Where art meets AV
Artists have always pushed the boundaries of what is possible, and an increased use of AV technology is helping to bring new experiences to life, Paul Milligan reports.
It should come as no surprise that art and AV have become bedfellows. Artists have always used the latest innovations of their time to bring their visions to life, whether it was simply mixing paint together, or the early days of photography and electronic lighting or in modern times manipulation of images by computer software. What we have seen in the last 5-10 years is a steady rise of art projects with technology at its core. It could be projectors used for projection mapping, to show artwork on a giant scale, or to digitise images that are 300 years old. Or it could be loudspeakers, used to create immersive soundscapes capable of removing us from our environment to somewhere completely new. We have spoken to those at both ends of the art and AV spectrum, those who create the art, and those who facilitate the art being displayed.
For those involved in supplying technology to the art world, is an appreciation of the art in question critical to the success of a project AV? Or can you just deliver it in the same way you would deliver AV to an airport for example? Jeremy Brick is a New Zealand-based artist whose most recent project saw him use two 31K projectors to recreate Swan Lake’s The Dying Swan, including a 20-metre-high ballerina, onto a water fountain in an harbour in Wellington, New Zealand. Brick says needing an appreciation of the art for it to succeed depends on the project, “If it is a simple case of taking an existing artwork and reproducing it on another medium such as a projection, it is more important to understand how the medium works than the art itself. If, and in the case of the Swans project, it was far more critical to have an understanding of the art form, its motifs and their implied meanings. The most important question for me became 'what classical ballet motif would make the most sense to be floating on the surface of a harbour?', so an appreciation of the art was critical to its success.”
The art market may seem like a different world to the corporate or education markets but getting in as early on as you can on a project, before key decisions are made without you, is key here too says Guillaume Le Nost director of R&D, L’Acoustics. “We take care to be involved as early as possible. We try to understand what their vision is, what their needs would be and what they want to achieve, because the vision is at the centre of what we would provide them. We get involved in pre-production stage as much as we can. For example, for the artist Philippe Parreno we deployed more than 200 speakers in the Tate Modern (in London) and they did all the pre-production work in the studio with a reduced set of eight speakers, and we could easily scale it with just with a basic mix.”
Leander Werbrouck, Barco, segment manager proAV, outlines why he feels technology is having an increasingly prominent role in the art world; “There is a trend and an evolution happening because of the abundance of art and the sheer amount of art that most museums have. It is almost impossible to guide your audience through a meaningful journey simply by putting everything on the wall, or throwing everything on the table, there's just too much. And in that sense, technology has proven to be very much a good aid and a good way to support that journey, by making it virtual and digital.
In the rush to provide technology how do you ensure it doesn’t overshow what the artist is trying to achieve? “I start at the other end,” says Ross Ashton, a projection artist whose vast portfolio of work includes the FIFA World Cup, Edinburgh Military Tattoo, and the Queens Golden Jubilee in the UK. “I want to know what the audience wants to see, what the themes or message or whatever it is they want to achieve, what I want to put over and then I choose the technology to achieve that.”
Finding the right technology for each individual art piece is a balancing act, because art is such an individual act, that a cut and paste AV approach won’t work. “Technology is not an end in itself, sometimes it could be that the technology was too complex to handle or too difficult to understand, and the vision was not completely fulfilled. But when it's done well, the technology is behind the artistic vision it can help it, it shouldn’t block it,” says Le Nost. “It’s always a question of balance,” says Werbrouck. “It’s tricky, you see examples where there is too much technology just thrown at it and it doesn't look good. The balance is finding if it fits into the story and can be nicely blended together, or could it exist separately?” Jeremy Brick says in his experience the balancing act often works the other way, “Technology is often inadequate to fully realise the artwork.”
When working on an art project is the AV supplier there to collaborate on the piece, or are they just a hired hand, there to enact someone else’s vision? “We see more (collaboration) happening right now, initially it would have been a creative director with an idea of creating an immersive experience around a piece or pieces of artwork, or by using the artwork in a digital way, it was a very disconnected. We would get contacted to ask how we could help build it, and what products we had to support this type of project, now we're getting pulled in earlier in the process, also earlier in the creative process and the design phase of these projects,” says Werbrouck. Jeremy Brick, representing the side of artists, agrees; “I believe that a project is more likely to be successful or ground-breaking if the artist takes on board the advice of the technology expert and both parties work together in order to solve problems introduced in the creative vision and therefore push the technology beyond what it was originally intended for.” Describing his role in art projects, Ross Ashton says he is there to “fill in the creative blanks, but also there to use our experience to say this won’t work in this space.”
