Manchester's MediaCityUK Launches ScreenLab, A Digital Media Artist Residency

<p>The University of Salford, Manchester invites media artists James George and Memo Akten for a week-long residency program called &#8220;ScreenLab MediaCityUK 0&#215;01.&#8221;</p>

Jun 21 2012, 5:45pm

Housed within Manchester’s high tech digital complex, MediaCityUK, the University of Salford’s campus is a unique playground for digital media artists and students. Where else in the world can an artist find a 120 micro tile, 8k resolution screen system they can program to their heart’s content? Recognizing that this exotic technology would make most digital media artists froth at the mouth with envy, curators Elliot Woods (Kimchi and Chips) and Kit Turner (University of Salford) initiated the ScreenLab artist residency series with the intent of investigating how these technologies might interact with humans in novel ways.

To kick off the 5-day residency program, they invited media artists James George and Memo Akten, tasking them with the objective of creating unique responses to the theme "Future of Broadcast."

“We wanted to challenge the new interactive technology and the high resolution screens here at the University,” explains Turner. “We knew that artists operating on the intersection of art and technology like James and Memo would be able to unlock some of those possibilities and were keen to provide a platform that not only supports [the] development of artistic practice but would encourage experimental process using tools that may not ordinarily be made available to artists.”

At the heart of the £650 million “city,” developed by Peel Group on the banks of Manchester’s historic ship canal, sits The Egg. This public area, which makes up a section of the foyer at the university, is outfitted like a spaceship command center, including the aforementioned micro-tile wall, video projectors, machine vision cameras, Kinects, hypersonic speaker systems, a surround speaker system, and multitouch tables.

Working with a small team of students from the university’s MA Creative Technology program, George and Akten developed two diverse projects that investigated the creative potential of the technological arsenal they were presented with. They then showcased their rapidly prototyped works in a week-long exhibition that was housed within the Egg.

George’s project, “Spectacle of Change,” allowed the artist to continue developing his RGB+D Toolkit and cinematic experiments, in which he uses a Kinect depth sensing camera and a standard DSLR camera to create 3D hologram-like portraits by merging the two cameras’ data outputs. George filmed interviews with seven Salford-based artists in their studios, then presented multi-faceted wireframed video sculptures of the artists on the Egg’s monolithic screen displays.

James George’s “Spectacle of Change.”

George explains:
As each artist occupies the screens, shifting virtual perspectives are taken on the portrait monolith displays. The center screen provides an abstracted view into their studio room with the artists standing at human scale facing us. As the viewer moves in front of the center screen, the virtual perspective shifts [to] create the illusion of [looking through] a window into their space. The audio from their interview plays overhead, providing a voice and intention for the faces.

Akten’s project took an entirely different direction, creating a web-based interactive visualization that captured and tracked the movement of people in a space. The data was then streamed live onto the web where home viewers around the globe would see the outlines of participants transformed into abstract visuals in realtime, their hands and feet leaving trails of color and shape. These same visuals were also displayed in realtime on the screens at The Egg, giving participants the effect of painting in the air.

Installation view of Memo Akten’s project, which demonstrates an abstract representation of motion.

Akten explains:
Given the seed idea of "Future of Broadcast," I was thinking of capturing and tracking the movement and skeleton data of people in a space, streaming that data onto the web live, and standard web clients around the world (i.e. browsers) receiving that data and visualizing it in realtime. Instead of a traditional video broadcast or video streaming, this is streaming an abstract representation of the people in a scene—but it isn't actually streaming the abstract representation directly, it's streaming the data required to construct that abstract representation. So each web client can reconstruct its own abstract representation in a unique fashion. In fact, each web viewer can interact with that abstract world to personalize it.

In line with the program’s focus on education and interdisciplinary collaboration, the resulting code from the residency is available on GitHub and builds upon openFrameworks, three.js, VVVV, and Python.

“The output of the residency becomes a common public memory of ideas and techniques, things which may have been hidden in the artists’ professional processes are staged, explored, and disseminated,” explains Elliot Woods. “In this way, we present the ‘system’ rather than the ‘iteration,’ and explore how the artists’ process holds a shareable value discreet from the work itself.”

We’re looking forward to seeing what other projects come out of this media tech wonderland in the coming months and hope to see more universities with digital media departments and fancy screens initiatiing creative research residencies of this kind.