At the beginning of October I traveled to Melbourne, Australia for a conference addressing the topic of "Urban Screens."
At the beginning of October I traveled to Melbourne, Australia for a conference addressing the topic of "Urban Screens." As the Media Technician at HPAC, it's been my responsibility to manage and operate the digital equipment connected to the Jackman-Goldwasser Catwalk Gallery, or as the cool kids call it: "The FaÃ§ade."
Urban Screens according to the festival organizers, are devices or systems for displaying video in a public setting. In this category are outdoor screenings such as the summer movies in grant park, the fountain at millennium park, as well as the freaking huge LED advertising screens along the freeway, and lets not forget the 12 or so LED screens broadcasting CNN on election night, those are all urban screens. Those are big urban screens, but according to the Australians and the Germans at the conference, also under this umbrella are cell phones, Blackberrys, ipods, and portable video displays that increasingly can be used to communicate messages and even allow passers by to interact with the media.
The advertising industry has been at the forefront of developing technology for Urban Screens, often Massive LED arrays that hang over a freeway announcing new flavors of chewing gum to rush hour traffic. Video and New Media artists follow the new technology by filling it with original content, sometimes literally occupying the advertising billboards to temporarily exhibit their work (with the permission of the screen owners like Clear Channel, everybody's favorite media monolith). Other times, the artists are creating content for places that host unique Media Architecture like the Hyde Park Art Center.
I showed up in Melbourne intent on spreading the word about the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago to the international community of artists, curators, media theorists and technicians in attendance at the conference. Shockingly very few of them had heard about us, although our fair city was a topic of discussion more than once. It's cool though because I hadn't heard of most of them. All I had to say was it's near the home of Barack Obama and they lit up. I also wanted to meet artists and sniff out where they live and what they do. I was assuming it would be similar to what artists do here, except with bigger beers and in the presence of more poisonous snakes.
The last day of the conference I was fortunate enough to meet a woman named Naomi Cass, founder and director of the Center for Contemporary Photography (CCP) in Melbourne. CCP also has an Urban Screen, a much smaller vertically oriented rectangle that works very similar to our FaÃ§ade. Over lunch and coffee we talked about our respective institutions, various projects associated with them, technology, and cultural differences. She took me through an exhibit of Aboriginal painting and sculpture at the National Gallery and explained the origins and cultural significance of many of the pieces. Later she introduced me to many of the important people in Melbourne, people who would later describe her as the "Heart and Soul" of the Melbourne art community. I felt lucky to have randomly met her.
Based on the people she introduced me to, I spent the following day attending meetings scheduled with non-profit art centers around Melbourne and Fitzroy. I met some great artists who're interested in developing projects at HPAC. Some of them took me out to the bars later that night, which gave me the opportunity to ask the questions I'd really wanted answers to: Do dingos really eat babies? (Yes). Ever been on a walkabout? (No).
My trip to Melbourne confirmed to us how truly unique our faÃ§ade system is. Examples were shown and discussed of locations around the world, some of them hosting screens owned and operated by arts institutions, some where the programming structure is fragmented between the designers of the screen, the curators/programmers, and other interested parties that have a stake in what is displayed on the screen. There was an architect that spoke of wanting to design buildings where all surfaces are made of custom shaped LED surfaces where everything is constantly moving. Our modest FaÃ§ade, on the other hand is unique for a number of reasons. Rather than an external component or "after-thought" our faÃ§ade was designed into the building as an architectural element and is owned, operated, and programmed by the same organization. Rather than a massive LED array, we have a projection based system and automated screens that allow the catwalk to contribute both as an exhibition venue and as an 80' window to the neighborhood. And lastly, rather than a traditional aspect ratio, ours has a unique shape, a long horizontal rectangle five times the width of a standard television screen, requiring artists to think outside of the traditional frame, and do something they've never done before. It's certainly not the most high-tech, but creatively it's one of the most ambitious.