What could be worth standing outside on a freezing night in midtown Manhattan? Imagine a visual production so intense, so larger-than-life that it consumes viewers and draws them in, making them feel like participants lost in the voyeuristic moment of the narrative.
Created especially for the broad expanses of glass, steel, and granite that comprise the façade of New York City's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), artist Doug Aitken's video installation sleepwalkers is a magnificent visual journey through the night lives of five fictional New Yorkers. Projected on MoMA's exterior walls in seven different places spanning two blocks and stretching as wide as 150' and as tall as 50', the installation was inspired by the density of Manhattan and portrays the metropolis itself as a living organism fueled by the desires, energies, and ambitions of its inhabitants. Running simultaneously, the projections have synched, choreographed movements and seamless editing that emphasize both the solitude of those who work while everyone else sleeps and their membership in a larger, urban community.
The work uses three Christie Roadie 25K 3-chip DLP® projectors and four Christie Roadster S+20 DLP projectors, installed by New York City-based Scharff Weisberg. Nationwide Wholesale Video Inc., a wholly owned company of Christie Digital Systems Inc., provided the projectors.
Josh Weisberg, president and partner at Scharff Weisberg, notes that all outdoor projection installations present their own unique challenges. For MoMA, “We needed the brightest projectors available in the most compact design, but they also had to be hardy and highly reliable to withstand the inclement weather and extremes of temperatures typical of New York City winters,” he explains. “The scope is monumental — it's outdoor, it's in the middle of the winter, and the technology is state-of-the-art. The planning, which has been going on for more than a year, has been equal parts technology and logistics as we work within the requirements of the museum and the artist to specify a system that will work reliably every day.”
Throughout the work, Aitken explores not just the constructed landscape upon which sleepwalkers is projected, but also the architecture of the video image itself. At key moments, the images break down into abstraction, sometimes into pixels that are the building blocks of most of the moving pictures we encounter today.
“We encouraged Doug to shoot HD so the detail would be crystal-clear in the very large image sizes we are working with,” notes Weisberg. “The content is being replayed in HD video, as well.”
To accomplish playback, Scharff Weisberg set up synchronized, networked customized media servers using Dataton Watchout running on ShowSage computers and separated by great distances. A challenge was distributing the network over seven different screen locations to maintain frame accuracy among the image streams, Weisberg explains. “We are using GPS-enabled timecode generators as our master timing source and wireless networking to link the sites. Typically, projectors such as these can be found in cinemas or at large-scale corporate events, not outdoors in January supporting an art installation,” he points out.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg inaugurated the installation — which plays nightly from 5 to 10pm until February 12 — saying, “This dynamic project also reinforces the city's identity as an exciting creative center for artists and audiences from here and around the world.” He adds that a record 44 million tourists visited New York City in 2006, with nearly 50% visiting cultural attractions. The city hopes to surpass that number in 2007.
Aitken is just happy people are showing up to witness the colossal effort. “The most valuable thing for me and the thing that I am most thankful for is that I have an audience for my work, and I hope you enjoy it,” he says.