vivian ROSENTHAL and jesse SEPPI discuss Tronic studio and their interests in the tension between physical and virtual worlds, the body as interface, augmented reality, sci-fi, and of course Powerisers.
images clockwise from top left: Cool Hunters, TEDx, La Machine, TEDx all by TRONIC
sP: Could you tell us a bit about your backgrounds?
vivian ROSENTHAL: I had a liberal arts background—I went to Brown and studied art history and architectural history and did a lot of creative writing. The interest in architecture came not from studying art history or architectural history, but sort of predated that in more of an interest in this idea of shifting your physical understanding of space. Through Brown I got exposed to Columbia. I was really interested in Bernard Tschumi’s writings at the time—I thought they were amazing and they really inspired me—so I realized, “Okay, that’s where I want to go.”
jesse SEPPI: I started at Ohio State, in the architecture program there. In between undergrad and grad school I worked in California for Thom Mayne at Morphosis—before he won the Pritzker, so it was a very small studio—and it was really a dream come true. Early in my schooling the association with the computer, first as a representational tool and then as a design tool, started to become very powerful. And I had an awareness of that early on, which led me to Columbia and Bernard Tschumi. I almost went to animation school because, like a lot of architects, I was seduced by filmmaking—as soon as you start getting into the computer and are making fly-throughs of your spatial condition, now all of the sudden you’re a director. Luckily, I had the foresight to know that it was still advantageous to stay in a curriculum that was heavily conceptually based. And, knowing that Bernard Tschumi was also kind of anaesthetized by this “paperless studio,” as he called it, I thought Columbia was the right place for me to do my graduate studies. So the first day, oddly enough, I met Vivian and we started hanging out as friends, having a lot of deep discussions about cyborgs and the things we were both interested in. It probably wasn’t until second year that we actually started working together. I think we did a housing project together . . . We saw the Matrix (1999) together, which was obviously impactful.
vR: It was! At the time it really opened up new possibilities, and thinking also, about where film and architecture were going to go. It actually ended up being a very big influence on our thesis, which we did together.
sP: Was there a point when you realized you wanted to use your architecture background to move into more graphic and video-based work? Was there something video offered you that architecture could not?
jS: I had experienced all the constraints of architecture through practice, and it moved pretty slowly. Projects could last two to three years, and that pace was a bit discouraging. I like the idea of more gratification quicker, you know? So that speed appealed to me, as well as the freedom of operating with fewer constraints.
sP: Speaking of that kind of lag time, with an architecture project, at times it’s 15 years from when design happens to when it’s built. This lag time also exists between the cultural state at design inception and when, years later, upon completion or publication, the project is able to contribute back to current culture. With a lot of the work you are doing this lag is eliminated, with most projects being realized in less than a year.
jS: Yeah, and I think there are pros and cons to both approaches. It’s all about momentum, and it makes me think of setbacks. If there is a big shift in a design, it eats away and erodes that momentum, as well as your enthusiasm for a project. I think over the span of years that would become tiresome. I know it’s tiresome just over the span of weeks. But, at the same time, it must be incredibly gratifying to have something more permanent, at a more monumental scale. So we try to keep one foot in the physical world and another foot firmly planted in the digital.
sP: We were looking back at your work this week, and it was interesting for us to see the development between early projects like Nikelab (2002), where the work was about a 2-D interface that implied a 3-D space, and then, over time, projects like the spray painting for Target (Art for All: Revolution and Condensation, 2007), where there’s a physical component that becomes digital but then comes back out into a physical sculpture. There is a very fluid movement from reality to the virtual to the physical, each with its own output or ambition. Maybe you could talk about that kind of fluidity in your work.
