British Council Creative Economy

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24 July 2016

AltCity São Paulo: photography of the future

Exactly two months before we open our artwork on the facade of the massive SESI gallery building, Americas Programme Manager Jonathan May takes us inside of our new Art Technology Lab AltCity São Paulo as we explore the megalopolis of Brazil.

As Robin from Marshmallow Laser Feast (MLF) silently beckons with a mischievous grin across his face, all six of us slowly tip-toe away from one man with his face buried in his hands. That man is Barney Steel, co-founder of MLF and currently in a frozen position, as we all have been, to 3D scan a static image of ourselves in various poses. We’ve stood painstakingly still for the last eight minutes as the LiDAR scanner sweeps the room, taking in every distance point, photographic detail and heat signature so we can play with it as a 3D environment in the computer.  Unfortunately for Barney, he’s chosen a position where he can’t see the rest of us, so as we sneak away to leave him there, he’s left wondering just how much time has passed and when this eight minute scan will be over. Ten minutes later, he only realises when we can’t stifle our laughter any longer.

For AltCity São Paulo,  MLF and our team of Brazilian artists are using LiDAR 3D scanning as a way of capturing the world in three dimensions, and remixing it - using Virtual Reality (VR)  - to draw together the evocative contrasts of the place; from the cultural to the topographical.

It’s cutting edge technology that we’re using, scanning people and environments to augment in the computer, but there’s a rigour to the process that is akin with the experience of early 19th century photographers capturing a fragment, a crop or edit of an ephemeral moment. VR is often associated with film or gaming but this project focuses on the static image and how it can be used to explore ideas and tell stories. And the results are stunning.

Marshmallow Laser Feast and Nicéphore Niépce

Still from Dividing Lines (From AltCity Sao Paulo, 2016) and View from the Window at Gras (1826)

Niépce’s famous View from the Window at Gras (1826) is one of the oldest surviving camera photographs and an example of early (at the time the vanguard) camera obscura photography. Here a very long exposure period (anything from eight hours to eight days) captured static images, but made many subjects difficult, if not impossible, to capture.

LiDAR scanning, the architectural tool we’re applying to this art/technology lab, takes eight minutes, rather than eight hours, but in principle it has very similar challenges in that it’s not an instant flash, it’s a slit scan so any movement within a frame becomes blurry and compressed. To take a precise 3D portrait of an individual with LiDAR you must remain completely still for these eight minutes. Much like the early years of portrait photography or even painting, MLF and the Brazilian team needed their human subjects to take one single, meaningful pose to tell their story, rather than capture action.

As we capture 3D scan portraits of with ‘chicken man’ in a Sao Paulo squat, or the very friendly trans-sex-worker on the streets of down town, we position them into a tableau they can maintain for the eight minutes it takes to 3D capture their living portrait.  This requires a lot of patience by the subject, and a lot of skill of persuasion from the team (luckily our brilliant British Council Arts Manager Effie Vourakis is on hand and she, as we have quickly learned, is the queen of persuasion).

Arthur Rampazzo Roessle and Félix Nadar

Portrait during Alt City (2016) and Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt (early 1900’s)

Barney Steel, co-founder and Creative Director of MLF, comes from a photography and VR background. He describes MLF’s AltCity theme ‘dividing lines’: “within virtual reality you’re not locked to a camera position, we can use 3Dscanning techniques such as LiDAR to scan multiple places and then collage them. when you’re 3D scanning, it’s a 360 degree scan so you’re not just capturing the people you’re capturing all the details in the environment…all these fragments might be clues to a larger story that you wouldn’t notice at first glance, and I think when you’re within the VR world, just being present, and being able to explore, can lead to all sorts of discoveries as you navigate the space.”

That’s what’s so exciting about immersive technologies like VR; this freedom to explore and follow the human instinct to see what is behind the door, what’s under the floor, and step into other people’s lives – to get access to a kind of intimacy that you can’t get in normal life. Photography has always allowed this, and VR is now taking it a step further, turning it into an experience – and giving you a greater degree of agency. 

As we talk over sushi (a São Paulo favourite) with some of the AltCity Brizilian artists, Monica Oliveira explains her enthusiasm and wonder for VR. “Today with 360 degree you’ve got a narrative that’s completely interactive, and gradually more and more of this technology is going to be inserted into society. So for me this workshop has a feeling of being at the vanguard - we’re working with a new technology that very soon, in five years will be all around us.”

And she’s right. As with photography the possibility and language of all this 360 degree tech is evolving every day, and very soon we will get to the point where we’re using LiDAR to capture live film rather than recorded, -  3D space and time, in real time. Back to Barney Steel: “In the future, when LiDAR gets to a more sophisticated point, you’ll be able to step into memories, and be able to experience them in a way that’s similar to the experience of the live-moment. So it’s kind of interesting to be looking at these architectural technologies and thinking, how can you sample the world, and rebuild something – a sort of fragmented memory in a virtual world?”

With anti and pro-government protests erupting around us during this residency, it can be seen as an exciting time to be a Brazilian citizen. As with countries across the world in so much uncertainty, the future is there to be moulded. I overhear another Brazilian AltCity artist Thiago Giacobelli deep in a separate conversation about VR and the similarities strike me“We’re all constantly changing; if we were to think of a hundred years ago, it’s nothing like the world we live in now. So thinking about the future is really important, to start to explore this type of artistic language more. In twenty, thirty years’ time, what language are we going to have? Why wait? We can begin to create that now.”