Traces: A Digital Funhouse Mirror Of Abstract Self-Portraits [Q&A]

UK artist James Alliban‘s latest work Traces, a collaboration with Nexus Interactive Arts, is a piece that explores movement by letting participants use their bodies as a kind of human brush. By throwing their limbs around and moving their bodies they’re able to “paint” an abstract self-portrait of themselves on a digital canvas.

Using a Kinect the user’s movements are captured and translated in real time into colorful particles and ribbons and generative sounds by David Kamp. The piece was commissioned as part of the The Art of Motion exhibition at The Public gallery in West Bromwich, UK. Participants flinging their bodies about to interact with the work creates a kind of role reversal of the traditional dynamic of artist as performer and audience as observer, so the work becomes a kind of crowd-sourced performance piece.

At a simple level the responsive nature of the installation is immediately attractive to us—it has an ageless appeal that taps into that sense of wonderment—and vanity—that technology in its playful capacity has the ability to elicit. Just think of all those hours spent throwing yourself around in front of a Wii—now you can do it in public. As you swoosh your arms about and spin on the spot to create the alternating visuals, warped electronic sounds—which you could imagine emitting from an elaborate spaceship terminal—give an audio accompaniment to your actions.

To find out a bit more about the project and its aesthetic we asked Alliban a few questions about the work.

The Creators Project: What was the idea behind turning users’ bodies into abstract shapes?
James Alliban:
Representing the user in an abstract manner is a theme that runs throughout much of my work. This usually manifests as a deconstruction of the subject using its original elements. In this case I was visualising motion rather than presence so it was an excuse to be more experimental with the visuals. I often take inspiration from abstract art movements of the 20th century. In this instance I was looking to Post-Impressionism, particularly Van Gogh and the pointillist works of Georges Seurat. This is reflected in the particle system which comes together as an animated collection of dots and broad strokes.

In what ways does the piece explore the “art of motion”?
At its heart Traces is a performance-based piece that places the user into the role of an audio-visual composer. The aim was to create something beautiful by translating the user’s motion into abstract visuals and sound. A sort of animated painting if you will. There are two aspects at play here, the art can be found both in the user’s performance and the audiovisual results, with both influencing each other. Traces adopts themes such as creativity, discovery, and play that already permeate the gallery spaces of The Public.

How does the software process, or translate, the movement and form of the performers?
First the skeletal data is taken from two Windows Kinect cameras and sent via OSC to a server PC. Once the server application has been through the many stages of skeleton calibration (scaling, rotation, position etc) to achieve the mirrored effect, the motion tracking can begin.

First I figure out the individual velocities of each skeleton point. These numbers determine how many particles are emitted and the particle’s velocity and starting positions. The start position and velocity need to be interpolated between neighboring skeleton points and frames to avoid bunching. This was vital in creating transient glimpses of the body through the collections of newly emitted particles.

Why do you think people are fascinated by seeing their physical bodies as a kind of digital shadow, like in this work?
As a child I remember being so fascinated by the house of mirror attraction at funfairs. Seeing myself distorted and warped gave me a surreal and disorienting sense of losing control of my body which was quite liberating (and a lot of fun). Using digital technology and computer vision we are able to recreate this experience and represent the body in an unlimited amount of ways. In doing so we can offer alternative approaches to thinking about our ourselves. There’s a certain narcissistic and magical quality to this form of virtual mirror experience that can take us back to that childlike state where we first discovered ourselves taking an abstract form. In this moment, inhibitions are dropped and people tend to become more creative.

What do you think will be the next level of interaction for this kind of interactive art work? What directions do you think it will take?
It has been fascinating to see how smartphone and tablet devices have been used by artists to display their work. One of the most interesting aspects to this has been the ability to explore new channels of distribution and consumption of art. Art is no longer confined to art galleries but is potentially ubiquitous. In addition, artists have a very democratic way of making money from their digital work, which is not very saleable. However we are still limited by the available hardware and sensors.

There are plans to install depth sensing cameras in devices such as TVs, laptops, smartphones/tablets, and potentially the promised HUD glasses. This would give the tech art community an incredible opportunity to distribute their immersive work to an ever increasing audience. Interactive art could actually bypass the largely indifferent fine art world and be adopted by the public. I was very impressed by Yugo Nakamura’s FRAMED project. With advances in our entertainment systems, this could be a common distribution/consumption platform for interactive art in the coming years.

There have recently been a lot of gestural interface systems that are becoming available for home PC and office use, like ubi interactive and Leap Motion. Do you think one day even simply interacting with a computer will be a kind of performance?
Even if these NUI technologies do become adopted for everyday computing, I do not believe so. Performance is a vehicle for art. Most tasks undertaken on a computer are utilitarian. You wouldn’t call the act of washing the dishes a performance, no matter how elaborately you did it! Using a gesture enabled interface to update a spreadsheet might be novel at first but would soon become just as dull as its keyboard and mouse counterpart (and far more tiring).