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Amsterdam - 14, 15, 16 November 2002

Photographing flow

Michael Awad

While this loads up I’d like to thank John Thackara for bringing me here. This is actually the first time I have the opportunity to speak about the work as a whole, and the first time I’ve ever been in front of this many people, so I’m just going to take the opportunity. . . (takes out camera) can you all just smile! No one will ever believe me otherwise. And I will use these images later to remind myself exactly where I was, because I don’t think I’m going to remember this experience.

This began ten years ago for me, with this contraption, which is a head-mounted device. It is completely analog by the way, nothing I do is digital, I’ve only started very recently exploring digital processes, it is all analog, all film-based. This experiment was an attempt to see all things from all places, from all angles, at the same time. And what this is, is a helmet with six lenses mounted in front of it, three across the front, three along the bottom. One lens looking into the telephoto distance, one as a fish eye seeing all around you and the third perspective, close to the eye. The other three; one through prisms and mirrors looks down at your feet, one looks upward, one looks to the side.

This was worn over the head. Not many people attempted to wear it. The few people who did, as you would walk, all six images by the way are projected onto a small screen inside, all six images are brought together onto the screen. And as you move through the city or the scene, all six images change at different rates, so the overwhelming feeling was one of anxiety, or sickness.

So, while this physical experiment ended here, I turned to film to continue to try and record the city from all places, from all moments, from all vantage points, but always in the pursuit of making a single image. This led me to techniques of aerial photography, reconnaissance photography, that led to an understanding of high-speed laboratory photography and then eventually, high-speed, low-altitude, aerial reconnaissance, which basically means, low-flying planes taking pictures as they fly very fast over a scene. And what this required, was that, in a cinematic way, the film had to be moving in a relative speed to the speed of the aircraft, so that the image from a moving platform was made still and crisp.

This led to three techniques. The first one is the recording of scenes that change over long periods of time. The second is recording the movement of an observer through the city, and the third is recording the dynamic flows of just the changes themselves.

The originals that I work with use 70mm film. The originals are all this size, this is a full-size original anywhere from 1m to 2m, and only recently have I been able to make these images larger after ten years.

This is the first technique. It uses a panoramic camera, and all of the equipment is purpose-built for these applications. So, this is a panoramic camera that was created, not to stop typically after 360 degrees, but to continue revolving as long as there is film in the camera. What we have here is an image taken over four or five minutes from a ferry boat as it docks. And what we see early in the ferry, are people mulling about, waiting for the boat to come close to the dock. As it gets closer, people are gathering, collecting at one end of the boat.

Finally, people are embarking from the boat, and then the boat is empty. This is one image across the top, keeping in mind that I’m always working on creating a single image. This is a time-based recording over a long period of time. Unlike typically panoramic photography, that has to work very quickly.

The second technique is the recording of movement through space. It essentially unwraps a physical experience into a long single image. One of the earliest examples of this was a bookstore in the neighbourhood where I live. The inside of the bookstore is long and thin. It’s a typical book space, very dense, but extremely long. This experience is unwrapped by walking the entire length of the bookstore, which is some 20 metres, with another apparatus that really scans the bookstore as we pass through, so we see here the first third of this image, the entrance, the door, near the street, where we have a customer sitting at a chair. The middle of the store gets extremely thin and narrow, at this point the store is only two metres wide. And then the back of the store starts to get slightly darker and denser with books. So again, this is one image unwrapping a long space.

It was a natural extension to take this technique outside, and relate it to the automobile and also the pedestrian. This first attempt was actually made from a moving car. And what this essentially does, is it scans the city and creates one image of how one experiences the city as you move through it. These images are anywhere from one minute to six minutes long.

The most dynamic image-making scene to date, is really that from the car of the highway. And this is the experience of travelling in and out of an expressway, an elevated expressway. We see the darkness, the light, and we see how the car is actually undulating with regards to its place in the road. The middle zone of this photograph shows the off-ramps that are descending from the elevated expressway, and then the end of the road which exposes a large trainyard.

This is the experience of driving from that elevated expressway down into the covered space, and you see the middle - the transition - zone here is the most interesting. It’s important where you see the road peeling up and over, and then the experience of actually descending down one of these ramps. So we really go from the darkness to the light.
These images can be read from left to right, the way you would read a story, or a sentence. It is literally the experience of time. A timeline can be placed on these images from the first second to the last second.

This is the same technique used in a pedestrian way, in Venice. David Rokeby and I spent a fair bit of time in Venice recently. The entire image is a roughly three-minute walk from the Giardini to the Via Garibaldi. And the section that I’ve enlarged here is the moment where you’re travelling through the gate, that important moment where you’re going from garden to city. And again, it’s scanning the roughness in the images, a product of either carrying the image or rolling the equipment on a cart.

