Part interactive installation, part urban performance art, Video Painting Europe documents a kind of glow-in-the-dark graffiti that leaves no trace. Art collective Sweatshoppe uses ingenious infrared tracking to smear digital video over concrete surfaces with paint rollers. In this Vimeo Award-winning video, they travel to European cities like Paris, Belgrade, London, and more to paste their "video collages" on different architectural structures -- including the Berlin Wall. The duo behind the collective, Blake Shaw and Bruno Levy, describe how they created the eye-popping setup in an interview below.
The Atlantic: What inspired this project?
Bruno Levy: We were originally looking for ways to enhance an audiovisual performance/installation that would travel. We wanted to paint the walls of the performance space with different video environments. I think when we were testing, due to limited space in apartments in New York City, we were forced into the street and the project evolved naturally from there.
Blake Shaw: I was studying New Media Art at Bennington College when I first came up with the idea for video painting. As a new media artist I work with a lot of new emerging technologies, a lot of times just toying around with different things and putting them together to see what fits. When you're creating art in this way you're constantly faced with questions about art history and how different movements came about -- in many ways the history and evolution of modern art has been dependent on the emergence of new technologies from the invention of oil paint to electronic sound and video and so on. So I think video painting really came about as the consequence of this dialogue. At the time I was really interested in how architectural facades could be augmented with video projection and how they can also become interactive, a sort of social platform in their own if you will. The explosion in the popularity of street art proved how much painting on walls could be a powerful way to communicate ideas, so painting combined with projection and interactivity became an obvious choice. The difference is that while a graffiti artist's message usually meets its audience on the street, the walls we were painting made their way to our audience mostly through the Internet. So the actual graffiti aspect of the project really took place online, which I think is interesting.
Can you describe how you designed the setup to project video in synch with the rollers?
Levy: Blake wrote the software using MAX MSP, while I developed the gear and content.
Shaw: I work a lot with what is called computer vision software, algorithms that identify objects and track them with a live video feed. The software I wrote tracks the position of infrared LEDs inside the paint roller when they are turned on by the user, and tells the projector where to reveal the image. Essentially we have to line up the webcam with the video projection, and where ever the painter decides to stroke the image will appear, allowing you to paint with videos. Additionally we can paint layers of video to develop a narrative within the performance and create video collages.
How did people on the street react to your work? Did police give you a hard time?
Levy: People on the street usually stop to stare with a sense of curiosity and wonder. I believe that one of the most important elements of video painting is the illusion that it creates, this semi-magic trick that makes one question how this can be happening. We got a similar reaction to our documentation of the performances, this "how does it work?" response. As far as the police, once in New York City, they said they where going to take Blake to jail after he told them he was making art, but as soon as we shut the projector off, they saw no paint, no marks, and congratulated us. They left asking if we were millionaires, saying that if we were not we will be soon (we are still working on that part).
Shaw: Haha, yeah it’s funny. We usually try to hide the projector to maintain the mystique, but even when it’s visible people still have a hard time wrapping their heads around it. A lot of people just can't understand that it's not paint until the image disappears and even then they have trouble coping with the concept. It really creates a stir, when we're doing it in high traffic areas cars pull over and crowds form out of nowhere. It’s really great to see so many people mystified by such a thing, it feels good to have created something that can grab the attention of people just going about their daily lives and get them to stay and watch for a while. I think that’s a hard thing to accomplish with any type of art or media and is probably what makes me the most proud about this project.
Did you expect the video to get the response it did?
Levy: Not at all, when we first recorded The Landing over two years ago, we just wanted to be able to share what we had made, which we thought was cool, but it was a total surprise that it went viral. When our second video SWEATSHOPPE Video Painting Europe, won a Vimeo Award and again went viral, it was even a bigger shock. I am still surprised and excited when people say they love our work, it makes me want to make more.
Shaw: Yeah like Bruno said before we were originally working on an audiovisual performance together, something that combined interactive technology with performance art and music. Video painting was just going to be one part of this performance when we released our first video, and after that exploded online we just found ourselves traveling around the U.S. and Europe doing this in various cities and at art festivals, museums and galleries. And in turn I think from this experience our goals and ambitions as artists have grown and evolved as we've been exposed to so many different things and so many different possibilities.
What's next for you?
Levy: I have been working on a music and video performance, which is taking a lot of my time (especially the music part) and have been making lots of new videos which you can see on my website.
Shaw: I just moved to Berlin and I'm collaborating on a series of projects with friends that we're currently calling "Farce Projects" that combine video art, music, social media, the internet, happenings and offshore outsourcing to create social artworks which collectors can subscribe to that generate a sort of drama in the real world if you will. One project involves a record label where we create a series of branded identities, and when you buy the record you essentially become the artist, or at least own the rights to music, videos, and brand. When the record is collected, we deploy a PR campaign and create an online presence for the artwork, and the collector can choose to augment their virtual identity with various different services. Other similar projects involve pranks on first-world media institutions executed by telecom workers in the developing world. In a way video painting brought this sort of cyberpunk science fiction to reality, and in the same way these projects hope to make a reality out of different forms of metafiction -- the goal is really to create metafiction in the real world that blurs the line between reality and media, the same way advertising and propaganda do in our daily lives. These projects are still in their infancy and I'm sure they will change a lot as they grow, but it's a pretty exciting time here for me in Berlin right now.
For more work by Sweatshoppe, visit http://www.sweatshoppe.org.