RED carpets get unrolled nearly every night of the week in Los Angeles, but they don't usually inspire guests to hopscotch their way toward the cocktails and hors d'oeuvres. But that's exactly what transpired recently at an apartment building in downtown's South Park neighborhood. There partygoers stepped onto a digital carpet of entryway tiles embedded with sensors that sent red LED lights pulsing underfoot as they crossed to the event in the courtyard.
Across the street, carpet creators Cameron McNall and Damon Seeley watched a super-sized version of their "EnterActive" floor show flicker across an eight-story grid of LED panels melded onto the building's facade. When completed, a pole-mounted video camera facing the building will transmit images to a plasma screen in the lobby, so visitors inside can see the effect their footwork is having outside.
"The whole thing is like a big nervous system that's able to sense where people are, and that drives the experience for people on the carpet and in the surrounding urban environment," Seeley says.
McNall, who a few minutes earlier could be seen in front of the building jumping from square to square trying to locate the secret "Easter egg" tile programmed to trigger cascading waves of lights, adds, "We find that spectacle is fun, so we try to make work that's accessible to everybody."
McNally and Seeley, the buttoned-up, low-key principals in the two-person L.A. design firm Electroland, are local practitioners of the art of surveillance. Their project, at the Met Lofts apartment building at 11th and Flower streets, is but one of many examples of artists and designers using tracking technology to create whimsical, disturbing or otherwise aesthetically engaging experiences in public spaces.
Ellen Lupton, curator of the National Design Triennial, "Design Life Now," which opens at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York on Dec. 8, credits the New York architectural firm Diller & Scofidio, now Diller Scofidio + Renfro, with setting the pace for surveillance-themed media works in the early 1990s. "For probably 15 years, way before 9/11, they were doing a lot of work dealing with surveillance that used cameras and video and airport security X-ray machines," she says. "They were key in bringing this discourse to the design arena."
Lupton, who selected Electroland to contribute an interactive staircase installation for the triennial, says that by combining architecture, attention to environment and new technologies, Electroland is letting people know "that the building has eyes, so to speak."
McNall and Seeley were hired by the developers of Met Lofts four years ago to transform the narrow slice of space in front of the building into an interactive playground. The $380,000 installation was created under the Community Redevelopment Agency's "percent for art" program, which requires projects that receive certain aid from the agency (tax breaks, land or other financial assistance) to set aside 1% of construction costs for art.
The Flower Street installation is just Electroland's latest experiment in interactive mind games.
Before co-founding Electroland in 2002, McNall, who has a master's degree in architecture from Harvard University Graduate School of Design, had worked on navigable 3-D space for a CD-ROM company. In 1991, he became an adjunct professor in UCLA's department of design and media arts, where he met Seeley, who was working on his bachelor's degree in design. Pre-Electroland, Seeley worked with UCLA professor and media artist Rebecca Allen's "Emergence Virtual World" and "Coexistence" projects, which explored boundaries between physical and virtual realities.
For their first collaboration, in 2001, McNall and Seeley devised "RGB," a temporary installation at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) that enabled cellphone users to call a designated number and, using the keypad, activate red, green and blue lights stretched along the exterior windows of a campus building.
By subverting utilitarian technologies for aesthetic ends, "RGB" exemplified what has become an Electroland theme. "We're all so affected by this pervasive invisible electronic network -- e-mail, Blackberries and so on," says McNall. "In our work we explore fun ways to make these things visible and look at how this pervasiveness can change people's relationships to buildings and spaces, or to each other."
Keeping an eye on things