art projects
The Henry unveils ‘Sanctum’

May 2, 2013 at 7:39 PM | Sohrab Andaz
The Daily

Sanctum – A passerby views his own image on the display of the Henry Art Gallery’s exhibit “Sanctum.” The exhibit uses facial recognition software to create unique stories for individuals based on a social media database collected from participants.

Hanging near the entrance of the Henry Art Gallery, a thick black sign warns, “You are entering a public space that is being video recorded … By traveling within 12 feet of the facade of the Henry Art Gallery, you will have consented to be part of this project … ”

Public surveillance usually incites heated criticism, as does abusing the openness of Facebook. But UW professors at the Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media (DXARTS) Juan Pampin and James Coupe are hoping to incorporate both film of crowds outside the Henry and user-submitted Facebook information into their new piece, “Sanctum.”

The idea for the piece was birthed two and a half years ago.

The Henry and a few local entrepreneurs decided to commission a work for the facade on the gallery that engaged people walking past the site with an interactive piece utilizing social media. They sent out an invitation to numerous domestic and international artists.

“It was highly competitive,” said Sylvia Wolf, director of the Henry. “[We] selected from a very broad pool of extremely talented people.”

A jury that included Henry board members, the gallery’s artistic team, and renowned curator and digital media specialist Christiane Paul narrowed more than seventy entries from all over the globe to just one.

“The finalists, we were surprised to find, were right here [at] our own back door,” Wolf said. “Amongst the competition, [‘Sanctum’] was far and away the deepest and richest.”

When formulating their proposal for the selection committee, Pampin and Coupe considered the complicated layout of walking paths in front of the Henry.

“One of the characteristics of the site is it’s a thoroughfare,” Pampin said. “What we had to work with was a crowd- — lots of people walking back and forth, lots of faces, a public space, and lots of public artwork.”

According to Coupe, the congested footpath that skirts the front of the Henry gave the two artists the idea of picking people out of a crowd.

Coupe said “Sanctum” thrusts viewers into a situation that feels very similar to social media.

“Sanctum” works by creating stories about people who walk by the piece. As an individual approaches the piece, an assortment of video cameras use facial recognition software to distinguish a person from the crowd. The act is very similar to the facial recognition on most digital cameras.

Then a group of computers discerns demographic features about the individuals like their age and gender. The computers match this description with Facebook profiles stored in a digital repository. Volunteers can sign up to become part of the database of Facebook profiles online at http://sanctum.io/sign-up/.

Finally, the “Sanctum” computers stitch together a story from matched Facebook users’ statuses. Eighteen 42-inch LCD monitors display the personalized narrative while 3 ultrasonic speakers dictate the fictional tale.

The founder of the DXARTS program, Richard Karpen, said these artistic methods help distinguish “Sanctum” and allow it to contribute to the history of interactive art-making.

Karpen used an example to illustrate previous attempts to create this sort of work.

The artist might place a violin on a table and ask audiences to play the instrument. Obviously most people aren’t trained violists, so although the viewers might be having fun, the piece’s ability to create a novel artistic experience is limited.

Karpen said these banal attempts to incorporate audiences into a work don’t fully exploit interactivity because they depend on the audience’s knowledge and abilities. On the other hand, when viewers stand before “Sanctum,” they can be totally passive.

The piece requests nothing from viewers. Yet it’s able to produce novel and plausible narratives based on their demographic profile.

Pampin and Coupe said these mechanisms, essential to the function of “Sanctum,” replicate how individuals encounter others on social media.

According to Coupe, looking upon the landscape of social media sites, platforms like Facebook appear to be just massive crowds of people. But everyone is having a very individuated experience.

“Somehow what you are seeing in [‘Sanctum’] is a physical instantiation of what is already happening in the network,” Pampin said.

Coupe said one problem he and Pampin hope to explore with “Sanctum” is what degree of privacy our modern culture expects in both online and physical public spaces.

Coupe said that in digital public spaces like Facebook, “If you post something and nobody likes it, then it kind of doesn’t work. You want someone to look at you.”

But Pampin said people become uncomfortable when they experience the publicity of online platforms in the material world. Even though social media users have already uploaded photos, statuses, locations, and personal information to the Internet, seeing these intimate tidbits displayed publicly in the physical realm distresses them.

In fact, these theoretical issues came to haunt the artists when they first began setting up the piece.

Pampin said to ensure the piece was operating legally, the artists consulted lawyers who instructed the tandem to ensure passersby could withdraw from “Sanctum.”

“If you just walk by, the piece will ignore you,” said Pampin. “But if you face the facade within 12 feet, then you will be opting into the piece”

The artists also placed the thick black signs around the gallery’s facade to warn people they were being videotaped. And even though the piece was turned off, individuals began expressing concern.

“People entered the museum and starting complaining, ‘I don’t want to be videotaped,’” Pampin said. “But in reality, if you don’t want to be videotaped, you probably can’t go out of your house.”

But Coupe and Pampin were quick to point out that neither “Sanctum” nor the artists are advocating for the disuse of social media. Rather, the piece and artists just hope to create a space where the tensions of privacy and publicity, physical and digital, become real.

To the artists’ surprise, some viewers have in fact flipped the metaphysical script.

“As soon as it went up, everyone was stopping, and everyone was desperate to see themselves,” Coupe said.

Pampin said people began taking pictures of themselves with the exhibit.

“They probably put it on Facebook,” Coupe said. “‘I’m over here by the Henry.’”

“Sanctum” will run from May 2013 until November 2015. Coupe and Pampin said they plan to update and refine the piece while it runs.

Reach Science Editor Sohrab Andaz at arts@dailyuw.com.Twitter: @SohrabAndaz