Two of Buffalo’s design rock stars have come together, to produce a visually surreal work of art for all to see at Squeaky Wheel headquarters on Main Street in Downtown. The project is located in Squeaky Wheel’s display window fronting 617 Main Street. I’m a big fan of viewing art installations at places that intermingle with daily life. These are the places that allow you a moment to reflect, on your own time, when you might least expect to be thrown into a contemplative state.
It was after dining at EXPO Market that I came across this fascinating video/art installation. To me, this was the best part of my day… to run into a brilliantly interactive video project that captivated my imagination and even prompted me to walk inside and inquire about it. When I learned that it was the combined work of Julian Montague and Keith Harrington, I immediately realized why I was so fond of it. Moments earlier, I had passed another of Montague’s works – Bird Banners – in another storefront window just a few doors down.
It was the duo’s combined work that blew my mind, however. It was a combination of peephole periscopes displaying video, and interactive soundscapes. It was almost as if the work of art was all-seeing and hearing. I couldn’t draw myself away, and did my best to look at it up close, from far away, and at every angle in-between. As soon as I got home, I reached out to Montague and Harrington to ask them about their project. Following are a few responses that tell the story behind the installation, according to Harrington:
Jax Deluca (former Executive Director at Squeaky Wheel) approached us with the idea near the end of November of last year. I had created a similar peephole/monitor installation for Squeaky Wheel’s Peepshow earlier that year, and she wanted to carry over the concept in their vacant Main Street windows with a design by Julian. Her deadline for our commissioned work was fast approaching, December 12th, 2015, the night of their Glitchmas Party.
It was inspired by the sci-fi looping sounds, cyclops creatures, and idea that more-and-more often we’re being monitored by video surveillance in many aspects of our lives.
So Julian came up with his brilliant design. On the left is Squeaky Wheel’s mission statement, and the right his cyclops like creatures. It went to print, and I hurriedly installed the monitors behind the eyes. For the time being, fellow artist and friend, Jeremy Maxwell and I came up with a simple video loop, but I wasn’t very happy with the installation as a whole. I decided to evolve things. My goal was to engage the average person walking down Main Street and make it as interactive as possible. I had a few ideas.
Squeaky Wheel had left speakers installed outside in the alcove from a previous artist’s installation, so this spawned my idea that people should see and hear themselves while looking in the peepholes. I installed the camera and animated a blinking eye overlay, as if it’s looking back at you the viewer.
In the meantime, I had recorded about an hour’s worth of the sounds heard on Main Street at the location. I edited it down to 5 minutes of highlights, and tweaked it by adding several effects, creating a sci-fi sounding edit of the recording. This edit is now looping down there constantly.
Then came the “hear themselves” portion. I wanted to mic the space, so the viewers could hear their own voices echoing over the recording loop. So I reached out to my friend and expert audio technician John “Lazlo” Shotwell for some help.
It quickly became clear that we were dealing with a difficult situation. Basically speakers pointing towards the mic in a tiny space with nothing but hard, reflective surfaces. This caused the mic to feedback almost instantly.
We spent a lot of time tweaking the levels and frequencies on many perimeters and eventually came to the best possible setting. Unfortunately it’s still hard to hear a human voice echoing when talking at a normal volume. One has to talk pretty loud, clap or whistle. It is what it is.
I also added the transitioning LED lights to the area to play with color theory and Julian’s design. I also hoped the lights would help draw people into the space.
Several weeks had passed since the original install, and with things tidied up with the lighting, audio and live camera feed, it kind of bothered Julian and me that the front right window space was still bare. It had always been part of the plan for other artists to create installations in that front area, or for Squeaky Wheel to have a large flat screen monitor with their videos looping up there. But neither had happened yet so we decided to evolve our installation further.
I visioned 3D models of the Cyclopes creatures coming up out of the floor, again with monitors in their eyes. So Julian created the layout and I built the actual models. The lower portion of their bodies are made of PVC pipe, and the heads were created from scratch. I asked my friend and fellow artist Amy Hartman for some assistance on this because she teaches 3D printing in her art class. She walked me through using this free 3D cad software called Tinkered and helped me make the design. She then took the cad files and used them to print the hollow heads with the school’s Makerbot printers. I assembled, painted and installed.
At this point the entire installation had really taken shape and seemed complete, but it bothered me that Lazlo and I had spent a lot of time trying to create that echoing, mic’d effect. So I decided to play off of the 3D models and build a mini xylophone-like version because the mic picks up those higher frequency clanking sounds a lot better than the human voice. Julian’s design had always reminded me of one of those old Fisher-Price xylophones toys we used when we were kids anyway, so I figured why not.
This xylophone-like unit is meant to do a couple of things; Create a strange object to draw people into the space when they walk by and engage them to play it thus hearing the echoing sounds created by the mic. I can see now it’s been pretty effective by the amount of paint chips on the unit from people actually using it.
Last we came up with the name “Invaders”. It was inspired by the sci-fi looping sounds, cyclops creatures, and idea that more-and-more often we’re being monitored by video surveillance in many aspects of our lives.
From the beginning, this installation was also meant to showcase other artists’ videos in the eyes and have different installations in the very front window where the large Squeaky Wheel logo and 3D models are. The staff at Squeaky Wheel will be staying fluid so it will continue to evolve throughout the year as parts change. The majority of the installation will be up through January of 2017. Maybe longer.
Above image: Squeaky Wheel