jS: There’s definitely a tension between the physical and the virtual. It has been interesting to watch the acceptance of this idea. Now, after 10 years of exploration of this area in our practice, it’s just now reaching a mass-market level, a marketing level, where brands want to get involved. For example, we just did a lobby for HP (HP: Manifold, 2010) at their headquarters in Palo Alto, and they didn’t fully understand what to expect, but they knew they wanted it. They could almost feel it. And I think, over time, they understood that this installation would speak to both of those extremes—that is, the physical and the virtual—and try to express how HP is positioned in relation to them. HP understands that tension between the tools and the software, and how they then relate to the human experience. That’s what this installation is all about: it’s kinetic, it’s interactive, and it’s virtual. It’s also, obviously, physical, in dealing with the body. It deals with the circulation in the space, with the way the space is experienced and felt, with light—all the traditional parameters and constraints that you would deal with in renovating a lobby on the architectural scale—but then it has this other component, this huge video canvas that is interactive, has dynamic content, and ties into other physical locations. So it’s an interesting case study. And it’s obviously far from a perfect solution, but it’s an experiment. It’s great that these mainstream corporations are willing to spend their money on experiments.
sP: It’s also interesting that, in the last 15 years or so, it’s not so foreign to deal with these things. It reminds me of video games, which 20 years ago were 2-D side-scrolling, but are now very much 3-D and allow you navigate around a world in a way that isn’t difficult or foreign. People visiting your Road Rage Museum can relate to that virtual world in the same way.
jS: Yeah, there is an insatiable appetite that culture has for every advance in, and manifestation of, technology. And it has created a lot of interesting areas like designed obsolescence, or a kind of intentional withholding of technological advancements. Which speaks to, like you mentioned, the Road Rage Museum. When we got that project we thought, “Which direction do we want to go in with this? Do we want to actually try to envision what a virtual museum should authentically be?”—which gets back to what we talked about earlier, this kind of disconnection from the body and all things of that scale—“Or do we have to address the general public’s ability to access something like this?”—which is the whole Matrix thing, and echoes my comment about how the virtual really didn’t change reality, but is just a parallel of what we already know. Buildings are buildings, cars are cars, people look like people—and that’s kind of the direction that the client wanted to move in. So even though in a virtual environment we don’t have to deal with gravity and we don’t necessarily have to deal with scale, we do have to deal with legibility, and I think we have to use a language that people are familiar with. So that’s the one thing that is slowing down the speed and progression of virtual reality. It’s like the electric car: we had it in the ’70s, but people weren’t ready.
[Jesse says goodbye as he is late for a meeting]
sP: How do you see the body and gestural devices, such as widespread gaming devices like the Kinect, play into issues of virtual environments and their legibility? Take your Microsoft campaign (Microsoft: Open), for example, where the user is more than just clicking on a screen via a mouse and a little bit of physical interaction between the user and the virtual has begun.
vR: I think that Jesse and I both feel that the opportunities to have the body act as interface are pretty incredible. For awhile we all stopped questioning the whole idea of the input. It was simply a mouse and a keyboard, and then maybe a Wacom (tablet computer/digital interface); most interfaces are still these fairly clunky devices. A lot of the really early work we did together—like the piece Future Beauty we did for Creative Review, which we did maybe 10 years before the Kinect came out—was very low-tech. In that project I was basically dancing around the room and then we were compositing it. We didn’t even have an actual word for it, it was just what felt right, which was that the body should be a way to have an input beyond the mouse. So it’s funny looking back on some of those pieces, because while they feel really clunky, at the same time I think they were fairly visionary in terms of their ability to think about these devices or systems that we didn’t know were being developed for the consumer market.
sP: The desire existed for these new inputs, but there was a desire feeding the technology rather than the technology developing a desire.
