of experience.” ― John Cage


Public spaces were always a place where people could appreciate and interact with their surroundings. Parks, public transport nodes and sidewalks were supplied with urban furniture and fittings such as benches, grass, lighting, paving and play parks to encourage the use of these spaces. After spending time observing the beautiful Brooklyn Bridge Park with all the amenities mentioned above. We noticed that people’s awareness of their surroundings, and the social interaction that goes with this, was being replaced by small screen. People would not communicate or even look at each other although they spent up to 20 minutes together while sitting next to each other or waiting for the ferry.

We wanted to create an intervention that got people to interact with their surroundings and stop and play. The primary agent for interaction in a public park is the park bench.

So with this in mind we started finding ways in which we could use a park bench to encourage interaction. Furthermore we wanted to investigate sound as means to encourage interaction, as this is an area that is less explored in public setting and in a digital world. So we went off on this project with the question of how to turn a park bench into a sound installation that would encourage interaction?


  1. Use a park bench as agent to stimulate interaction.
  2. Use sound as way to encourage interaction not visuals.
  3. Make the installation useable by more than one person at a time to create social interaction.
  4. Distorting the reality of a public space to create curiosity.
  5. Offering an interaction that where the outcome would be unknown, to create a sense of wonder.


Data collection & research:

We spent time observing the environment, watching people’s movement in and around the area during the daytime and especially the use of the benches. We found that there were three distinct groups that use this particular area. The users waiting for the ferry, people enjoying lunch or groups of people (school groups, tour groups) resting or waiting for their next destination. Weekends were the most popular time for this area. We further researched the history of the area and found that the Brooklyn Bridge docks were the site of the first ferry between Brooklyn and Manhattan. We also investigated musical instruments that are activated by movement to make a sound.

Approach to project:

With the objective to turn a bench into a musical instrument we started by investigating the technical aspects of the park bench and areas that might prove useful in the intended use. We also looked at how people sat on and used the bench to unlock clues for this installation. We found that the space underneath the seat could be ideal for the ‘surprise’ element of our installation. After investigating various chimes and bells that could be activated by unknowing feet, we realized we needed something more if we were to achieve our goals. This was not enough to get people to interact neither with the bench nor with each other.

The grooves between the wooden slats of the bench became an interesting possibility for us. We realized that this was the way we could create a visible clue to an invisible sound below the bench. The vertical alignment made us think of the popular horse racing game at fairs, but this does not speak of sound or music. So we started thinking about objects that could run in parallel to each other, but still evoke the idea of music. The faders on a mixing desk were the solution.

We transformed a park bench into a musical instrument by using faders to resemble an oversized mixing desk. The faders were made out of wood to make them visible and large enough to be comfortable to hold and touch. We then created or found a variety of objects that create sound when moved. Each individual fader object had a unique sound, differentiated with a different color. We created three sets of four sounds. The faders where then installed on bench for a day and was left for strangers to interact with.

Our findings:

  1. Children are less socially reserved and where the first to interact with the installation.
  2. Their interest was as much into the action of the faders above the bench as it was in exploring where the sounds came from and what they were made of.
  3. Adults were more reserved in their approach, but those with the courage to interact, started of hesitantly and then stayed and enjoyed the experience.
  4. We did notice that people have become suspect of public interventions, as surveillance, commercialism and public safety has become very real topics. And this could become an interesting area of research in the future.
  5. We did achieve our goal in getting people to interact with their space and each other without using any digital technology.


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