Custom-Built Helmet Turns Your Face Into A Surreal Film

Garnet Hertz's <i>Videodome</i> creates looping films of people's faces using 16 cameras mounted inside a plastic dome.

Last month, New Yorker jack-of-all-trades Madeline Schwartzman curated See Yourself Sensing: Redefining Human Perception at the Natalie and James Thompson Gallery in San Jose, which complemented and completes her book of the same name. The exhibition highlighted the fascinating relationship between design, body, science, and senses with the artist stating: “My goal for the exhibition was conceptual diversity—I wanted a range of art practices, varied media, degrees of embodiment, present and future time, abstract and functional ambitions, and most importantly, original approaches to highlighting or provoking the senses.” 

In the exhibition she unveiled artists interested in technology, cybernetics, and neuroscience and their effects on the perception and senses of the audience. Garnet Hertz was one of these artists. Though not included in her book, Schwartzman added him to the exhibition after discovering, "His emerging Videodome and the crazy brainy Cockroach-Controlled Mobile Robot and Experiments in Galvanism" she confided to us. 

His work Videodome, which was featured in the exhibition, takes the form of a helmet equipped with 16 cameras which, when active, assault the senses. Just like Madeline Schwartzman, Hertz's art caught our intention too. So we contacted him to discuss his work.

The Creators Project: First of all, can you tell us about yourself? Do you define yourself as an artist who uses technology, or as a scientist who produces works of art?
Garnet Hertz: I'm definitely an artist at heart, although I do some scientific research. I use a lot of technology and currently spend most of my time in a computer science department. I was drawn into technology as a way to extend my artwork and explore the materials that compose a large part of everyday life: machines, electronics, and digital media. I "do" real science—I'm principal investigator on a grant from the National Science Foundation—but slipping into that mindset is a bit like speaking a second language.

As background, in 1990 I was introduced to the work of Survival Research Laboratories and soon found mechanical, electric, and robotic artwork that resonated with the "hacked" farmyard inventions I grew up with in Canada: Jean Tinguely, Billy Klüver, Nam Jun Paik, Norm White, and Stelarc. I enrolled in a university studio art program in 1992, and have been making electronic art since then. My recent project Videodome revisits these roots in early electronic art and video installation.


Can you tell us a bit more about the premise and inspirations that brought you to develop Videodome?
The initial idea was to build a type of virtual reality system that didn't use a computer. A recurring theme in my work is to un-simulate a simulation: to physicalize or mechanize something that is usually modeled through a computer. With Videodome, I started out with 64 miniature video cameras that were each going to be connected with long cables to televisions—with the cameras and televisions put into different wearable or sculptural forms.

I had also experimented with large format video installation work in 2011 with two projects developed at the Banff Centre and Videodome was a continuation of those projects designed to work at an architectural scale. For tone, I wanted to build something that came across as strange, high tech, and dark, and I pulled influence from my earlier work and artists like Hyungkoo Lee and Anouk Wipprecht.

Can you tell us more about the technical side of the project?
Sure. From a technical perspective, the system started out as a redundant array of inexpensive devices: one camera hooked up to one TV, multiplied by 64. I had envisioned that a helmet containing inward-facing cameras would be connected to a dome with inward-facing televisions, creating a giant inside-out video of a participant's head. About a month before the San Jose exhibition I ran into issues with both my television supplier and the gallery being able to deliver enough electricity for the project, so I purchased some old Vicon Aurora 2000 security camera multiplexers and planned to project 16 channels of video in four by four grids.

While configuring the multiplexer, I came across a VCR recording setting that frenetically cycled through all sixteen cameras approximately every second. Since my cameras were mounted physically close together, the resulting image was like a wiggle stereoscopy in three dimensions—like a looping praxinoscope of somebody's face pivoting around their nose.

It's a little bit frustrating not being able to try the helmet. Can you describe the feelings that the Videodome helmet produces when it is worn? How is it used?
The helmet interior is warm, smells of electronics and plastic, and some people find the experience claustrophobic. It also has a strange echo. The sixteen cameras are mounted in a square pattern directly in front of your face, and moving your head forward and back changes the style of the projected image: going forward results in the camera view panning around your face, going back results in the view rotating around the tip of your nose.

Are you going to continue developing the concepts of Videodome into new pieces?
Definitely. I am working on a number of new helmet prototypes—I plan on taking my work into a darker and more serious territory over the next year, focusing on building a body of work that uses the elements of cameras, cables, helmets, and screens. I enjoy continually tackling new materials and themes, but for this project I'm going to try to develop it into a cluster of works. The helmet component of the project will be refined as a wearable object, but instead of a haute couture technology, I see it developing into large format installation. I plan on exploring the theme of the electronic mediation of seeing, and expanding on it as a project in speculative design that is futuristic but is missing the key component of what drives futurism: a computer.

Finally, like Madeline Schwartzman points out, we have seen a growing artistic production interested in the body, the senses, and science over the past 50 years. According to you, can we call this as a structured artistic movement, for example "sensitive art"? If yes, does this movement represent an emerging trend in contemporary art?
What interests me in Schwartzman's approach is that non-artistic and scientific projects are brought directly alongside artistic and architectural projects: they all explore sensation, but are driven by vastly different agendas. Schwartzman's book is a brilliant curatorial project for bringing these worlds together because it gracefully crosses the standard categories of electronic art, architecture, contemporary art, scientific device, and fashion.

I don't think it's correct to say that there is a structured artistic movement around sensing because art has always been about sensation—seeing, especially.  I think what could be argued is that some artists are increasingly exploring different modalities than just the visual—sound, taste, touch and smell—and those that explore the visual are increasingly doing it through some form of electronic media. Regardless of its label, art is a questioning practice that continually probes social norms, asks why things are a particular way, and uses imagination to sculpt out a provocative scenario. In my work, I find the challenge of integrating physical design with critical thinking to be rewarding, and I aim to produce devices that explore who we are, how we exist in the world, and how technologies can be uncanny: simultaneously magical and frightening.

If you want to discover more of Hertz's work, Critical Making will be exhibited at New York's New Museum in the exhibition Adhocracy curated by Joseph Grima from 3rd May to 7th July 2013. He'll also be giving a workshop during the Sight & Sound Festival at Eastern Bloc in Montreal in May.

Images courtesy of Garnet Hertz