vR: Yeah! There’s the Kinect, which is obviously the mainstream application of gesture technology within the entertainment sector. I think that it has huge potential and it still only taps right at the surface. There are so many other types of games, or so-called games, that you could design. We’ve been working with a team of programmers who built a system similar to the Kinect, but we’re using it in ways that aren’t linked to a console. People started hacking the Kinect, which is really cool, but we’ve been working without that system and, as a result, have more control, so what we’re designing and building in 3-D is linked into the programming in a very intricate way. If we make a particle system it’s more like a game engine, so it’s being rendered in real time—that could be gravity, viscosity, elasticity, all these different parameters that allow us to create something that is truly interactive. We did a project for GE [General Electric] called Visible You, for the 2010 Shanghai Expo, and there it was really a matter of thinking about how to take their technology, which scans the body and lets you see inside it, and make it very simple in terms of how you interact with it. You could be a child or you could be a grandmother, and when you go up to the display and you stretch, it stretches, when you jump, it jumps. It’s just mimicking your body language. It was really basic, on the one hand, but complex on the other, because we actually modeled the muscular system, the skeletal system, and the vascular system. On the flip side, we just did a project for Yahoo! that isn’t taking the shape of the body, but is instead just the “Y” of their logo, which you can then interact with. So if you walk by it starts to follow you and stretch with you. And what we introduced there was a real-time data feed, so it was actually pulling from Yahoo! News, Yahoo! Sports, Yahoo! Finance, and so on. You have more of these reinputs between the existing particle system, your body’s movements, and this data feed, which together gets really exciting. One of the projects Jesse and I did, and never got to finish because we’re still looking for a client that has a budget for it, was working with a choreographer and thinking about going back to the body as the most basic input device. It was a project on how the creative process works, and was just thinking about how all of our movements and the expressions coming off of our bodies are influencing every interaction and relationship we have, as well as what we see and what we think. So we took a dancer and choreographer and put them in a MoCap (motion capture) suit, and made a whole series of movements that were then translated onto these digital figures, but figures that were abstracted from simple human form into something unrecognizable. That’s sort of the space that we like to play in: to take a technology like MoCap, which is usually used for big Hollywood films, and start to think about it in relationship to something as simple as exploring the creative process.
sP: So do you feel like most of your work is pushing in that direction?
vR: Yeah, toward where animation and interactivity meet, and where the body comes into play. Because I think, ultimately, whether you’re an architect or doing interactive and animation work, it comes back to crafting an experience. I think that we try as much as possible to keep that front and center.
sP: Are there any new techniques or technologies that you guys are into or are experimenting with?
vR: Jesse mentioned augmented reality, and we’re both definitely pretty into that. It speaks to the late ’90s, when architecture was going paperless, but at the same time there was also this sort of shift in visualization. Jesse and I always felt like we were leaving the world of visualizing things and moving into the world of actually creating things. I think that digital tools in the world of architecture were stuck for a number of years in this, “Well, this is what it should look like.” mentality as opposed to the visualization itself being performative in some way. It was simply, “Does this render look photoreal?” And that comes down to technique. I think we’re past that. Whether it’s photoreal or stylized is irrelevant, it becomes about creating new realities and new forms. I think, in a way, digital tools allowed for that, and that’s what we have always tried to do in our practice. I think augmented reality could be the same. Any beginning is just going to be about visualizing what is already there, and that will be really helpful and it will be interesting, but then what is going to happen after that is you get to a tipping point where, again, you open up new realities, and that will be the second generation of people using augmented reality. But I don’t think that will happen at first. First we always have to go through remaking reality and remaking it really accurately.
sP: What is interesting about your approach to the body in your work is this investigation of enhancements or extensions, that augmented reality gives an additional layer of information or experience that goes beyond what we already have at our disposal. It seems a bit of your work does that, in terms of either the physical spaces making this kind of new extension of reality through the creation of an atmosphere or, in the case of the Olympic project (AT&T: Olympics, 2010), adding something that wasn’t already in the city, the snowboarder flying over the top of it.
vR: I think maybe it comes from a desire to move past our physical, funky selves. Jesse and I are both, at heart, real sci-fi nerds, probably like a lot of the people who like the cross between architecture and the digital. Have you ever seen the videos of people that are good at those three-foot metal leg extensions (Powerisers)? What I was so seduced by, even though I couldn’t use them myself, was seeing people who were really good use them, because the person and the machine were literally seamless—it wasn’t as much of a machine as it was an extension of the body. It was so amazing because the kids who were good at it were elegant, in the same way as there is an elegance to skateboarding or freestyle biking. But with this it even feels a little bit more cyborg-like; you kind of get this feeling that they’re floating, because they’re just metal stilts. So I think, on some level, it’s strangely a physical desire to transcend our bodies through these means, whether they’re other physical extensions like those legs or whether they’re digital. It’s the same reason Jesse and I love jetpacks or hoverboards or any of those things.
