PHOBIA is a projection-mapped installation about “Digital Claustrophobia,” created by designer Alec Maassen as part of a senior project course at UCLA’s Design Media Arts program. A viewer stands in a small room and watches projections on each of the four walls, while a custom soundtrack plays in the background. The experience is meant to induce discomfort, anxiety, and even paranoia—feelings typically associated with claustrophobia. Maassen exhibited the piece at UCLA in June.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Victoria Spencer: Could you start off by describing the project?
Alec Maassen: The project is basically a four-foot by eight-foot box. All four walls are made out of reverse PVC projection screening, which allows projections to hit from either side of the screen. There are two projectors that hit at a forty-five-degree angle, and that way you can hit all four walls at the same time, but with each projector you’re only hitting two walls. When I had it set up at UCLA, I didn’t use speakers—I had a subwoofer that was underneath a wooden platform that you stand on, but the actual sound was coming from headphones. It was great because you got to hear everything clearly, and you still got to feel the actual bass coming from underneath. The whole point is to create an immersive experience around this idea of digital claustrophobia, which is a term that I’ve come up with.
VS: What is that?
AM: I was thinking a lot about the tech world at the time [I started the project]. I remember just sitting there one day. I was working, and I had my iPad and my iPhone and my laptop on my desk, and somebody started calling me, and at one point they were all ringing. I can answer from any of these devices I have, and I was kind of overwhelmed—like, which one do I pick it up from? And then [the project] became about this whole tech world where you can’t escape it anymore. At least for me, it can feel kind of claustrophobic, because there’s never a reason to not respond to an email, there’s never a reason to not pick up your phone.
So with the project, I took this idea and created a very digital world that starts out very interesting and reels you in—like, oh, that’s cool—the same way as when the iPhone first came out and everyone was like, oh, wow, that’s great. The whole show is two minutes and thirty seconds. It starts out really slow and soft, and then it eventually turns into this hectic, anxiety-inducing experience. I did all the sound design for it first. I sourced a lot of the noises and the samples from phones—there’s some iPhone ringers in there, there’s the Mac startup noises, I think there’s maybe a Windows sound in there. But the thing is, I distorted them so much that they’re unrecognizable. Some you might be able to pick out. I also took a lot of sounds and samples from things that come from traditional claustrophobia, like an MRI machine. MRIs are traditionally known as one of the scariest things for people who have claustrophobia, because you’re strapped in and there are loud noises and you don’t know what any of them are. [PHOBIA] ends on a heavy, hectic note. There’s no real return back to the quietness of it.
VS: Something really interesting about this is that you as an artist are trying to induce anxiety in your audience. What has the response has been like?
AM: It’s funny, because a lot of people totally get my idea when I explain it to them, and they understand where it comes from. A lot of other people just think of it as a cool visual experience. They don’t really think past that. I think I had about two hundred people go through it. But most of the people are like, “That’s great.” And I’m like, “I’m glad you liked it, but that’s not what it’s supposed to be.” I think a lot of people who aren’t artists just thought it was a very trippy experience, but people who are artists or designers . . . really understood it a little more.