TRANSPORTED FUTURES (2014)
IMMERSIVE INSTALLATION WITH 3 PROJECTION SCREENS & SURROUND SOUND
I was commissioned by Leftcoast to produce an immersive installation for their first ever Spare Parts Festival. This was an ACE funded event to coincide with Fleetwood’s yearly Tram Festval as a way of promoting the arts to a very deprived area of the country. Fleetwood is a small town north of Blackpool that was originally the literal end of the line for trains coming from London, whose passengers wanted to travel into Scotland. At the time there was no direct line to Western Scotland so people would have to take a ferry after arriving at Fleetwood. Things have of course changed since then, and Fleetwood has the air of a town that has lost its raison d’etre, forgotten in the north-west of the country. Leftcoast’s mission is to bring contemporary arts to audiences that have little or no access to these kinds of experiences.
My proposal was to create an immersive installation with three large screens and a surround sound system. The project was partly inspired by Vanderbeek’s Moviedrome and the idea of creating platforms for communities to see themselves reflected. The content of the installation would be a series of animations, collages and interviews with people from the community on the theme of the future of transport. These interviews were edited and embedded within an electronic music soundtrack playing on a surround sound system throughout the duration of the festival.
Transported futures documentation video
Depiction of movement
As the festival was about transport and the installation itself was about the future of this concept, I wanted to work with futuristic imagery that translated the hopes, dreams and fears of the local community. To this end I looked at various different sci-fi films that depict the future of transport in interesting ways. Films like Minority Report, Moon, Elysium, District 9, Akira, Metropolis, Avatar, Ghost in the Shell, and Blade Runner. The main thing that interested me was to capture how famous directors such as Spielberg, Ridely Scott or Neil Blomkamp, depicted movement of vehicles that we have never seen in real life. As I watched these films, I sketched lines and shapes depicting these movements. I wanted to abstract these movements and translate them as glowing lights moving through space.
I’m not a classic CGI animator, therefore I had to think laterally to convey the idea of the future without having to draw or digitize my own concepts for vehicles of the future. I wasn't entirely pleased with the results of these experiments as in the end, the abstraction was too great, and it was difficult, from the perspective of the audience, to determine how movement occured outside a landscape context. Nevertheless, these were my first attempts at using these kind of tools and I have been able to build on this experience for other projects. Furthermore, the visual content of these animations was dependent on the outcome of the interviews I was to carry out, and these didn’t happen until very late in my planning stages for reasons outside of my control.
I therefore had to work in the abstract for a great deal time, thinking of images that would evoke the idea of travel, through imaginary landscapes. To this end, I carried out various tutorials on the use of the Red Giant plugins Form and MIR. It is possible to create simple digital rolling landscapes by playing with mesh structures and adding structures. I was able to create various lo-fi clips that emulated this sense of travel through strange, non-earthly habitats.
I wasn’t able to interview people until two weeks before the opening of the festival. This was very stressful as a great part of the project depended on participant’s points of view. Nevertheless, I was able to spend two days in Fleetwood and interview a wide array of people: children at schools, elderly shoppers, staff at the Marine Hall, where the installation would take place. The community liaison with whom I was working hadn’t been available until this late date and I think she found the process a bit difficult, particularly when people showed reluctance to be interviewed.
I was able to collect around thirty interviews with varying degrees of engagement. With these kind of work, the difficulty is always in the editing and this was no exception. Some interviewees talked for up to forty minutes whilst some gave monosyllabic answers. However, I was able to pinpoint five themes that people were interested in: space travel, vehicles on wheels, flight, trains and trams and post-apocalyptic visions. The latter was the most interesting, and not-surprisingly, it was the children and younger people who talked about this the most.
community participation flyer
Shigeru Komatsuzaki and Japanese retro-futurism
After I carried out the interviews and edited the content I began looking for illustrations I could use in a moving digital collage to depict some of the ideas people talked about. I realised that people’s vision of the future was strongly linked to how the future had been depicted in the past. I guess it is difficult to truly imagine something completely unknown, but even by contemporary illustration standards, it was the work of Japanese artists in the 1960s and 70s that seem to present best this technological utopianism and optimism that was present in some of the interviews. I used some of his images combined with the work of many other illustrators to create fast-moving slide-shows that would play in time with the music.
Based on these images and the content of the interviews I then composed 5 different pieces with a retro-futuristic feel: arppeggiators, lo-fi sound, quantized rhythms. I then created solos based on sci-fi classics from the 1970s and 1980s popular culture. The interviews were used as samples within the music giving the compositions a more detailed content. I also created a series of atmospheric soundscapes based on drones and time stretching tools. These pieces created the appropriate atmosphere in between interview based tracks.
Eacxh of these tracks was only 5 or 6 minutes long. Since I had to produce 40 minutes of material that could then be looped, I created five more drone-based tracks that created an atmosphere of the unknown. These soundscapes were accompanied by long animations depicting journeys through abstract, animated landscapes.
All the video clips were edited to coincide with the music. Instead of using my usual approach of mapping MIDI to synchronize sound and image, I counted how many bars were in each piece of music and mapped important changes to specific points in the Bar time line. I then edited my videos so that each second of film corresponded to a Bar of music, I then exported the videos and stretched or condensed them so they would fit the music exactly. This way of working was very complicated and due to the time difficulties I was experiencing it became very stressful. The movies ended up being very rigid and used up a lot of processing power. Furthermore, I had the crazy idea of creating three visual compositions for each of the pieces of music, one for each screen: a ridiculous idea. I did manage to finish everything in time but it almost killed me.
The diagram below shows my installation plan (with working title). I used three projectors, two back projecting screens and one frontal, eight speakers placed evenly around a circle, a scaffolding tower and many cables.
floor plan and tech spec for transported futures
Overall it was a good project although it was a shame that towards the end, everything had to be rushed so much. I had no control over when I could meet the community liaison officer so that part of the project had to wait until it was almost too late. It was my first in many of the processes I tried. Maybe for a project like this I should have stuck with what I knew best but nevertheless I learnt a lot of new processes that I have been able to use afterwards, particularly in the use of AE.
I think the installation was a success; a few hundred people went through that hall and engaged with the work. Not everyone stopped to listen to the content, and it didn’t help that the changing rooms for other performers were also within that hall, making the sound a little difficult to manage, however, it was a very experimental piece with popular appeal. In hindsight I should have used the video I shot of the talking heads in the interviews instead of just the sound, although I think this decision was due to time restraints.
I’d been thinking about creating something like this for a long time, so it was very rewarding to be able to achieve it. It brought together a great deal of techniques and skills that I had been learning over the previous years and I think with a little more time I would have enjoyed the process more. I was a little disappointed at how small these large screens looked in the hall. I would have preferred straight up projections on the walls although this would have been impossible in the middle of the day.
Maybe the most important lesson about this is that I can’t do big projects like this one by myself, I need a crew to help me set up and take things down, although the budget rarely allow me to offer appropriate compensation for this. As a result of doing this all by myself I lost a great deal of money, first by braking the tail lamp of the van I was renting and then by breaking one of the screens as I was packing it down. We were being rushed out of the hall, it was incredibly hot and I’d been up since 5am. In the end, I didn’t have to pay for the screen but the van was painfully expensive.