sP: Have you seen any pronounced shifts in the content or the attitude of the work you’ve done over the past decade, from when you started your studio until now?
vR: One of the things we were always pretty clear about is that we didn’t want to be a motion graphics studio, because we felt motion graphics was defined by this very easy-to-digest layer of graphics over video. I think we always wanted to stay more of a design studio and, as such, we’ll work in 3-D animation, we’ll work in 2-D animation, and we’ll work in sculpture. What has happened is the world of motion graphics really blew up; it became so big over the last eight years. And again, we always tried to stay somewhat outside of that and make sure that we weren’t just seen as that kind of studio. And now I feel like there is finally a bigger movement. Not everyone is against motion graphics, but people are realizing that they need to move beyond them to have something that is really thought provoking. That is good to see, because for a while it felt like it was this very insular community. I think people are now starting to move past their ability to understand motion graphics so simply into, “Oh okay, I understand what a multidisciplinary studio actually is.” So we’re finally starting to feel like we don’t always have to explain ourselves so much when we meet clients, which is nice, because before they wanted to pigeon-hole us, asking “Are you architects? Are you motion graphics designers?” And we’d respond, “Well, I don’t know, we’re not any one of those things.”
sP: We wanted to ask you about your work with architects like Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DSR: Abu Dhabi Media Complex, 2010), where rather than this typical flythrough of the space, the animation had people actually using the building, giving it some agency.
vR: Some films or projects can be new from an artistic or conceptual perspective and some from a technological perspective, and that project was technologically new because we did it in stereoscopic 3-D. So for us that was the reason to do it and be challenged. It was like, “Alright, we can’t stray too much from what this needs to show, but let’s explore what it means to make a 3-D film, and the limitations and complications of that.” It was a great opportunity to do something new on the technology front.
sP: Anything exciting you’re currently reading, listening to, or watching?
vR: I just started Just Kids by Patti Smith, which I’m really excited to be reading. I think there is a feeling of everything from optimism, to chance, to fate, and all these things that we sometimes forget to think about when we’re just moving forward and always having to be in the process of doing. And then, concurrently with that book, I just watched an amazing documentary called Black White + Gray, about Robert Mapplethorpe and Sam Wagstaff. Sam Wagstaff was a curator and Mapplethorpe’s lover, and was the one who really pushed Mapplethorpe to do the whole S&M series, which was really what made Mapplethorpe’s career. And people generally don’t know that Wagstaff was a pretty successful curator and then collector of photography in his own right. But the movie was interesting to think about, about how we don’t just act in a vacuum. I think half of the reason why we do what we do, become what we become, or do the kind of projects we do is because of the different people whose paths we cross. And then I just read Keith Richards’s Life, which was really fun.
sP: You guys mentioned your love of sci-fi, are there any hallmarks for you and Jesse in terms of literature or film?
vR: We probably have different ones. Jesse’s is probably THX 1138 (1971), and mine continues to be Blade Runner (1982). I’ve never evolved past that. I mean, I love Minority Report (2002), not so much the film itself, but just in the way it seamlessly integrates a lot of near-term technology—I think it’s done incredibly well. But on a completely emotional level, it’s Blade Runner. I actually find it very comforting to watch.
sP: Like an old friend. Do you gravitate more toward a near future or a far future?
vR: I’d say near future, because with the near future you can kind of see where the technology will be in five years. Long-term is where it’s completely doing away with the body. While I think that is going to happen, it’s almost like it’s not as relevant, even though it will be eventually, to our grandkids. Right now I think I’m excited by what is around us.