THERE IT IS, looking innocent enough, a 10-foot-tall stack of 18 video monitors, sitting inside the windows of the Henry Art Gallery on the western edge of the University of Washington campus.
At first they seem to show ordinary security-camera feeds of passers-by, most of them students. Cross its path and you’ll see yourself, too.
Flashing before you on the screens are people who aren’t walking by. Linger awhile and more people appear — people about your age.
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Nearby loudspeakers buzz with voices. Gradually, the babble becomes a single, synthesized voice reciting the words of fragmentary texts that crawl across the screens.
Your own image still turns up, first on one monitor, then on another, or even spread gigantically over several monitors. But it isn’t always a live-action shot. Instead, it may be what you were doing five or 10 minutes ago.
Gradually it dawns on you that you’re not just watching this thing. It is watching you. Taking pictures of you. And feeding you recorded images of others who’ve come before.
A middle-aged woman, bundled in scarf and coat, appears on one screen. She’s holding out a doughnut, as if offering it to the wall of all-seeing screens before her. When it fails to respond, she withdraws her offering and pretends to eat it, her eyes opening wide with “oooooh, delicious!” relish. She waves the doughnut toward the screens again, more insistently this time. Nothing.
She gives up and strides off in mock disgust as if to say, “OK, if you don’t want it I guess I’ll have to eat it.”
Welcome to the curious, sometimes unnerving, world of “Sanctum,” one of the latest projects to come out of the UW’s Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media — or DXARTS as it’s called for short.
Its monitors, cameras and speakers are connected to a software system whose algorithms calculate gender and age range. The system then draws on a vast database to feed back to you images and text from other “Sanctum” watchers like yourself. The texts come from Facebook members who’ve given “Sanctum” access to their accounts.
The idea is to get people to interact with what they see and hear, to join the dialogue in a virtual space at once public and private.
“Sanctum” does what it does 24 hours a day. It has been doing it since May 4, 2013, and will continue to do it until Nov. 4, 2015 — a total of 2½ years. Raising the question, what is this trying to prove?
“SANCTUM” IS the brainchild of Juan Pampin, director of DXARTS, and James Coupe, a DXARTS assistant professor. While it’s undoubtedly DXARTS’ most ambitious work, it is only one of hundreds of faculty and student projects launched since DXARTS was founded in 2001.
The degree-granting program explores a range of creative pursuits encompassing visual art, music, sound, video, information technology and the sciences.
Faculty, staff and researchers come from all over the world, making DXARTS and Seattle a lively center of new developments in the fusion of art and technology.
Along with its campus offices and work spaces, DXARTS has a FabLab in Fremont where 3D printing and robotically controlled milling of wood, metals and other materials is done. The 3D printing allows artists to design or scan into a computer 3D objects that are then “printed” out in plastic or resin, helping artists custom-design frameworks and housings for the multimedia projects the program specializes in.
DXARTS also regularly presents “3D concerts” at Meany Hall, where synthesized compositions come at you from every corner of the theater, sending swathes of sound through your head as though it were porous.
The man who now heads DXARTS, Pampin, is a quiet soul from Buenos Aires whose demeanor masks a monster talent. His hourlong “Percussion Cycle,” commissioned by Les Percussions de Strasbourg, the granddaddy of all percussion ensembles, is a masterful, dramatic exploration of electronically enhanced timbres: skins, metals, wood. Its 20-minute closing section, “On space,” was the highlight of the ensemble’s Meany Hall concert here in 2011.
But the DXARTS story starts with Richard Karpen, another composer who, like Pampin, is blurring the boundaries between acoustic and synthesized sound. Now head of the UW School of Music, he’s no longer involved in administrating DXARTS but remains part of its musical roster. (JACK Quartet’s performance of his “Aperture II,” posted on YouTube, is an electroacoustic stunner.)
Karpen notes that growing up in the late 20th century meant getting into computers and electronic music early on: “I did a lot of my learning and composing in a laboratory environment with computer scientists and engineers.”
He came to the UW in 1989, after working at the Sorbonne in Paris and at Stanford University. The first thing he did at the UW was build a small computer-music lab. By 1994, he had launched the Center for Advanced Research Technology in the Arts and Humanities (CARTAH) — one of the first computer centers focusing some of its efforts on humanities research.
It was while running CARTAH that Karpen became aware that visual-arts students, who typically finished their training after a year in a master of fine arts program, were getting short shrift compared to doctoral students in other disciplines who could do research at the CARTAH labs for three years or longer. He wanted visual-arts students to have the same opportunities. And DXARTS was born.
Pampin, who took over as director in 2011, says the program aims to “move forward the field of art through research. So technology’s part of it, but it’s not necessarily the center of it . . . Sometimes there’s a misunderstanding with DXARTS that we are the tech guys. We are not. We are really the artists. We use technology as a driving force in what we do, because that allows us to do the things we want.”
Take Hugo Solis who, after taking part as a high-school student in a submarine exploration of hydrothermal vents in the Sea of Cortez, grew enchanted with the idea of the ocean floor as a sound source. While at DXARTS, he connected with John Delaney, head of the UW oceanography department, and was invited to join a research team exploring underwater volcanoes off the coast of Oregon.
“That costs a lot of money,” Pampin notes. “But he was invited to be part of it because he embedded himself in the research they were doing. They were interested in what he was doing, too, because he brought an idea that they never thought about . . . He managed to create this little microphone that then, with a robot, they dropped down, and he did recordings of these underwater volcanoes erupting.”
The result was “Axial,” a sound installation that Solis presented in a cargo container next to the UW Center for Urban Horticulture in 2011. Other DXARTS projects have involved collaborations with the UW’s biology and neuroscience departments.
