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September 27, 2007

Future Perfect: Interview with creators Ed Purver and Chris Croft

Experience the first interactive display featuring Prospect Heights and what it might look like if Bruce Ratner has his way.

Future Perfect will be showing beginning tomorrow at the d.u.m.b.o. art under the bridge festival, 20 Jay Street, Unit M24, Mezzanine Floor.

Visit www.futureperfectbrooklyn.org for more information.

Last night we sat down with creators Ed Purver and Chris Croft, who met at the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. Purver used Future Perfect as his thesis for the program.

Purver and Croft come clean about how they did it, how long they've lived in Brooklyn, when they first learned about Bruce Ranter's megaproject and what they like about Atlantic Yards.

NoLandGrab: How do you describe Future Perfect?

FuturePerfectCreators-sm.jpgEd Purver: It’s an interactive video installation, a visualization on the proposed Atlantic Yards development.

There’s a video projection on the wall, and if there’s no one in the room you just see street views of the Prospect Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY. As soon as someone enters the space, a strip of this proposed architectural future is immediately revealed in front of them and follows them around the room in direct proportion to their size. The closer they get to the screen Bruce Ratner’s vision of the future crossfades into the architectural future as imagined by local children.

NLG: How did you come up with the title?

Chris Croft: We just did a quick brainstorm over email, it just seemed to fit.

FuturePerfectComp.jpg NLG: What do YOU call the person who is taking in your piece? I’ve been at a loss to come up with the right word, because the individual isn’t a part of an audience and isn’t merely a viewer.

E.P.: User, participant, I’d probably say visitor or viewer. I know viewer sounds a bit sedentary because we’re asking them to walk around, but they are just watching. I like visitor.

NLG: What do you call the type of artwork you do?

C.C.: This is interactive art, but it’s also community-centered. I would say new-media art. A lot of new-media art, at least the stuff I like, tends to be activist.

NLG: Do you do this work full time?

E.P.: I’m freelancing with some really fun stuff that is quite similar to this piece.

NLG: Stuff you can talk about?

E.P.: I can talk about it to a certain extent. I’m freelancing for a company called Light Projects and we’re making a permanent video installation for the lobby of the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey. But we can’t tell you what the display is or content is because I’ve signed a non-disclosure agreement.

NLG: Chris, are you still in the program at ITP?

C.C.: I decided to stay on an extra semester. I’m doing my thesis right now.

NLG: What is your thesis?

C.C.: My thesis is a machine that fills out standardized test forms.

[Nervous laughter by interviewer.]

E.P.: You didn’t see that one coming, did you?

NLG: It seems like the most important question in Brooklyn these days #151; especially if you are fighting over this piece of land, the 22 acres Bruce Ratner calls “Atlantic Yards” #151; is “how long have you lived in Brooklyn?”

E.P.: I’ve only lived here for two years.

C.C.: Two years.

NLG: Where did you guys grow up?

E.P.: In England, outside North London.

C.C.: Athens, GA.

E.P.: That’s actually the reason why our own voices are not in the piece at all.

We are very aware that we’ve only lived in Brooklyn for two years and we wanted to visualize the facts so that people can access the information and then we wanted to invite the voices of people who live here and provide a forum for other people to speak.

[It was] the same when I introduced the kids' drawings -- people who are born here, people who are growing up here -- having their visual vocabulary in there to counter the architect’s view.

NLG: Who’s the third collaborator on your piece?

E.P.: Ariel Efron, who helped link the video in.

NLG: In your thesis, you describe your frustration with interactive art employed in dance or dramatic works, because the interactive components aren’t always recognized or apparent to the audience. Generally technology strives to seamlessly enhance or enable human experience, to become transparent, almost human. It seems to me that Future Perfect works in the opposite direction, trying to create a work where the moment in which a human interacts with technology is very apparent and substantial. Why?

E.P.: Actually, I think that when you experience the installation you realize that the technology itself it not really taking center stage.

People tend to walk towards light, they tend to walk towards video and as they do, they discover, things are changing. If they work it out, then they have a bit of control and then there’s something for them to play with. But I don’t think it’s technology for its own sake. It’s a really effective way of contrasting different moments in time.

NLG: So would you say that the interactivity is more apparent in this case than in a lot of other theater or dramatic works?

