art projects
Projecting ourselves: Seattle museums embrace video installations

News Tribune, August 2, 2013

Outdoor video installations in Seattle paint sides of buildings; could the same happen here?


Video art has come a long way since the days of Super 8 film, Sony Portapaks and Nam June Paik’s classical music-inspired videos of the 1960s.

As technology has evolved, the art of projection has gone from tiny screens in dimly lit galleries to multiscreen narratives, projections that map themselves onto skyscrapers, wild sculptures that react to human presence with sound and light – and transforming the outside of museums rather than just the inside.

Now, Seattle is in on the picture. Within a few months this spring, two Seattle museums have launched projection installations on the outside of their entryways: Seattle Art Museum’s “Mirror” by international artist Doug Aitken and the Henry Gallery’s “Sanctum” by University of Washington associate professors James Coupe and Juan Pampin.

James Coupe and Juan Pampin's "Sanctum" is on view at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle.

Both works take imagery from the environment around them and alter it in real time with cues from weather, traffic or passers-by. “Sanctum” adds the social media voyeurism of a Facebook feed.

But both do something other than offer artistic eye candy. Strategically positioned and long-term, they also serve as museum marketing, proclaiming the presence of art and glamming up a dull building with a clever mix of art signage and hypnotic narcissism. The question is: Does Tacoma need one, too?

“I really like them both, and I want TAM to explore that kind of project as well. They give a physical vocabulary that relates to our time, and that’s so important. That’s how we interact with the world now, how we see the world,” said TAM’s senior curator Rock Hushka of the video installations.

Outdoor video installations are 24/7, and they keep you staring at a building for a long time. All over the world, folks are discovering this. Aitken created the transformative “Sleepwalkers” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2007, splashing actors such as Tilda Swinton and Donald Sutherland in a giant multichannel screenplay all over the building’s glassy exterior.

His “Song 1” did the same for the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum last year. Other Aitken works include projections onto a barge floating in the Mediterranean, and over the entire Serpentine Gallery in London.

Artist groups such as Britain’s Urban Projections and Germany’s Urbanscreen utilize 3-D projection technology to “map” video onto a building’s surfaces, breaking out of the need for a flat screen and creating light sculptures such as hands playing piano on a building or a giant pinball game.

In Newcastle, Australia, projections of historic images onto buildings on the city’s oldest street are drawing crowds back to a revitalized downtown as the community itself feeds the projections with local stories, self-shot video and real-time video games played on smartphones.

In Seattle, SAM’s “Mirror” invites the kind of standing-and-staring that most people don’t usually do on busy First Avenue, especially in the rain. A permanent installation gifted by the late Bagley Wright, it’s intended to reflect the Northwest.

“With ‘Mirror,’ I was interested in the idea of creating a living museum, a downtown building that could change in real time in relation to the environment around it,” Aitken said in a news release on the work’s installation in March. “It‘s like an urban earthwork.”

Over the four thin horizontal screens set atop the entryway at Union Street (best viewed from across the street outside the Four Seasons hotel) rush images of rain-drenched Seattle traffic, misty mountains, clouds.

It seems random, but it’s not: Cars zoom diagonally into each other, mirroring what’s in front of your face like a giant Photobooth app setting or a hyper-real kaleidoscope.

Aitken spent five years shooting footage of Seattle and its surroundings to program into his feed, which is altered by live conditions such as weather and traffic, reflecting reality.

“The work … generates its own tempos and patterns feeding off the landscape, movement, temperature, light or darkness, wind or many other live organic things around it,” Aitken said.

Every so often, images dissolve into light strips which flash up and down the marquee. This pulls your attention in (especially in the daytime, when there are so much other competing visuals), but adds a dimension of tackiness, such as a Tokyo shopping street or a showgirl venue.

Overall, “Mirror” is mesmerizing. You stare, half-expecting to see yourself (or your car), watching the images go ’round and ’round like an endless Escher print.

At “Sanctum,” you see yourself immediately. The installation that went up in May at the UW’s Henry Art Gallery was intended both to dress up the doorway and engage the university community, and it does both with a vengeance.

Signs nearby warn pedestrians that they’re about to be videoed for the installation and as you pass under the overhang, you see your own face up there on one or more of the screens set in three grids.

Because you’re being filmed from the side, your face looks thoughtful and gazing – just as it should when viewing art – and around your screen pedestrians on previously-recorded images flit by. It’s a little disconcerting, like sensing a ghost behind you, but that’s nothing compared to reading the words captioning the screen and realizing they’re from some random person’s Facebook post, which has been matched to your age and gender by the unseen, all-knowing computer driving the artwork.

(You can sign up to submit your own Facebook posts at sanctum.io, or by scanning the QR codes on the warning signs.)

I’m a woman in my 40s, and for some reason, I was matched with posts about relationship worries, car crashes, job-loss nightmares and secret desires to destroy toasters. These were narrated in a bland male voice, which didn’t make me feel any more connected to them. After a while, the whole thing – visual and audio both – blurs into a mash of electro-gobbledegook: unintelligible, a social media wash of irrelevant nonsense captured for all time (or at least for the next two years that “Sanctum” is up).

Superficially, if “Mirror” is mesmerizing, “Sanctum” is fun. It appeals to the exhibitionist in us all who loves seeing our own face on the big screen and the minutiae of our own lives published to the world. It also appeals to the voyeur in us who secretly likes to peer into other people’s lives.

As art, it makes you connect the dots and realize just how meaningless all this endless self-narration is in the long run. And yes, it keeps you looking at the Henry’s exterior for quite a while, and maybe even think about stepping inside, if it’s open.

Tacoma Art Museum also has a big, bland exterior and a stated mission of connecting the community through art. Like most arts organizations, it also is constantly searching for new audiences (especially young ones), mounting Twitter campaigns and Instagram competitions. It also is about to break ground on a multimillion-dollar extension: the Haub Western art wing, which in its low-slung, earthy design and panel of windows facing the street will only highlight the tall grayness of the main Antoine Predock building. There also is the back parking lot entrance. Could TAM benefit from some projection art gussying up its exterior, reflecting real-time Tacoma and reminding Pacific Avenue passers-by of what’s inside?

“We’ve started talking about it with the collections committee,” Hushka said. “The idea of having a large monitor in the parking lot giving ambient lighting plus also signaling that you’re in a museum is very, very compelling. But in Tacoma, you have to consider the context. We have a very intense issue of electronic billboards here, and you have to be sensitive to that. Then there are other issues: changing technology, maintenance costs, security, interpretive strategies. It’s a lot more difficult than I’d imagined.”

Facade Art

What: “Mirror” by Doug Aitken

Where: Above the entry to Seattle Art Museum at Union Street and First Avenue, Seattle

When: 24/7

Information: 206- 654-3100, seattleart museum.org

What: “Sanctum” by James Coupe and Juan Pampin

Where: Left of the entry to the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington, 15th Avenue Northeast and Northeast Campus Parkway, Seattle

When: 24/7 through November 2015

Information: 206-543-2280, henryart.org, sanctum.io

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@ thenewstribune.com