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The Builders Association and dbox, SUPER VISION: full text for James Gibbs, SUPER VISION interview

NYC, 6 December 2005.

Nick Kaye: How and when did you become involved with the project?

James Gibbs: The project was really conceived by dbox and The Builders together. Before we really knew what we were going to do we started talking about doing something together - and the first conversations were probably just after the premier of ALLADEEN (2002-5). Charles D’Autremont and I went out to Chicago – I think it was the night of the premier – and ended up having a drink with Marianne Weems and that is when she kind of let us know that she was interested and serious about doing something together.

Nick Kaye: You had worked with The Builders on JET LAG (1998-2000) hadn’t you?

James Gibbs: Yes and, really, when I say me, it should be clear that I am representing dbox’s involvement in the project. So it’s a team. dbox worked with The Builders on JET LAG and we did all of the computer projections of the airport and the airplane – so for about half of the production. Then in ALLADEEN we had a similar role. There were a couple of key moments of computer projections for ALLADEEN – the building of the Virgin Megastore – that we created. For ALLADEEN, in particular, we designed the segments, but it was in answer to specific needs that had developed in the course of the work with Motiroti and Marianne Weems. That is when we said next time around we would like to be more involved in the process over a longer period.

Nick Kaye: Was there something specific that you wanted to explore in coming to work with Marianne in this way?

James Gibbs: We were interested in being involved in a process where the visual design and the conceptualization of the piece would happen hand-in-hand. Which, as you know, is a hallmark of The Builder’s work. So it was really an ideal chance to get into a situation where we were discussing what the project was about - and how it would be created - and still have the technology and visual elements gestating at the same time.

Uploaded Image
Onstage: Joe Silovsky, the TSA agent (mediated, left); Rizwan Mirza,
the traveller (right). Forestage: Joe Silovsky, far right.
photo by dbox

Nick Kaye: dbox is grounded in many ways in your architectural training, yet you have emphasized the importance of your interest in representation over resolving your work into built forms. Why this emphasis?

James Gibbs: I would say that we– Matthew Bannister, Charles D’Autremont and I - were all interested in narrative, which is a kind of a funny thing to be interested in if you are studying architecture. We got excited about the possibilities of trying to maintain narrative using architecture, or using architectural language and that pushed us more towards representation and drawing - and ultimately towards making drawings with computers – rather than to sticks and bricks. In the long run, that is probably something that led us into this kind of collaboration.

Nick Kaye: So you developed an interest in narrative but held within some kind of representational architectural form.

James Gibbs: We experimented a lot on our projects - as well back in the old days as students - with trying to maintain a narrative or let a narrative be suggested by architectural drawings. There is a tradition of paper architecture that goes way back – Boullée (Étienne-Louis Boullée, 1728-1799) comes to mind, his great monographs of projects which are, if not exactly narrative, are not really about building per se. Also Ledoux (Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, 1736-1806) who has plenty of built work - and his built work has some elements of narrative suggestion - but his un-built work can be read in that way. Ledoux built the tax gates around Paris, about four of which are still standing and in use. In a weird way it was a fascinating misuse or abuse of classical language - and I think it is a little easier to read manipulations when somebody is working within a language. So we experimented with different techniques in plans for projects, although they were not executed. It’s kind of a third path. It is something that joined us together at that time – and, well, we wanted to work together and live in New York. We didn’t want to work for large corporate architecture companies.

Nick Kaye: Maintaining a narrative might also imply an engagement with time -

James Gibbs: Time is not necessarily unusual for dbox, because we do time-based work – animation and movies. But working live - and working with a time that therefore has to be flexible - was fascinating for us. And the other thing was going back to working to scale – because we have been working outside of concepts of scale for so long. Here we are not building buildings, but we are dealing with one-to-one relationships with human bodies. That was that was another really exciting part of the experience.

Uploaded Image

Rizwan Mirza, (the traveller)
Image by dbox

Nick Kaye: In the talk you gave at BAM with Marianne Weems, you discussed a kind of responsive scene or responsiveness in the design – or the way the design unfolds, which seems to pick up some of these things.

James Gibbs: Not only is it responsive during the show, but also the design process was intensely collaborative – and it’s about responsiveness in that sense too. In developing the traveller’s scenes we wanted to use these tree structures - partly because of how suggestive they are of connections between information and also because of how common they are in people’s efforts to visualize and organize data. We had this idea fairly early on about having trees as a more graphic element, with angles and parallel lines that would become organic over the course of the piece, and over time - as it becomes a little bit more invasive - reaching the point where he has been flayed – where there are veins pulled out of him instead of just a graphic structure. But the idea of making these trees overwhelming and layering them off and obscuring Rizwan grew out of rehearsal and performing - and finding a place for it to land. That is an example where the visual design - and what we should do - evolved over the rehearsal period. We all came together to create something that I don’t think any of us would have sat down with a storyboard and drawn. Although it seems, in retrospect, like the obvious choice, it never is.

