Interactive Art Comes to the Henry
This post was produced as part of the UW Comm Department’s undergraduate Entrepreneurial Journalism course.
By Hailey Way
Bleary eyed and in a hurry, I walk over the footbridge that passes near the Henry Art Gallery. My pace slowed as I began to hear voices in front of the gallery, and surprisingly, my reflection on a LCD monitor. The digital chatter diminished to one voice as I approached closer and stood still. Unknowingly, I was participating in an interactive installation, which unites social media and surveillance film.
A contemporary art piece has been turning heads of people passing by on their way to the University of Washington campus. Fusing sound with video, the artwork is illustrating a collaborative way to bring narrative to our social media use. “Sample interaction of the artwork with the university community”, or Sanctum, was developed by two artists, James Coupe and Juan Pampin, both faculty within the Digital Arts and Experimental Media (DXARTS) program at the UW. The work is a combined effort of Coupe’s expertise in social media and video surveillance installations and Pampin’s forte in the mixed media realm of digital and instrumental sound composition.
A high traffic area, the overpass near the Henry is a crossroads for a variety of people that will shift over the installation’s two and a half year duration.
“The opportunity to use a public space is challenging and intriguing. Public art has the ability to go out into the people. It’s not a passive piece, it challenges people to come in and interact with it,” said Juan Pampin.
The presence of the piece is to use technologies that we don’t normally acknowledge, such as surveillance, but are among us. There are 18 screens on the façade of the Henry that are filming multiple directions within the courtyard. In this public space, the installation is engaging in private lives of participants who decide to interact.
In Sohrab Andaz’s article for The Daily, Juan mentioned concerns many expressed about the surveillance.
“People entered the museum and started 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.” (The Daily)
Along with the surveillance, if an individual approaches 12 feet away from the gallery, their presence is calibrated. Remain stationary for long enough, the observer will be listening to a story, a synthesis of statuses.
The written narratives that appear as people approach the screens are fuelled by Facebook status updates. Those who want to participate can sign up here. The Facebook app requires your age and gender; participants will otherwise remain anonymous. After 90 days of participation, the database will send an e-mail asking of your continuation. If you decide to deny the renewal, your demographics will be removed from the system.
“It will be interesting to see it evolve over the two and a half years; to observe various behaviors over time… these are expert users of social media,” said James Coupe.
As an observer of Sanctum, I decided to sign up for the Facebook app. A simple click of a button and I was taken on trip down memory lane. After the “thank you for joining” page, I was faced with a list of status updates dating all the way back to 2009 up until late 2012. The database would then extract any number of these phrases, or a combination of them, to fit with any female in her early 20’s that approaches the façade of the Henry.
“Sanctum aims to single people out of the crowd to work with these notions of private and public space, and to use other individual narratives based on demographic similarities by people walking by,” Coupe said. “It will be interesting to see over the course of the two and a half years, how many people remain tethered to this work. But for now, the more the merrier.”
As Facebook acquires more people to participate, the database grows. The cameras on the façade narrow in on one person, if they approach close enough, and will attempt to match their demographics with someone similar from the database. Various statuses appear according to the most likely matches, and an extraction of stories emerges.
“People are intrigued. They don’t think about the data processing that goes on behind the scenes when they use social media. Messages are collected on Facebook and surveillance cameras collect demographic profiles. So, we are using these technologies to create a node or a place where they can coexist, and you are the center of it,” Pampin said.
Coupe discussed profiling as coexisting with narrative construction. Each story can be unique depending on the physical match with the status description.
“Narratives are based on a story or a scenario. This combination of demographic features suggests a particular story,” Coupe said.
In essence, with the ubiquitous amount of statuses that emerge, numerous combinations are procured to tell an enticing story to the observer. Next time you walk by the Henry Art Gallery, take a step closer, and listen to the voices around you.