Lost Things at the Center of New Media

The tree rose from a pink horizon over the Pacific Ocean, slightly eclipsed by clouds that stretched like drums across the sky. Sparkling city lights filled the gap between the waterfront and our spot at the top of Cahuenga Peak. Our shanty group of three was about to head back down the loose gravel path, only impeded by desires to continue taking Snapchat photos of the scene. I took all the pictures I wanted already. Earlier when I first approached the lone tree on the peak, I took my phone out of my pocket and snapped an image of people interacting at its base. The Wisdom Tree would be one more addition to the citywide art installation I recently joined. The view was only possible through the Hollywood Hills Fire of 2007, which decimated everything in the area except the solitary tree.

I met Craig Freeman last semester when he taught my computer animation class at Emerson College in Boston. His intense focus on public art and personal artistic message, which he expected all of us to discover for ourselves, was just as difficult to tackle as the Maya interface. He was gearing up for a semester in Los Angeles where he would continue work on his LACMA funded art installation. Lucky on my part, I was heading to LA at the same time for the Emerson Los Angeles Program, which was making its mark on Hollywood with its shiny, new college campus. I signed up to be Craig’s intern and prepared myself for what was sure to be a semester full of surprises.

The project, titled “EEG AR: Things We Have Lost”, is an augmented reality art installation across the city of Los Angeles. That’s what I tell people when they ask about my internship. Despite being the most concise way to describe the job, it definitely doesn’t clear up confusion as effectively as I hope. Virtual reality is hard to wrap your mind around. The field of progressive entertainment technology is confusing, alienating to some, often without direction, and just plain not in use to its full potential. Basically, its in Beta right now.

Upon signing up, even I was unclear exactly what the semester would bring. A recipient of the LACMA Art + Technology fund, “Things We Have Lost” seeks to answer the question “What have you lost?” in terms of the general Los Angeles population and on a personal level. The latter part is accomplished through random interviews of locals on the streets, in which we ask the central question. Through photogrammetry techniques using 123D Catch and Maya, our team recreates the participants as avatars and places them on the interview spot for public viewing. In addition, exploration of “lost” events, people, and places will lead to planned interviews from experts on the history of Los Angeles.

The hours of fieldwork alone is a daunting task, a process I will have a major hand in as an intern. Regardless, in addition to helping with the project, Craig expects us to develop our own creative practice in terms of what we learn through the course. This includes thinking critically about our message as artists and how progressive media technology can help direct our goals. As a media student in the 21st century, being in Los Angeles right now feels like exactly the right place to delve into such an area.

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Our classroom in ELA is the Di Bona Family Distance Learning Center. The building itself is an architect’s fantasy, but the Learning Center was designed to accommodate the pinnacle of modern teaching practice. “Things We Have Lost” involves senior Emerson students from both Boston and Los Angeles. An online server, Remote VM420 allows both coasts to communicate in real time and collaborate intimately despite the distance. When my classmates and I first connected to the server, it felt like a step in the right direction, despite the earsplitting sound issues that we quickly resolved. Vaguely sarcastic exclamations of “Guys, we’re in the future!” filled the room. The jokes would continue, but we were all ecstatic to be apart of something like this. With so much development, it was almost compulsory to think about what was lost to get to this point in time.

During our first week at ELA, Craig brought us to a talk at LACMA titled “Talk— Landscapes: Virtual Environments and Assorted Realities”. It was led by two prominent figures in the Los Angeles media university circle, Rebecca Allen and Scott Fisher. They spoke of their past in the industry, how they had been artists who expanded on their technical education to explore new platforms for media. Both artists first, they described an innovative time when their ideas surpassed what was available technologically. Media had to be created for them, much of which happened in the MIT labs in Cambridge. Technology they conceptualized and tested in the early 1990s were the precursors of the Oculus and other emergent techniques now.

However, Allen described a shift in the dynamics of virtual art. Now, technology exists but few artistic concepts are emerging to use it to its full potential. Earlier in the week, I sat in on a presentation by Glen Weiss, the director of Peter Pan Live! The live recorded theatrical production was receiving mixed reviews, but the new practices Weiss implemented, including live CGI generation and intricately choreographed steadicam direction, were making headlines. This was a tangible future, a new emerging art form. When Allen concluded her talk, she looked out at the young USC and Emerson artists in the audience and implored them to be innovative.

We start fieldwork soon, and an endless stream of possibilities and avenues of production are open to us. The pulse of Los Angeles in the center of entertainment shifts will only electrify our efforts. In reacting to pictures from the first class meeting, the impetus of a dreamed future of education, administrators at the school showed excitement for what was to come. As I sit in the Distance Learning Center and contemplate the future we are actively taking part in, I can look out the window across Sunset Blvd, and just make out the Wisdom Tree on the top of Cahuenga Peak. There’s no mistaking the dead red earth that once held the forest surrounding it.

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