Nick Kaye: In taking a virtual architectural design and installing it into real space, you seem to free up many of these narrative possibilities -

James Gibbs: To me it reads that way, but it reads the converse as well. You are making a drawing - albeit using electronic tools - and instead of having a scale to insert into the drawing you are blowing it up and surrounding a real person. So you are inserting a real person into the drawing space.

Nick Kaye: Which would more accurately describe how the performance is perceived -

James Gibbs: You want these two faces. Certainly, in the end, it is all of these. We are struggling right now with documenting the project. We have one DVD to show to potential presenters that haven’t made it to the show. It is impossible to capture the fidelity of the imagery when you collapse it down to a single DVD – what is up there on stage is actually beyond HDTV resolution. On the other hand, if you just take any one of the virtual elements on their own, outside of the performance, they mean almost nothing. The performance is in all those elements at play, together, live.

Uploaded Image
Left to right: image of John Fletcher Jr. (Allen Hahn), Kyle deCamp (Carol), David Pence (John Fletcher Sr.) onstage and mediated live.
Photo by dbox.

Nick Kaye: Were there specific issues that you needed to address in bringing the family sequences to resolution – in developing the relationship between the virtual room and the work of the actors?

James Gibbs: They were developed simultaneously with the performance and it is very hard to say what drove what. The example I would give in the family scene is this idea we had of making the den – this created abstract computer space - and then using that to enmesh John Fletcher Sr. in his data activities. That came fairly early on after being in meetings with Marianne Weems, Constance DeJong and Stewart Laing and finding ourselves over and over again looping back to the den or study as being the place he created these manipulations - but wanting to physicalise electronic activity. We gave him a space on stage that looks like a part of his activity with the computer. Then came the idea of creating what we always referred to as ‘the crush,’ where his den expands and starts to destroy or crush part of the living room set. It came out of interactions - and perhaps out of David Pence’s performance as the father – as the volume got turned up on that, the set could respond to it. So finally we have this moment where a virtual space overwhelms a physical space, but the idea emerged from the process.

Nick Kaye: That very directly goes into the notion of the architecture articulating the narrative. Yet, at the same time, because there is a filmic quality to the integration of the projected and live sequences, there’s a kind of naturalness when you watch it.

James Gibbs: I think when we first put the family kitchen up as a still image and tried to rehearse some of the lines, all of us - Marianne most of all - were a little concerned about the traditional theatre or drama – about having this family talk around some as yet un-stated problem in their kitchen. Then we had the grid/study space slide on - and the immediate impulse came to have David Pence sit down and bring the screens and grid to the front. In that whole moment we were all tremendously relieved, because of setting this thing up and then breaking it. Like you say, there is something fluid about what is happening on stage - and I think that is what made us feel comfortable about pursuing this.

Uploaded Image Onstage: David Pence.
Photo by dbox

Nick Kaye: I think one of the things is that by introducing the grid you place something very abstract, but clear, against a family scene that is very quotidian, although hyper real: it is not an every day kitchen that they are in. But also, following the prologue, when the imagery of the family room is explicitly built through this startling animation – there is an immediate statement that what you are going to see will be very mobile, because you see the scene being constructed. I thought that was a very strong statement of how you were going to engage the audience, whereas if it had opened to a fixed scene or image that would be a very different gesture.

James Gibbs: I guess there are two things I want to say about that. One is – that really comes out of being able to create something that is convincing in the naturalistic or representational areas. Knowing that we can make something incredibly believable gives us the luxury to play against it. The other thing, which is not exactly related to that, but is about the same couple of moments, which is that the beginning, where the kitchen assembles itself, is indicating to people, somewhere, that this is the correct dishwasher, the coffee maker, the expensive refrigerator.

Nick Kaye: There is also something uncanny about the scene, because it is so very realistic. It has the illusion of materiality, but also an immateriality that is announced in this movement and animation of objects. Peter Flaherty also suggested that this architecture has a kind of unblemished quality to it. He referred to Edward Hopper’s paintings in relation to this – to familiar spaces that seem slightly ominous.