“That’s the part that’s quite unique about our center,” Pampin says. “It’s very interdisciplinary, and it’s always changing.”
SOME RECENT projects show the variety of interests and tools that come together at the center.
In “Site Machines,” a project now up at Belltown’s Suyama Space, graduate student Tivon Rice uses not just the designated gallery portion of Suyama Peterson Deguchi’s architectural offices but the basement and rafters. Cameras in different parts of the building are synthesized in video feeds that, Rice says, aim to create “multiple ways of engaging with and viewing space.”
On a purer visual-arts front, “Convex Mirror” by graduate student Robert Twomey created highly roboticized images earlier this year in a street-front window on Amazon’s campus in South Lake Union. The piece used a CNC (computer numerical controlled) plotter, a 180-degree circular fish-eye lens and some custom software to produce its result.
A gel ink pen was fixed in a housing that was suspended on two strings against an acid-free mat board. Computer-filtered input from the camera guided the pen’s bobbing progress across the mat board. The result was a study in duration and evanescence. The building across the street was drawn in sharp detail. Passing cars and pedestrians registered as mere wisps, if that.
So many projects involving so many bells and whistles can be a little disorienting. Pampin provides the calm center amid the hubbub.
“He garners respect based on his knowledge, his own artwork, but also his personality,” Karpen says of his successor. “He’s got a warmth.”
“Warmth” isn’t a quality you normally connect with computer music, and some of Pampin’s works have a mighty and terrifying grandeur to them. But his pieces can also be unexpectedly intimate.
“A Line,” premiered at Meany Hall a year ago, was inspired by Pampin’s earliest exploration of Buenos Aires’ metro system with his grandfather, and is drawn from recordings Pampin made while traveling with his young son on the city’s oldest subway line.
Pampin and Coupe’s “Sanctum” is just as affecting a look at human reaction and foible. And technically, it’s the culmination of what DXARTS is all about.
One surprise is that it wasn’t the result of a cozy deal between the UW and the Henry. Instead, it was one of 91 entries from around the world, says Henry director Sylvia Wolf.
“The specific parameters,” Wolf notes, “were that it be a dynamic, visual, digital display that uses social media and is designed to engage passers-by. So ‘live and lively’ was the buzz phrase . . . We selected the one submission that had the deepest and richest content, that was the most exciting and engaging and, in many ways, edgy. And lo and behold, it was James and Juan from our own backyard.”
What was the special appeal of “Sanctum”?
Wolf points to the way it integrates sound, visuals and text to engage “relevant issues surrounding surveillance and profiling . . . But it’s also quite compelling and beautiful and animating.”
JUST AS “Sanctum” is not Pampin’s first experiment in video, it’s not Coupe’s first grappling with questions surrounding surveillance.
Coupe, a lanky Englishman with a droll take on the world, employed 50 cameras and 50 screens in an installation at the Phillips Museum of Art in Lancaster, Pa., a city of 55,000 that, despite its small size, boasts 165 closed-circuit TV cameras. That’s more outdoor cameras, the Los Angeles Times noted, than are found in many major U.S. cities.
The title of Coupe’s project: “On the Observing of the Observer of the Observers.”
If Coupe’s earlier work focused on security surveillance, his and Pampin’s aim in “Sanctum” was to explore the curious world of self-surveillance and oversharing that social-media websites bring out.
The trigger for the algorithmic action of “Sanctum” is the human face. Cameras are connected to a program that tries to map the face of anyone who steps within 12 feet of it.
Once “Sanctum” finds a face, it runs a different algorithm to come up with what age and gender the person is — from a database of 50,000 faces.
“Sanctum” also absorbs words in the form of the Facebook entries of anyone who wants to be part of it (you can sign on at www.sanctum.io).
“Any time you update your status,” Pampin says, “that will be in the database.”
All information is presented anonymously. Faces are involved, of course, but no names.
Only a limited number of facial/Facebook profiles is kept in rotation.
For legal reasons, the system doesn’t register children. “It will probably let the kid be on the screen, but it will not profile them,” Pampin says.
So what kind of results were Pampin and Coupe after with this complex contraption?
“There are not too many premises about what you should do with it,” Pampin says. “People kind of negotiate with the system what they want from it. A lot of people like seeing themselves on screen, and like coming here to see other people that were on screen. Other people try to have their visit at night and do things with it when nobody is around.”
The system, Coupe adds, also asks questions about what it means to be in a public space, “especially in the age of Facebook and the NSA revelations — things like that. Asking ourselves: When are we on display? When are we being watched? When are we in a private space and when are we in a public space? I think our notions of where private spaces exist have been drastically shifted over the last few years.”
It took a long bureaucratic process for the Henry to gain permission from the UW to install “Sanctum” next to the busy pedestrian walkway that passes the museum.
“People were really afraid of it,” Pampin says.
“The assumption,” Coupe adds, “was that everyone would be complaining, saying, ‘I don’t want to be filmed.’ ”
That’s why, Pampin says, signs alert you to the presence of “Sanctum” and explain how to avoid it if you don’t want to take part. But Coupe believes the logic behind those fears may be outdated.
“It’s just like with the NSA revelations,” he says. “Are people actually shocked that these things are happening, when in fact the kind of mythology of that has been so clearly mapped out through cinema and television and so on?”
The creepy side of “Sanctum” — and it is creepy to think that, when you step within its range, the piece observes and draws conclusions about you — hasn’t stopped it from attracting participants.
“People aren’t bothered in that sort of way,” Coupe concludes. “They’re more concerned with doing something generative with it than seeing it as a kind of negative thing.”
Michael Upchurch is a Seattle Times staff writer. Bettina Hansen is a Times staff photographer.