E.P.: I think that the interactivity is more apparent because the participants are getting to use it instead of being asked to watch a demonstration of somebody else saying, “look at this thing, it changes when I do this.” People discover it by walking in it themselves. There’s no voice telling them to “now move left, now move right,” or there’s no trained performer who knows exactly what’s going to happen.

It has to be well designed, it has to be simple and well integrated into the piece for people to just discover it for themselves.

NLG: Frank Gehry is famous for using cutting-edge technology to push the envelope to come up with design innovations. As part of Future Perfect, you're using cutting-edge technology to render and present his design. Did that occur to you when you were working on it?

E.P.: Not really.

C.C.: You’re taking the architect's version and looking at it and making your own. It’s using THEIR tools to visualize something they wouldn’t have, to give an unbiased perspective, because of how architects’ renderings are usually placed, at a very flattering point of view.

NLG: That’s something we’ve noticed too. That a lot of time the renderings are not from a perspective that’s even real.

E.P.: Yeah, you’d have to be hovering in the air.

C.C.: And the people in the images are always immobile. They're these clip-art images of people — not actual people on the street. I think that the movement is really key, to key-in that this is the way of life as it is now and these people will continue to be there.

E.P.: By using 3-D modeling, we’re using tools that architects use. I was thinking [how] so many of the renderings from the development company were shown. I understand why they do that, they have a job to do, it’s their job to sell. I felt like it was our job to represent a bit of a broader view.

As far using newer technology, the sort of surveillance technology we use to provide the interactivity is also becoming more and more fashionable in new buildings, in lobbies of fancy hotels and interactive displays. It’s satisfying to use fancy IM [interactive media] stuff, to use it for sharing information in more of a community way.

NLG: What kind of equipment is involved? Is there a CRAY supercomputer missing from some lab in the world?

E.P.: Yeah, it’s true. Every time [we] put it up, we actually connect via our own secret web to an enormous computer the size of my house. It’s the only way it works.

C.C.: It’s powered by pigeons.

So, it’s green?

E.P.: It’s a bit of a sweatshop though.

NLG: Seriously, what kind of equipment are you using?

C.C.: Macintosh laptop computer, iSight web camera and video projector and speakers for audio.

NLG: A fellow blogger over at a web site called OnNYTurf put up the YouTube video. He was hoping that you guys would release the specs and a tutorial on how to do this. Can you do it at home?

E.P.: You can do it at home if you have a spare computer and a video projector – those things aren’t cheap. We would have to release the code and we’d have to supply the media assets, but it’s feasible.

C.C.: Was he asking specifically about using our models?

NLG: No.

C.C.: Then the barrier to entry would be knowing how to do 3-D modeling.

E.P.: The video work is quite tricky. It’s a lot of modeling, a lot of texturing and then there’s compositing as well.

NLG: What technical limitations did you encounter and how did it affect or shape the piece?

E.P.: A technical limitation was not having access to all the information we wanted. We grabbed all of the maps, all of the heights and statistics that were already in the public domain by the architects and so on. But we had to estimate the textures of what those buildings are going to look like just from looking at photographs of the architect’s models. That could have been done better.

To clearly represent the proper scale, the proper look of those buildings, it was quite tough to estimate at some points.

And speed of computing — I would like the video to be higher resolution and to look better, but only having access to a laptop, there’s only so much you can do. We had to compromise the look of the video with the speed of the interactivity.

FuturePerfectFlyers.jpg C.C.: One limitation we had was when we were putting up flyers around the neighborhood they wouldn’t last very long. They would get taken down by the City.

NLG: A lot of those flyers are taken down by people who live in the community, just the kind of people you were trying to reach.

E.P.: Just so you know, the flyers were not publicity, they said please give us a phone call and give us your opinion.

NLG: Did you take extra footage that you had to leave out?

C.C.: We took a lot of footage that we didn’t use.

E.P.: Yeah, we did.

We wanted to keep the file sizes fairly small so the computer could run nicely. We didn’t want a huge loop of video.

A tricky thing is we wanted to shoot when there weren’t many clouds moving around, just to match up the 3-D models with the way the light is changing on the street. So that really caused a problem.

NLG: How much did Future Perfect cost to create?

C.C.: Timewise?

E.P.: I’d have to think about that. We had most of that stuff. I had the webcams and all the cabling we needed, we would use [Chris’s] laptop or my laptop, Ariel already had the projector. We already had the software that we use. It’s really time, right?

C.C.: Promotional materials, like cards and stuff, maybe a thousand dollars.

