Heat: The Silent Killer

“The design aims to provoke the realisation of a limited – yet crucial – sense of agency and responsibility in the form of minor interventions for adaptation to unprecedented climatic conditions.”

'Caged comfort' by Christopher Sebela, via Flickr Commons.

Ben Lang, Master of Interaction Design and Electronic Arts Candidate talks about his interactive art project calledThe Silent Killer, and how he was inspired by SEI’s SSSHARC funded Pop-Up Research Lab project; ‘The Anastasia Project: Communicating heat & climate vulnerability through performance.’ The project explored the real-life impacts of heatwaves as well as the theoretical problems which come from communicating academic research of shock climate events to non-academic audiences such as policy makers, community organisations, and the general population.

My project aims to highlight perspiration and evaporation as the body’s most vital cooling mechanism. It takes inspiration from recent research by Dr Ollie Jay and the Thermal Ergonomics Laboratory that reveals a complexity of risk-factors in predicting the potential for heat-related stress. Tackling the misconception that temperature is the only indicator, the research sought to reveal practical and potentially lifesaving techniques, and shows that increasing evaporative potential – by using a fan to increase air flow, or by wetting the skin’s surface – is often the most effective way to avoid heat-related stress. This is especially relevant as heat waves will increase in severity due to climate change. The death toll related to heat waves is often underestimated, provoking the title, “The Silent Killer,” borrowed from a 2016 report by the Climate Council.1

The interactive artwork has been designed as an immersive experience for both exhibition and as part of a performance. It operates as an imaginative model to reveal invisible processes, humbling the participant as they are positioned within a complex and chaotic system that is somewhat beyond their control. The design aims to provoke the realisation of a limited – yet crucial – sense of agency and responsibility in the form of minor interventions for adaptation to unprecedented climatic conditions. The ‘messenger’ then, in the words of performance theorist Carl Lavery, takes the form of “…a sensation, a materiality… a participatory play of movement and light, through a corporeal gesture, a type of thinking, then, done by, between and on bodies”.2 The body and our senses are here framed as an integral aspect of our cognition, supporting knowledge through direct experience.

A key piece of aesthetic inspiration was Schlieren imaging, a technique using parabolic mirrors to refocus light for the study of aerodynamic effects. The artwork is thus a projection that embeds the effect as an ambient or environmental constant in the same world as the participant, drawing upon the particular qualities of the performance context as a space that promotes reflection and focus. It is the mix of the real and the fantasy which evokes “something which is neither theatre nor film, but partakes of the evanescent reality of dreams”.3

The first iteration of the project utilised a particle system built in Processing, spawning from a real-time silhouette produced with the Microsoft Kinect. A ‘boundary layer’ was modelled as a force on the skin’s surface, affected by ambient temperature and air flow. The water or sweat ‘particles’ undergo a state change from liquid to vapor, releasing energy as ‘heat’ as they “[diffuse] across the boundary layer and into the surrounding air”.4

The research project then drew insights from participant’s subjective experiences, revealing how the aesthetic outcomes influence interpretations. Further development of the prototype is intended for its inclusion in the ‘Anastasia project’ later this year, in collaboration with Michelle St Anne, Artistic Director of the Living Room Theatre. In this context, it will further explore a blurring of the boundaries between observer and participant, extending the existing nature of the Living Room Theatre’s interactive, intimate, and spatially dynamic productions.

Find out more about the Ben’s artwork here.


1. Climate Council of Australia. (2016). The silent killer: Climate change and the health impacts of extreme heat. To access, click here.
2. Lavery, C. (2016). Participation, Ecology, Cosmos. Reframing Immersive Theatre: The Politics and Pragmatics of Participatory Performance. London: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 310.
3.  Virmaux, (1966). Cited in; Dixon, S. (2007). Digital Performance: A History of New Media in Theater, Dance, Performance Art, and Installation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Cited in Dixon, 2007, p. 337).
4. Cramer, M. N., & Jay, O. (2016). Biophysical aspects of human thermoregulation during heat stress. Autonomic Neuroscience, 196, 3-13.

Ben Lang is an emerging artist and interaction designer. He completed his Honours in Visual Arts at Sydney College of Arts in 2013, where he developed an interest in the emergent patterns of nature, complex systems and generative art. This year, he will complete his Masters in Interaction Design and Electronic Arts. He was invited to join the Anastasia project as part of his capstone research project.