Monday, May 4, 2009

Waterfall projection project...moves indoors!

Since rain was predicted for over the weekend, we reluctantly decided to move the waterfall projection project ("My hands were busy/my mind could wander: Creative Economies on the Charles River") indoors, as our contribution to the 10th Boston CyberArts Festival. So Sunday night (May 3) we gathered in the main hall of the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation, and projected the eight minute video loop on the redbrick interior wall of the hall, immediately down river from the waterfall itself. Bryce Peake, the class TA, and I were assisted in this by Howard Phillips, Associate Director and video instructor at the Boston University Center for Digital Imaging Art (CDIA), his student Mike, a film and video student at CDIA and Elln Hagney, the Museum's Director of Education and Development. The video work itself was developed by students in the Museums and Public Memory (Anth 159a) course--Casey Golomski, Jesse Cates, Theresa Barbaro, Mao Matsuda, and Shai Dobrusin--along with Bryce Peake and our undergraduate Community Engaged Fellow, Anna-Lisa Macon.

Earlier in the day Bryce realized that if we were going to move to within the Museum space, it made sense to re-edit the audio of the piece, taking out the industrial machinery noise, and putting in background audio of the Moody Street waterall. Bryce also effectively superimposed the video on a background of the moving water of the waterfall, so that the viewer had some sense of what the piece would look like projected on the falls. (Bryce's intention was that we would some of the Museum's machinery in the background during the screening; as it happened, we found the actual machinery noises made it difficult to make out the recorded audio, so in the end we ran the work without live machine sound.)

We had been toying with projecting the work straight upwards, onto a fabric scrim that we would trig between the upper gallery and the large boiler, but as we looked around the space, we realized it would be a shame to enclose the marvelous open gallery of the main exhibition hall, with its evocative, looming machinery and distant vaulted ceiling. Howard kindly brought over a couple of CDIA video projectors and a splitter. (In theory, this should have allowed us to project the video work through three different projectors, but for some reason we were only able to get this work through two projectors). We aimed one projector at the great red brick upper wall of the gallery; we mounted a second projector on a music stand and tited it downward so that it would project onto gallery's main floor. This would have been a really interesting effect, but for some reason, after a minute or so the tilted projector begin to project a strange "spiderweb" effect, which made it very difficult to discern the actual video work. (We realized later in thee evening that we could have overcome the effect of tilting by using a mirror system to angle the projected image downwards...which we might try next time.)

In any event, we ended up projecting the second image straight out, on the far right brick wall of the gallery, as a kind of elongated, fainter echo of the first image.

We were quite pleased with the overall effect of the installation. With the lights lowered, the marvelous machinery assembled within the museum took on uncanny qualities, a little reminiscent of the gaslight or oil lamps that might once have illuminated the Victorian interior. Although we lost a good deal of resolution in the projected moving images, the redbrick background, in between the grand arcing windows of the gallery, did summon up the sense of a portal into the past--the very effect we had been hoping from the waterfall projection. Even the reduced color saturation and resolution of the elongated far left projection (near the looming shadowy, massive hulk of the old boiler and heating ventwork) worked nicely, summoning up associations with the early days of black and white film, fading back, as the eye continued left, to an evocation of the magic lantern era that preceded film itself.

As the piece looped for the next 90 minutes or so, I found myself discovering new aspects of the video work in this particular environment. Lined up between the grand interior windows on the main hall's inner wall, the three frames of the video's triptych manifested themselves as a line of windows, opening up to different moments in the city's industrial and post-industrial history. The Francis Cabot Lowell factory buildings had initially depended on the energies of the Charles River, channelled through sluices, turbines and conveyor belts, and it was marvelous to view the video montage of the legacies of those translated energies (of mechanical and human labor) surrounded by the mechanical looms and converyor belts of the early industrial revolution. The central segment with Barbara Zeles (from which the work takes its title) worked especially well within the industrial hall; her work with yarn and fabric seemed a kind of living memorial to the generations of women who labored in this space, between flowing water and pounding machinery, to transform fibers into fabric. Even the soundtrack, building towards a cacophny of voices and water power, took on evocative effects within the factory hall, summoning up, to my mind at least, spectres of the workers and machinery that had for so long labored and cycled inside this cavernous space.

I found myself thinking that taken as a whole, the installation in this particular site also summoned up a anticipatory sense of the cyborg, the enigmatic bio-mechanical figure that functions as a kind of totemic emblem of our era (yet another Terminator film is set to be released this summer.) As Anselm Rabinbach argues in The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue and the Origins of Modernity, a defining obsession of the 19th century was the tableau of the human body as a complex mechanical engine, simultaneously liberated and enslaved by the mechanical devices fashioned by its own hands. Watching the varied hands projected on the factory's interior brick walls, engaged in diverse forms of mechanically-mediated labor (from setting linotype to bicycle-making) I had a visceral sense of what the transitional moments to industrial labor just might have been like, as human creative energies were simultaneously magnified and alienated, intensified and dissipated, liberated and re-imprisoned.

To our delight, at least forty-five community members, a number of them digital artists associated with the Boston CyberArts festival, attended the production. We had a range of fascinating conversations, and were left excited at the prospect of future collaborations down the road, including in the next CyberArts festival in 2011. I should mention that the other new media works in the museum, including installations by Claudia Bucher, Chris Abrahms, Tim Hickey's students, and others, looked great, and it was fun to see our work, in effect, in conversation, in conversation with theirs.

We're still eager to project the work on the Moody Street waterfall, and may try to do this for the upcoming Charles River festival in June or Historic Waltham days in July, and perhaps once school is back in session in September. But for now we're delighted with this chance to collaborate with Elln Hagney and the CMRI, in their continuing explorations of the shadowlands between the mechanical and the digital--and between, to paraphrase Barbara Zeles, the labor of human hands and the labor of the human imagination.

1 comment:

Concord Carpenter said...

Charles River Museum is a great place to spend an afternoon.

I work in Waltham and look forward to chercking out the waterfall.

Great post!