If you caught Currents 2011, you likely remember the video installation Interference: a rubble-strewn urban wasteland that shifted to lush forest when intersected with human presence. Interactives were a big draw at the Currents exhibition (I had particular fun playing with John Carpenter’s Dandelion Clock.) With Interference, cooperation yielded a greater payback: the more people clustered together, the more forest could be reclaimed.
That bonus-through-alliance was fitting for a piece that was itself a matrix of logistical, technical and professional harmony. The creation of three artists, Brian Bixby, Charles Buckingham and Mike Root, working cooperatively from three far-flung cities –Berlin, Portland, and Santa Fe—Interference is a monument to concord and methodical cooperation. How the piece came together was nearly as fascinating to me as the result, so I pummeled Mike Root for answers he happily supplied.
What was your intention?
We wanted to make sure the interaction didn’t feel like a game. A lot of the best interactive work I’ve seen is basically a video game mechanic. I love video games but we didn’t want to create one. So we developed this concept of 3 layers in 3D space and began playing with the idea of allowing the audience to move around inside this augmented space of 3 dimensions. Our intention was to create an experience where the viewer’s presence immediately effected the scene, first mysteriously and abstractly, then as the viewer got closer the interaction became more concrete and a message emerged: “You effect your environment.”
How did you pick the team and choose your roles in the project?
The three of us share interests in similar digital art forms, musicians, film directors. We’ve known each other for about 10 years, in which time we’ve worked on video and music projects together, including collaborative work an online ambient video series (Snowflakes) as well as developing web applications, like the website for SITE Santa Fe’s 2010 Biennial, The Dissolve. To realize our idea for this piece was really a matter of matching what we know of each other’s strengths, both technically and creatively, to the tasks at hand.
Tell me about the mechanics of working together over a distance. How did you communicate ideas and build the installation?
We held bi-monthly Skype meetings…during [which]…we critiqued each other’s work in the context of the direction of the overall piece. Much of the honing of the idea and execution happened during these exchanges… A great asset was the ability to share huge digital files via a shared server. “Working” files in After Effects, Photoshop and Jitter were easy to view and “demo” once we each had the source footage and photography on our individual computers.
Who did What?
Charles and videographer Eric Macey shot several days of HD footage in scenic spots around Oregon. Charles also did the sound design, which fades between idyllic natural river sounds and haunting urban soundscapes.
The piece exploits infrared data captured by an Xbox Kinect unit. Charles spent many hours exploring how to best interpret and utilize this three dimensional data to make the installation react in “human” ways to the viewers. He configured a Mac computer to access and control the Xbox Kinect, then created a Jitter patch which took infrared data from the Kinect and used it to manipulate the audio and video components of the installation.
Brian shot high resolution photography of urban rubble and construction sites in Berlin, which he assembled into large scale seamless panoramas in Photoshop.… Through careful and tedious use of effects he transformed the images into a post-apocalyptic scene, eventually adding animation of smoke and rain along with 3D lighting.
I sorted through the extensive Oregon footage, eventually settling on a panorama of a forest, with river foreground. [I then] stitched together a giant-scale video composite from six high definition camera angles, [and] added 3D lighting to bring out certain areas of the scene. Brian and I collaborated on fine-tuning the rain and lighting of the Berlin rubble heap.
I also coordinated and interfaced with Currents curators Frank Ragano and Mariannah Amster who really “got” the piece and afforded a perfect space within the exhibition for the piece.
How did it feel when you saw the installation on site?
What was most gratifying was seeing the people who attended the Currents exhibition react in unexpectedly profound ways with our piece. We witnessed people go through an experiential envelope from curiosity to puzzlement to elation after spending a few minutes interacting with our piece. The “take away” from this experience was a spark of inspiration to re-envision the polluted decay of urban landscape as something you can affect and reclaim.
People commented on it and interpreted it in very positive and inspiring ways. One of the highlights was watching viewers grab other people nearby and create a human wall, which reclaimed the entire scene from ruins to pure nature.
New direction or never again?
This piece was the first time for us to work on something interactive as a team, so the resulting work is something new and unexpected for all three of us. We’re applying to other exhibitions with this piece and hope to install it on a larger scale. We’re curious to see how people in other places respond.
If you missed Currents 2011, or are nostalgic for a revisit, check out this video documentation. It’s no substitute for the full experience, but it’s a great commercial.