How Scharff Weisberg and Christie Brought Doug Aitken: sleepwalkers to Light at MOMA

Video art installations, long a staple of the modern-art museum, don’t typically have a lot in common with the movies – movies are seen on large screens in dark auditoriums in a gathering of hundreds of strangers, while video art is more often viewed in a smallish room, from benches or uncomfortable chairs, under less-than-ideal conditions. The effect is more like watching TV in your basement than going to the cinema.
But Doug Aitken: sleepwalkers, a new public art exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in midtown Manhattan, is cinematic in its scale. Conceived by artist Doug Aitken, the outdoor installation comprises eight 1080p video images being projected, at sizes ranging from 40 to 65 feet wide, on the outside walls of MOMA and the nearby American Folk Art Museum. The pictures interact in surprising ways, and in three dimensions, with one moving image casting reflections into another as light dances across and seems to penetrate behind the glass facades that serve as projection screens. Viewing the exhibit from the Museum’s sculpture garden, from which five different projections are visible, is like walking through a drive-in multiplex where the screens are made of glass.
Broken down to its components, sleepwalkers consists of 13-minute loops of footage. At any given time, five projectors are showing five separate silent narratives – each depicting one of five actors (Tilda Swinton, Ryan Donowho, Seu Jorge, Chan Marshall and Donald Sutherland) shot on 35mm and/or HD – and three more projectors are showing more generic accompanying imagery. (For example, the narratives each depict characters waking up in the morning and showering as the extra screens show footage of a sunrise, and then of water cascading out of a shower head.) Edits take place at the same moment across all screens, reinforcing a theme of random synchronicity. After the 13-minute narrative runs its course, it begins anew, but the clips change location. Viewers see different connections between images depending on when, exactly, they take in the project, and which screens showing which content are visible from the vantage they choose.
A Unique Installation
“There are some requirements of this project that are different from just about any project I’ve worked for the last 25 years,” said Josh Weisberg, president of Scharff Weisberg, which engineered the installation. “None of the surfaces we’re projecting on are projection screens. They’re building facades, ranging from black granite to painted brick to glass with a vinyl appliquà©, and glass with what’s called a frit, which is an etching that gives it a transparency. And the other thing that makes this project unique is that all the projectors are located outdoors in the winter.”
The images originate from a fleet of eight Christie projectors provided by Nationwide, a wholesaler owned by Christie. “Because it’s a short-term event, it’s not something that anyone would want to go invest that kind of money in,” explained Gary Fuller, Christie’s VP of business products. “With the lenses, the Roadie 25K projectors are $160,000 or $170,000 apiece at retail.”
Sleepwalkers uses five of those Roadie 25Ks, three-chip 2K projectors which use a 2048×1080 DLP chipset. Think of them as a ruggedized variant on Christie’s CP2000 digital cinema projectors. “Those are the highest-resolution DLP chips available right now,” Fuller said. “It’s full cinema resolution. There are some manufacturers making claims that they’re brighter than we are, but we haven’t seen one yet. Nobody has been able to show us a brighter projector than that one.”
“The image quality is superlative,” Weisberg told Film & Video. “I wanted to use the projector that was the brightest and had the best resolution. Projecting onto non-traditional screen surfaces, you run into mitigating factors that put a premium on light level and resolution.” For one thing, Weisberg says, as much as 40 percent of the light from a projector may be lost as it passes through glass to eventually hit a surface that no one can see. And for another, since some of the projectors were placed at odd angles, the image is being re-processed to correct the skewed images, which results in a resolution hit. “You want to start off with as much as you can get,” Weisberg said.
At the three locations where quality needs weren’t quite as critical, Weisberg installed Roadie S+20s, which are rated at about 18,000 lumens compared to 25,000 for the 25Ks.
“Where the Heck Do We Put the Projector?”
Weisberg started working on the project shortly after it was conceived by public arts organization Creative Time, scouting out suitable surfaces for the projection. “There were two things we were looking at,” he says. “What is the surface going to look like, in terms of the image? And, if we like it, where the heck are we going to put the projector? There are some great facades on the north-facing side of 54th Street – but they would have required getting permission to put a 25,000-lumen projector in someone’s living room across the street.”
After about a year of tests and discussions, the final layout was selected. Seven of the projectors are on museum property, and five of them are encased in custom-fabricated 18-foot-tall wooden monoliths with sand-filled bases, a watertight projection port and heating and ventilation systems. The eighth projector is actually located on the terrace of a law office across 53rd Street from the museum, which projects onto the wall above MOMA’s main entrance.
Keeping all eight screens of video frame-synchronized across as much as 400 feet of distance between projectors was another challenge. Scharff Weisberg used Watchout, a playback system from Swedish company Dataton that runs on Windows PCs that communicate using a proprietary networking protocol. “The trick was getting the network across all these different spaces. We ended up distributing some of the computing power. Some of them are in the parking lot, some are in the garden, and there’s a computer in the terrace outside the lawyer’s office. They can, if necessary, run separately but still remain in sync. We can use GPS-enabled timecode generators as our time source if necessary.”
The footage was all provided as 24p files, but Scharff Weisberg encoded it all as 1080p/30 since that seemed to yield the overall smoothest, highest-quality image. “Image quality off of this system is extraordinary, although it is compressed HD,” Weisberg said.
Weisberg said the key to successfully deploying the sleepwalkers system was looking at options with a keen eye, and possessing an understanding of the underlying artistic issues. “I’m a big proponent of seeing is believing and beauty being in the eyes of the beholder,” he says. “Part of it has to do with an art aesthetic. You have to be really careful, asking yourself, ‘What result are we looking for?’ And, ‘How much liberty is the artist willing to take with the image?'”
Doug Aitken: sleepwalkers debuted January 16 and continues from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. nightly through February 12; admission to the museum's sculpture garden is free each night.