This year marks the long-time-coming London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games which will see athletes from across the globe descend on a newly built park in east London to compete for shiny medals. And what’s good news for sport fans is good news for art lovers too, because part of this celebration of athletic ability includes the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, a series of events, exhibitions, and specially commissioned artworks that have been counting down the London Olympics since 2008.
The Cultural Olympiad’s featured a whole range of different disciplines and practitioners from the entire spectrum of the arts, and as the two week Olympic event approaches, Britain will be firing off artworks across the country like flares lighting a path to the main attraction.
As part of this cultural blowout, digital interpreter Quayola and visual artist Memo Akten teamed up with Nexus Interactive Arts to produce an interactive animation and installation for the Cultural Olympiad at the National Media Museum in Bradford—and they’ve kindly given us an exclusive on some videos of the piece.
The work is called Forms and is part of the In the Blink of an Eye: Media and Movement exhibition at the National Media Museum, which runs from March 9th to September 2nd 2012 and explores the “capture and synthesis of movement.” Quayola and Akten interpreted this theme by taking images and artifacts from the museum’s National Collections—-this includes the work of motion capture pioneers like Dr. Harold E. Edgerton, Roger Fenton, Tim Macmillan, Etienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge—and generating abstract animations from the athletes’ motion using 3D Studio Max and custom software. The resulting animations are a study of the relationship between the human body and movement at the extreme end of physical exertion, creating an aesthetic of the mechanics behind these movements.
Excerpt from the animations
These abstract analyses will be shown on a large projection screen with a smaller split screen on a plinth in front, which will show the footage on which the animation is based, along with the individual layers that build up the piece, giving viewers the option to “digitally peel” back the footage.
So if you’re in or near Bradford you can check it out, but for those who can’t make it you can experience it vicariously through these videos and via the questions Quayola and Akten answered for us:
The Creators Project: Would you say your piece for the National Media Museum was an update for the digital age of Muybridge’s work that looked at motion?
Quayola and Memo: We are definitely very inspired by the works of Muybridge, as well as Harold Edgerton, Étienne-Jules Marey etc.—and the project does indeed build on their work. However their work is more about documenting motion, showing the history and shape of the path. We wanted to explore the same subject matter, but from a slightly different angle. Rather than focusing on observable trajectories, we chose to explore techniques of extrapolation to sculpt abstract forms, visualizing unseen relationships—power, balance, grace, and conflict—between the body and its surroundings.
How did you go about converting the different aspects of the athlete’s movement—say arms, legs, body—into the various layers of animation? For instance, did various parts of the body have their own specific visual component?
Not as a strict rule, but generally yes, different parts of the body do generate different components of the visuals. The mapping of body part to visual layer is different on each clip and we chose these depending on the motion. The relationships however are not as direct as to say the hands draw this and the feet draw that. We create complex environments that respond to the athletes’ movements through a series of physics-based simulations. In one clip we can have the right hand apply a specific force of a particle cloud, or a foot that controls a spring-based particle emitter, and so on. We create environments that have a life of their own and then document the athletes’ actions within these environments. We process every clip with a specific approach which we see fit for the sport and aesthetics of the motion.
How many layers of animation did you use for each piece?
Generally about 2-4 layers of animation, also with 1-3 layers of abstraction applied to the movements.
Installation in situ
What interested you both about seeing these athletic movements in such an abstract way?
Athletes push their bodies to their extreme capabilities, and unlike say dance—which is specifically about form—their primary purpose is to win. Sports is traditionally a form of entertainment in society with an overpowering competitive edge. We wanted to deconstruct these disciplines, and interrogate them from an exclusively mechanical and aesthetic point of view—concentrating on the invisible forces generated by and influencing the movement.
What were some of the criteria for choosing the clips that you used?
We chose clips which generally had large dynamic movements internally (i.e. within the body), and also made big movements through space. We tried to maintain a healthy balance of disciplines and variation in types of movement: sideways motion, upwards, downwards. Some with lots of rotations, others more linear, etc.
What were some of the surprises or unexpected discoveries you made about athletic movement while creating the installation?
No unexpected discoveries spring to mind. We were certainly impressed and very inspired with a lot of our early tests—and various different analysis and visualizations we tried.
In the video the movement through space becomes one long progressive arc, a dancing swarm of action. Was part of the idea for people to see Olympic sports in ways they never had done before?
Exactly. The aim is to look at every day occurrences with new eyes. To identify and amplify details that we usually fail to see. In this particular case, working with athletics. We are interested in looking beneath the surface, not looking at the aim of the sport or the competitive side of it, rather at the beauty of the pure mechanics of the body.