The Parasite

It’s a Parasite!: Cambridge University Moving Image Studio Pavilion (hereinafter The Parasite) was a multiplicious project that simultaneously existed as an architectural construction and an act of performance, an engineering project and a piece of art, an experimental research project and an act of propaganda, a disruptive social situation and a way to make friends. The Parasite disturbed the existing environment of a modern-art museum in Prague by introducing a newly built structure and staging an interactive, constantly regenerating, non-repeating, audio-visual field that consisted of moving images projected on surfaces and people and of an expressive soundscape. A custom-written program mixed sounds and images in real time in response to human-body movement as observed by the computer-vision system. The Parasite’s material intervention included a structure suspended in a stairwell and an audio-visual field. The suspended structure consisted of two organically shaped, topologically cylindrical surfaces consisting of geometrically unique, topologically cylindrical cells with cardboard walls and transparent plastic tops. We designed its structure to fit into the stairwell that connects the main exhibition hall with the performance area and the evening entrance to the museum. An important circulation hub, this place had a varied and busy life by the time of our arrival. The richness of this existing social setting set the scene for our interference and served as a resource of performative situations throughout the life of The Parasite in Veletržní palác.

The responsive audio-visual field included three dedicated computers running custom-written software. The computers operated an artificial-vision system able to observe the movement of the passersby. These computers also controlled the output from the speakers and projectors installed in the disused lift. The projections included moving images of three themes: human bodies in dance, urban textures and biological cells. We assembled the images in dynamic, non-repeating, real-time collages using layered transparencies and complex transitions. The soundscape generated in real-time using samples composed for this purpose supported the visuals. The audio-visual output clustered into three moods - idle, responding and agitated - with distinct rhythms, samples, colours and volumes. The system evoked the moods in response to the amount and variation of movement in the stairwell. We achieved tight integration between audio-visual representations and the physical structure treating projections, the stairwell, the shells and the moving human bodies as equal contributors to the visual field. The innovative characteristics contributing to the seamless integration included the dissolution of the rectilinear boundary of the screen, breakage of the two-dimensional screen-surface, integration of the human bodies into the visual field and utilisation of multiple intersecting shadows as an expressive device.

The Parasite installation was constructed and exhibited during A Second Sight, the International Biennale of Contemporary Art in Prague that lasted from 13 June 2005 until 11 September 2005. It was erected in a building that currently houses the Czech National Gallery’s Museum of Modern Art in Prague. The development of the project began in 2004 and continued into 2005 with designing and production occurring in multiple locations in the UK and the Czech Republic.

The project was in active development for more than six months with six people involved in the design and fabrication processes on a regular basis and many more helping in the later stages. The on-site assembly was particularly labour-intensive with more than 70 people involved in various kinds of work for no less than 20 days. Cardboard, which we used as the primary material for the construction, is a relatively inexpensive material. However, the production costs were significant. Altogether, the structure consisted of 1560 cells, each cell had an average of 5.8 sides, and each side required a series of discrete assembly steps, the total amounting to tens of thousands of individual operations. Wider use of automation and rationalization of logistics could significantly reduce the demands on time and cost but the development of a cost-effective building-process would take its own time and further investment. As a very rough estimate, in a commercial environment, 10 people could complete the full structure in 70 working days at a cost of £70,000.

The project was housed and facilitated by the Digital Studio, University of Cambridge. During the project, we applied for and received financial and other support from a variety of organisations. The project received monetary contributions through Brancusi Award, Kettle’s Yard, and from the following University of Cambridge bodies: The Digital Studio; Graduate Initiative Fund, King’s College; Ferris Grant, King’s College; Perry Fund, Queens College and Worts Award. Materials, expert advice and other services were also provided by Automated Cutting Services, Ltd., UK; Buro Happold, UK; James Cropper, UK and Kappa Attica, UK.

 
 

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Between the two shells: (computer rendering)

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Fragment of the cardboard structure: (photograph)

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Process of construction: (photograph)

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Cells ordered for assembly: (photograph)

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Preparing for patch assembly: (photograph)

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Assembling a patch: (photograph)

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Fragment of a shell, suspended: (photograph)

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Projections, shadows & reflections: (photograph)