The remarkable thing about Venice is that the streets, the shopping streets, are no more than two or three metres wide. They’re always experienced in perspective, you’re always experiencing things at a distance, unless your attention is taken to the left or right. So it was natural to walk the equipment around the city, to unfold the experience of the shopping street.

The gong, OK! The third technique is the most important, and it records only the flows of people, and the flows of moving dynamic objects that change. And again, over one minute, three minutes, four minutes, and this is where the synergy between David’s work and mine have brought us together. Even though we have been working with similar conceptual ideas, we had never met until just this year, when we got together for the Venice Biennale.

In this configuration, the camera only records things that move and change in front of the camera during this period of time. So all the buildings, the context, the background, the architecture, disappears, and all you’re left with is the occupation of public space and the flows there within it. And what is remarkable is that it reduces the identity of a place, not to its physical context, but to the identities of the people and objects that change. This was a great opportunity, in the Piazza di San Marco, to record the reactions, the conflicts, of people and pigeons. This is San Marco, but the buildings of San Marco are abstracted away, and we’re left with this unfortunate couple whose are completely stopped in their tracks by the flock of pigeons. In this image, the pigeons take over the space, define the space.

This image depicts Fifth Avenue, NY, but the background, the buildings, the skyscrapers have vanished. What you’re left with is the identity of New York seen through its New Yorkers and their ocean of yellow cabs.

This was a street festival in Toronto, a Caribbean festival that we have each year. In this case, the camera was set up in the middle of the parade, and the parade happened past the equipment. In this situation, the camera is not moving or spinning, it’s stationary while the world changes around it.

This is Chinatown, which is a recurring image in all of my work, from the most busy intersection in the city. All of the buildings have disappeared, and all we’re left with is the dynamism and chaos of people. I’ve still not been able to recreate how this woman was moving, how she was recorded this way; all I know is, she was moving quickly and chaotically.

This is a dancing couple. I’ve unravelled their motion, and as they approach the camera, they both change direction simultaneously, so part of their bodies has been recorded accurately, and part of their bodies has been recorded as a blur.
Clearly, one of the most curious features is that even from the same sun, the shadows according to how the object approaches the camera, the shadows are recorded as coming from different directions. This is just a peculiarity of the technique.

This image is in co-operation with David’s work. This is our Venice installation, with David’s piece in the centre, which is based on Venice, a live video; the 40-metre-long mural of Chinatown round the outside representing Toronto; and there was an acoustic piece that mixed the two cities together. And in fact, as people approached, they blurred into the space, into of both of these images, and as they watched they became part of the background.

Thank you.


: I must explain that the only reason I’ve been lenient with Michael is that he was the winner of the cupcake design competition last night, and therefore we decided he deserved a special dispensation. He therefore got three minutes over, but no one else will get it , OK?

A couple of follow-up questions. You made a very interesting observation, David, about the fact that feedback per se is not a good thing unless it’s modulated in some way. Could you explain a bit more about that?

David: Yes. Especially in my work with the nervous system, where you have a very intense relationship whereby body movement is translated into music, the music comes back into the ear, inspires new movement, and causes this continuous feedback loop. The relationship that unfolds between the system and the person is determined by the character of the feedback loop.

You can think of the feedback loop if you imagine audio engineers trying to remove the feedback from a rock band show. He’s playing with a lot of filters to remove the acoustic pathway, to remove the feedback. If you shape the path of feedback with the right sorts of filters and mechanisms, you can manage it, you can manipulate people, you can help them, you can calm them down, or you can excite them. In some ways, as an interactive artist that’s what you’re doing, it’s playing with that feedback loop.

Because we’re engaged in that feedback loop with all our technologies on some level or other, they become a big determining factor in our experience, and how our use of those technologies evolves. In fact, in looking at my inbox, I notice that one of the things that’s happening in my feedback loop with the programme is that it’s encouraging me to answer all the things that I can reply to in one sentence or one word, and all the really interesting questions are stuck at the top with high priorities and never get answered. So that particular technology is changing the way I communicate by feeding back and emphasising certain kinds of activities, and not others.

John: The Way We Use is an installation. One of the recurring themes at Doors events is the question, “Is this an art, a process, or is this a design tool that can be used in normal daily-life environments?” Did you learn anything from the Venice installation about how the two pieces can be used in other situations?

David: As of yet, for me the tool has been one of analysis and recording, and I’ve only now begun the process of digitalisation, and I believe at that point, once I can gather and record much more data than the film is allowing me to do, I’ll be able to use it as a genuine means of analysing large spaces and large amounts, on a literally geographic as opposed to local scale, at which point I know it will be a tool to be reckoned with.

updated Monday 31 March 2003
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