What methods are there to make sure the technology you choose is the right fit for the art on show? Experience counts for a lot in making the right decision says Ashton, “I’ve had conversations where they say we'd like to do projection onto the side of a mountain. Will your budget withstand that? It would it be better to do something marvellous on a smaller scale rather than put something on to the side of a building that will totally dominate it. I've had people say they want to project on the Moon, or we'd like to project into the sky of London so that the astronauts on the International Space Station can look down and see it. The best kind of conversations is with an institution or a town where they know where they want it to happen, and they know where they can put an audience. It’s their building, otherwise we wouldn’t be there.”
There are a few technical drivers to help you make the right decision on technology says Werbrouck.” If you are talking about an outdoor installation, where there's some sunlight, then projection is not going to be the right technology, it gets washed out and LED is what you need. Also, projection is much less intrusive to the environment than LED, which is typically wall-mounted or comes with a lot of secondary steel to put in place and to hang it up. With a projector you can hang them on a truss and its much less intrusive to the actual space and the environment. If you look at projection you have to choose between RGB laser versus laser phosphor or any other type of projection technology, it comes down to the quality that you want to achieve. You have to go into a cascade of complexity versus quality, especially in the colour and brightness you want to put on the canvas or on the screen.” Understanding the environment you are in is crucial says Karen Monid, a sound artist. “To create public art outdoors you're saying okay I've got to work with the outdoors, you can't dominate it, you can't make it to something else, it is what it is. So you have to find a way to include that into what the work is and then that will inform certain choices that you make.” Monid gives the example of working with Ross Ashton on a project which projected on to the Houses of Parliament for the Olympics Games in London. “A particular space may not work with multi-channel, so you may be better off doing stereo on some cases, like we did for the 2012 Olympics, with a string of speakers running down the Embankment, that had to be mono. There are certain things that are dictated to by the shape of the space, and the nature of the space.”
Just what is it that is so attractive about merging art and technology right now, is it the ability to manipulate centuries-old images and in doing so bringing art to a new audience, one that has grown up with digital technology, or is showing art in a new or unusual location? “You can manipulate reality, the physical space and bring it to life, and bring any canvas to life through it,” says Werbrouck. “You can blur the line between what's real and what's virtual, it’s a very appealing idea, like a theme park, where you can step into another world or galaxy. One of the big advantages of AV is that it allows it to be shareable, which is not necessarily the case with an online experience.” Art has never existed in a technical vacuum says Ashton so it’s no surprise artists are embracing AV, “The cutting edge of technology has been where art has always been. As soon as photography was invented artist started using photography, as soon as lighting control was invented, artists started using light. Projection is an accepted part of an artist’s toolkit.”
When we think of art we naturally think of the visual arts, but are we wrong to do so? Is audio just there to provide a mood, or can it play a central part in an art installation? “Absolutely the audio is as important as the visuals. I think sound is very capable of creating an emotional environment, and an immersive one as well,” says Monid. The need for experiences to be immersive, beit for entertainment or simulation or educational puproses has become a crucuail ones in the alst fe years, and this is where audio can come to the fore, as this example from Le Nost explains. “You can go to a nice room where there is a 360-degree video all around you, but the sound is coming just from a crappy ceiling speaker, you can see amazing details in the visuals, you can have a shark swim round you, but the sound does not correlate to what you see. To be immersed you need a sense of plausibility, you need to feel you are in nature.” He goes on to add the example of VR companies, who are beginning to understand the importance of audio. “They are spending millions on sound right now Facebook, Google, Hololens etc. They are spending a lot of money on binaural technologies because they understand to convince people VR is really real you need the sound and vision.” Finally, Le Nost has a plea that will resonate with many inside and outside the art world; “We work we people who only care about the visual and not the sound and we work with sound guys who mostly care about sound and not the visuals, I think it’s about time the two domains talked to each other.”