NLG: How long does it take to set up this piece?

E.P.: When we went to California, we had union help; they did everything for us really quick. It was part of a big tech convention.

Tomorrow we’ll be setting it up ourselves. I hope it takes three hours.

C.C.: Eight.

E.P.: Did you say eight? Please don’t say that.

C.C.: Hopefully not.

NLG: Do you guys remember what your first reaction was when you heard about the project, Atlantic Yards?

E.P.: I was shocked and I was really curious. My neighbors didn’t really know much about it. They would only sort of vaguely reference it, “Oh yeah, apparently there’s going to be some big thing, it’s really close.” I was like, “really?”

So when I actually sat down and read about it, I was blown away. It seemed so vast.

C.C.: The first time I was exposed to it was a Village Voice article the second or third month after I moved here. I live in Greenpoint, there’s a lot of similar real estate stuff going on there. The Village Voice painted it in a negative light. I’ve done a lot of a research on it and was really shocked by how closely related the developer is to the MTA and to the NY government.

And then, I [went] to a concert in Prospect Park one weekend and there was some guy handing out pro-Atlantic Yards flyers. I got into an argument with him, like, “why do you think this project is good?” We had a good discussion. He thought that it would bring a lot of jobs to the neighborhood.

I think that the red flag for me was the basketball stadium. I never like neighborhoods with stadiums. I’m from Atlanta, so that’s partially why.

E.P.: Living on Dean Street, we have a roof, so it’s pretty easy to visualize: “Christ! It’s going to be a radical change.”

Also, I’ve been really aware that the neighborhood is doing fine by itself. In two years I’ve seen it changing. It’s not like it’s going down in a horrible spiral. It’s improving and it’s safer than it was ten years ago, people tell me.

NLG: Like NoLandGrab, I would say that Future Perfect has an editorial point of view, which, correct me if I’m wrong, is basically, the more information that one has about the project, the more one is inclined to form an opinion AGAINST the project. Did you set out to create a work with a point of view on the project, or did it evolve? Tell the truth.

C.C.: I’ve always wanted to make an editorial statement.

Ed was the one who was always holding back on that, like “let’s make something that tries to shows as much unbiased reality as possible.” I think that was a good choice to make.

In our audio, my opinions come through because 90% of the calls we got are anti-project. We didn’t have to edit any of the audio to put forth our own agenda; it was just the community’s voice.

E.P.: I did start out definitely wanting it to be documentary: let’s just share the information. But the further I went along, the more disingenuous I realized that was, because I DO have a point of view. My view is that the development is too much and I am against it.

That WAS coming out. It was coming out in subtle ways, when I was doing color correction on compositing the models for the videos I tweaked.

You are making artistic decisions all the time, even if you think it is just to make it look better. But better for ME would be to make it look more dramatic, the new buildings more imposing and vast. I was doing that at the same time I was saying, “Oh no, I’m neutral.”

FuturePerfectKids.jpg I had to let go of that and be honest and say, “No, I do have a point of view,” and that was when I said “OK, I’ll go ahead and bring in the kids’ drawings as well,” which is when I let go of just sharing information and making it a bit more poetic.

NLG: So [the kids’ drawings] came in afterwards?

E.P.: That came in later, yeah.

NLG: In recent years, Bruce Ratner has become a patron of the arts. Has he called either of you guys seeking to buy Future Perfect for his “permanent collection,” if you know what I mean?

C.C.: No

E.P.: No. You know, he calls me for drinks sometimes. He puts his hand on my leg, I don’t like it that much.

NLG: I hate it when he does that.

[Legal disclaimer: we were being sarcastic, ya dig?]

E.P.: Yeah, he does it in a way that you feel like it would be rude to ask him not to.

NLG: Complete this sentence: the one thing I really like about the Ratner project is…

E.P.: The unintentional humor value of some of his rendering: of this beautiful dream paradise, where people are happy, where children play free. There’s no mention that this little grass playground will be covered in shadow.

C.C.: If I lived in the area, I would say my airconditioning bill, but it won’t reach Greenpoint.

E.P.: The thing I like about the Ratner project is it hasn’t happened yet.

NLG: Fair enough.

C.C.: And we were able to make this project.

NLG: So, thank you Bruce Ratner. [Hey Bruce, that was sarcastic too.]

Posted by lumi at September 27, 2007 11:03 AM