James Gibbs: Although, I do think places increasingly looking like that. Everybody from dbox who worked on the teams for this project, I found out later, had some personal input. Christa Hamilton was the first person to set up that living room and she modelled it on her parent’s house. There was a huge amount of work by Ivor Ip, especially on the traveller, and the map that shows up the house location– that is actually his family’s house in Toronto. He renamed the street so that it matched the script, but, physically, that is a map that identifies his house. So we were all having fun with that sort of thing.

Nick Kaye: When you are creating this are you thinking in terms of producing a certain level of materiality?

James Gibbs: We certainly had clear ideas about creating something with materiality in the family scene - and about breaking that or creating a tension with the base line of the father’s manipulation. Then also an idea about playing with materiality in different ways in the traveller’s story. But that story is a little less seeded in the real world - and part of that is related to what we did in JET LAG. One immigration hall is more or less any like any other - and it’s not the thing you are thinking about when you are occupying that space. Your up-coming transaction and your physical state - whatever physical state of distress you are in at the point of your travel - those are the only things that are present, it’s not ‘the room’.

Nick Kaye: In JET LAG there was a direct juxtaposition between the people in front of the screen, whereas SUPER VISION creates a more fluid, developing exchange between the performers and the screen. So in the traveller’s scenes Rizwan Mirza begins to disappear into the screen and comes into exchange with projected images of himself.

James Gibbs: Absolutely, absolutely. I think you know that Stewart Laing was intimately involved with a lot of the conversations about the project before coming up with suggestions for the set designs - and these two great freedoms that he gave us are being able to enmesh the performer in front and back projection. Then the other great freedom is to be able to create the front projection screen as a moveable, motorised set of screens, so enabling the choreography between the physical set, the screens, and the performers. So I think that what you are talking about comes directly out of the freedoms in his set. It creates all of these possibilities.

Uploaded Image
Left to right: Moe Angelos (the Grandmother) on forestage and live mediated onstage;
Tanya Selvaratnam (Jen) live mediated to window and onstage; Moe Angelos live
mediated to screen, centre.
Photo by dbox.

Nick Kaye: Stewart also curved the edges of the set, so softening its relationship to a cinema screen. In fact, haven’t you also curved the family room? Because that has quite a subtle but profound affect on the way you see it.

James Gibbs: The impulse for doing that was practical, in the sense of knowing that the sight lines were going to vary widely in these venues. Everybody’s eyes are so good at picking out problems in perspective. All you need to do is have a true perspective, to see lines converging to a vanishing point, to really lock your head into knowing what is wrong with what you’re looking at. And the curvature – the distortion - is really a way of avoiding those lines, which I think, as you say, is really softening its relationship with real perspectives.

Nick Kaye: It also produces a curious kind of embrace, too – an embrace around the performers that brings them into the scene -

James Gibbs: Like a cyclorama - a sort of nineteenth century painting idea – it is a fake out perspective that people kind of buy. We did try putting a few things up without any distortion of that curvature and found that they looked great about from the sixth seat, and terrible anywhere else, so practically we found this experiment was working.

Nick Kaye: What is the relationship between a project such as this and dbox’s other projects?

James Gibbs: There is such a range of work that dbox does that I am not sure yet how to describe that. Between doing our own photography, computer generated imagery and illustration - and doing interactive, web and print design – there is a pretty big range in the whole organization. I think our shared experience informs them. Some of the things I mentioned - the idea about something being live and going back to real human scale - those are the two things that are a little different and set this apart. I think we are still figuring it out –

Nick Kaye: At BAM you talked about SUPER VISION being transacted by the tools that it addressed or critiqued. This seems so much part of the fabric of this piece.

James Gibbs: If it that reads, then it is great. To be fair, I think that is also a hallmark of The Builder’s work generally. You feel that we have pushed it a little further?

Nick Kaye: Yes, absolutely. I do think that one of the things that SUPER VISION has managed to do is to take this frame, which in The Builders’ work has often been set above a performance space – for example in ALLADEEN and also in JUMP CUT (FAUST) – and bring it right down to integrate the performers into it, which again advances this notion of a scene being in some way responsive. This has all kinds of implications for the performers and is a very important move within the work.

James Gibbs: Well I really enjoy it after all – I really enjoy it and I really enjoy sort of seeing and feeling the performers in that frame and working with it. You didn’t quite have a question, but this not a real answer - but it is a sort of riff – but it is just so impressive every time to see all the performers. It is so easy to forget what they have to do within that structure. So easy to forget that in a lot of cases they are up there with the light shining in their faces, very little to look at – no eye lines to connect to and they are creating this engaging experience with each other in situations where sometimes one of them is inside the frame and one of them is outside the frame.


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