“Big Bob” brings together art and virtual reality

by Amelia Rosch | 9/23/15 6:01pm

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"Big Bob" explores the relationship between movement and virtual reality.

by Kate Herrington and Kate Herrington / The Dartmouth

What do zebras, World War I, battleships and alternate realities have in common? They all helped inspire Gibson/Martelli’s “MAN A,” the newest exhibit in the Hopkins Center.

Bruno Martelli and Ruth Gibson, who make up the group Gibson/Martelli, will also be the studio art department’s artists-in-residence for the year.

Their exhibition is made up of a giant reclining sculpture, known as “Big Bob,” a piece of art mounted on a wall that represents the movement and flaws of motion capture, and three phone applications that allow viewers to see alternate reality figures that move along “Big Bob.” Gibson and Martelli said they wanted to explore the idea of intersections of reality and the interplay between audience and art.

Martelli said that the exhibit was initially inspired by “dazzle camouflage,” a type of camouflage that uses stripes to distort shapes. This sort of camouflage is found in the natural world with zebras, who use it to keep potentially deadly insects from landing on them, Martelli said. Dazzle camouflage first entered the art world after World War I, when ships used it to disguise their size and speed and to confuse enemy gun attacks, he said.

“When you have to identify really quickly —through a periscope— a ship, the dazzle camouflage was used, really, to break up the ship and just confuse the observer of which direction it was in, if it was receding or going away,” he said.

Gibson said that the effect of dazzle camouflage is especially noticeable when an object or being is moving.

“Especially in a herd, you can’t tell where one zebra begins and one finishes,” Martelli said.

He said that while the two artists have been inspired by types of camouflage in the past, they wanted to do a project that used it to create a “liminal performance space” where a performance could occur between the physical and virtual worlds.

Gibson said that the applications they developed for the exhibit will help the viewer enter the virtual world. Among the three apps developed for “MAN A” are the iPhone and Android apps “MAN A” and “MAN A VR”, which add the virtual characters into the exhibit space and use special Google headsets to create a virtual reality, respectively. Joining then is the Android-only “RAGTIME VR”, an app that creates a virtual reality within the exhibition.

Martelli said that the apps were a way for them to “gift” the performance to the exhibit’s viewers to allow them to enjoy it in a variety of places.

“The idea of having these invisible figures concealed in the print acts as a new type of performance space,” he said. “By developing the virtual reality version, we’re trying to transplant the user into that virtual space.”

“Big Bob,” which takes up the majority of the exhibit’s physical space, took around two weeks to construct, Gibson said.

Martelli said that the figure of “Big Bob” was a frame taken from a sequence of improvised dancing they filmed.

The virtual reality figures that move on “Big Bob,” which the audience can see through the apps, are motion captures of performers dancing and moving around, Gibson said.

“One of the hardest things for a motion capture studio to capture with optical systems is rolling,” she said. “We thought it was quite fitting to have this figure rolling.”

Martelli said that the relationship between the sculpture and the virtual reality mechanisms was meant to explore the “ephemeral nature of performance.”

He said that the materials they used to construct the exhibit, such as cardboard and vinyl printing, was meant to emphasize how fragile the art is.

“It’s there for a certain amount of time, and then it will just be gone,” he said.

The third part of the exhibit, the mounted piece, is a printed visualization of the parts of the roll that the motion capture system was unable to capture, Gibson said. In the piece, each sensor placed on the dancer’s body is represented by a color, and the motions that could not be picked up are represented by yellow, creating a grid of various colors mixed with random swatches of bright yellow.

“In a way, that image is kind of image of a performance that is a different way of representing the body, where the body is just broken down from top to bottom,” Gibson said. “It’s a different visualization.”

Martelli said that piece was supposed to be a literal screenshot of a movement in virtual reality.

Studio art professor Christina Seely, who helped bring the exhibit to the Hop, said she was introduced to the group’s art several years ago when she and Martelli were at an artist’s retreat together.

Seely said that she felt the exhibit would be a good fit for the College because of its interdisciplinary nature and the questions it raises about the audience’s role with respect to a piece of art.

“It asks what art means and what it is,” she said. “By having the viewer become a part of it, it raises those questions.”

Martelli said that a big question they wanted to raise with “MAN A” was the role of performance space and how to represent it.

“We’re trying to get away from having something on the wall and thought ‘let’s make it performance in the round’, so the different angles have performance coming out of them all around the shape,” he said.

Gibson said she feels like the exhibit creates a circle between the viewer, Big Bob and the virtual figures, in which they are all moving around and interacting with each other.

“We’re quite keen on the relationship between the viewer and the performer and how it switches,” she said. “What’s really lovely about this is you can see people take the sculpture as it is without the AR or they can engage in it. What happens is that you can see people moving around and then the dance actually goes around them as well, the orientation of the motion capture and the AR, they almost become circle.”

Gibson and Martelli were also nominated for a BAFTA in 2002 and have had exhibitions across the United Kingdom, as well as in Canada and Sweden.

The exhibit will run until Nov. 22 in the Hop’s Jaffe-Friede Gallery.