The eye-catching digital installation currently undulating across the front windows of the Museum of Art & History (MAH) is the work of internationally-acclaimed MacArthur Fellow Camille Utterback. The flowing projection screen is a showcase for Utterbackâ€™s uncanny software design, Vital Currentâ€”Seeking the San Lorenzo, is a site-specific piece that will reward many views and many visits over the next 10 months.
â€œWe are part of so many systemsâ€”the environment, our families, our communitiesâ€”and everything that we do is embedded in all these other processes,â€ Utterback says. Tracking systemsâ€”of behavior, of natural processes, of human interactionâ€”in visually compelling digitally-interactive artwork has won Utterback awards for the past 15 years.
â€œThe original project began two years ago,â€ she explains, â€œwhen I was approached by MAH curator Justin Hoover. He had seen my San Jose airport project [Shifting Time, 2010], and so it began.â€
A Creative Capital Fund grant Utterback received for the project required that she explore ways to use existing resources of the venue. â€œSo I started looking around,â€ she says. â€œHistorical archives were available at the Museum of Art & History, as well as at UCSCâ€™s McHenry Library, so the idea was to use archival images and an interactive component that would activate the museumâ€™s lobby.â€ Utterbackâ€™s past projects have used cameras to capture movement of people. â€œBut in this case,â€ she laughs, â€œthe MAH lobby is used in so many ways and is always changing, there was no way to make a camera piece. So the idea for a more intimate touch screen interface came up.â€
A kiosk with a table-sized touch screen embedded with hidden software invites visitors to â€œtouchâ€ the riverâ€™s surface. And there were a few technical issues with the window and film at first, she admits. Three projectors suspended from the ceiling of the MAH lobby provide the succession of imagesâ€”old, new, archival, historicâ€”that appear on the special window screen as visitors move their hands over the kiosk touch screen. The full visual impact of Vital Currents is best seen at night. â€œWe made a decision to make the window screen opaque so it would be visible through the windows from Abbott Square,â€ she says. â€œThe overall concept was to create a visual, interactive metaphor for the ways in which our memories and the history of the river morph into each other in response to our present movements and touch.â€
Rather than doing all of the programming herself, Utterback says, â€œfor this piece I built the initial prototype using TouchDesigner and then hired an artist and designer to make it quickly. I wanted to show time fading in and out. The colors rippling into the water. I love that part. This is what you can do in programming, the surprise of it. I write the rules but canâ€™t tell how it will specifically look.â€ Utterback was thrilled to see â€œeven the smallest gesture magnified up on the wall.â€
Raised in New England and trained as a painter, Utterback began programming in order to find â€œmore relevant connectionsâ€ with contemporary culture. â€œI went back to grad school at NYU in the interactive telecommunications program,â€ she says. â€œI didnâ€™t intend to let go of art, but then it sort of evolved. I was in New York, I did an installation at a galleryâ€”the right place at the right time. I moved out to San Francisco 10 years ago, and Iâ€™m now in my fourth year teaching at Stanford. I really love it here.â€
â€œWith Vital Current I hope something comes through about our engagement with that body of water. Hopefully it will start some conversation, about the river, its riches, its history, the trauma of flooding,â€ she says. â€œItâ€™s so complex, the river is at once the site of a water carnival and also of a terrifying flood. The past is present in the present.â€
Her point is â€œto make people thinkâ€”to create an ongoing discussion.â€
Utterbackâ€™s solo show at the Stanford Art Museum opens this week through March 26. In it, her digitally-generated installations continue to explore nuanced links between human and computer-generated systems. â€œHow much can we control systems? How much does our interaction shape our experience of the past and the present?â€ she wonders. â€œWhat I really hope is that the MAH show will help people think about how all of our actions impact the world around us.â€