Transient Spaces


Andrea Wollensak, Associate Professor of Art

Department of Art, Connecticut College, New London, CT. USA



Brett Terry

Burnett Group, New York, New York, USA







“Transient Spaces” is a time-based video which visually and sonically explores the spaces of transit. For most people, an airport, but or train station is a non-place—a necessary connective towards a somewhere else—an experience better measured in (waiting) time than in space. In these spaces, time and space are removed from the routine, and a traveler relates to their loss of control by embracing a virtual fluidity of place and time. Paradoxically, this constructed nonchalant participation in reality is offset by a heightened awareness of the particular and the shifting boundaries of socio-cultural distinctions.


This work is a video installation that interactively and iteratively processes digital video and audio clips, primarily based on train stations and riding on trains. Three principal narratives are articulated, developed and intertwined—consciously blending filmic constructions of vignettes and dovetailing the narrative with formal musical ideas of sonata form development and variations. Disparate and virtual constructions of sonic spaces imprint their presence on the visual imagery and the result is projected into the gallery space.



1. Non-Place


A primary concern that Transient Spaces explores is the conception of non-place, in particular the definitions of non-place that are raised by Michel de Certeau and Marc Augé. Communication technologies, personalized audiovisual enclaves, and the progressive deterioriation of shared regional meanings are all contributing to the increasingly normative experience of non-place as a cultural apprehension of both time and space. Whether experienced as a mode of transit between source and destination, or as the constructed walls of inward-directed experience, a non-place is more than an absence of communal history, symbols, and codes of behavior—a non-place is, in Augé’s words, a world “where a dense network of means of transport which are also inhabited spaces is developing, where the habitué of  supermarkets, slot machines and credit cards communicate wordlessly, through gestures, with an abstract, unmediated commerce; a world surrendered to solitary individuality, to the fleeting, the temporary and ephemeral. [1]” Non-place designates two complementary but distinct realities: spaces formed in relation to certain ends (transport, transit, commerce, leisure) and the relations that individuals have with these spaces.


In his book, The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau writes about the incarcerated phenomenology of traveling in a railway car as an illustrative metaphor for the experience of non-place [2]. We used the following excerpted text as the initial basis for the piece:


“Only a rationalized cell travels. A bubble of panoptic and classifying power, a module of imprisonment that makes possible the production of an order, a closed and autonomous insularity—that is what can traverse space and make itself independent of local roots.


Inside, there is the immobility of an order. Here rest and dreams reign supreme. There is nothing to do, one is in the state of reason. Everything is in its place … Every being is placed there like a piece of printer’s type on a page … This order … is the condition of both a railway car’s and a text’s movement from one place to another.


Outside, there is another immobility, that of things, towering mountains, stretches of green field and forest, arrested villages, colonnades of buildings…”

2. Concept of Work

Augé’s text provided a set of themes and polarities to explore in our work—in particular we were drawn to the condition of order, the relationships between text and the railway car, and his discussions of the interior-exterior dividing characteristics of the railway car’s window glass and the train rails. We decided to develop a vocabulary of video-processing methods for the work that could be used to visually control and vary amounts of (dis)order, based on the variable probability and scale of vertical scanlines. This set of techniques, developed with the Max/MSP/Jitter programming environment, would serve to unify the structure of the work, which we decided to organize into three “characters” that would each be given their own expositions in short vignettes, followed by a number of short vignettes in which these ideas would intertwine and be developed—an exercise in form based on integrating and finding connections between visual/filmic metaphors of coalescing  plots and the exposition and development principles inherent in musical sonata form.


The three characters in the work were identified as: (a) horizontally moving train rails and power wires (shot out of moving trains with a camera pressed to the window, Figure 1), (b) the de Certeau text excerpts (Figure 2), and (c) imagery of people moving through train stations (Figure 3). Each character is introduced separately and there are two component layers of the soundtrack. A processed recording of walking through a train station (passing in and out of proximity to several conversations) plays throughout the entire work as a base layer, while each short vignette additionally has its own characteristic sound materials. The sounds are analyzed by the programming for dynamic variations which are used to control the probability and scale of the vertical processing, and to trigger  changes in the brightness, contrast, and saturation.


Figure 1. Rail and overhead wire imagery.


Figure 2. Text excerpts.


Figure 3. People in transit.


3. Developmental Processes

As noted above, the primary generative techniques employed in the work were the use of analyzed audio material to influence the video processing. This was accomplished using a Jitter software patch, part of which is shown below in Figure 4:



Figure 4. Jitter patch used for video processing.


In the beginning three sections of the work, some streak-based processing was used on the imagery, initially presented as two or three overlapping semi-translucent placards in a larger white background. After much experimentation and refinement of the programming, we were able to determine several behavioral ranges of the probability, scale, brightness, contrast, and saturation settings that led to compositionally desirable and aesthetically resonant motifs.


Figure 5. Frame sequence: people to bars


Figure 5 illustrates one such range as part of a sequence, presented here as a grid of video stills (such stills were used as the basis for several large print works hung in the gallery). An initial setting of minimal saturation, moderate streaking, and high brightness was used to depict the moving figures as anonymous and ghost-like. A progression was developed in which the people rapidly transform via rain-like vertical streaking into a horizontally shifting pattern of color bars, establishing a contrast with the horizontal motifs inherent in the rails and wires.


Figure 6. Noisy wave artifact.


Figure 6 illustrates another phenomena produced by very specific interactions of the settings, the processing, and the audio-derived analysis data. Similar to the unexpected emergence of the color bars, and also verging on the threshold of random noise, a rippling wave would appear along the top third of the screen for a short while, before breaking up into noise, vertical bars, or a heavily streaked version of the source imagery.


In each of the latter sections of the work, additional techniques were employed to develop and interrelate the material, a task made inherently challenging by the need to avoid any sense of repetition when using a particular video clip more than once. Some of these techniques included using additional low-opacity layers of material at the same time, varying the speed of the footage, using perspective, extending the text material into a virtual 3-dimensional space (Figure 7), and iteratively processing moments previously seen with the same Jitter patch and different settings.


Figure 7. Three-Dimensional text moving to vanishing point.


4. Conclusions


By creating an environment where audio is made to influence the video materials, we are mostly interested in discovering emergent and unpredictable behaviors that we would have been unlikely to discover using traditional means. We are interested in finding a balance for the cross-media influence that is not explicit or overt, merely perceptible at a level just beneath the surface. The construction of any time-based audio-visual work is a formal and visceral challenge  that must derive its own logic of necessity, syntactical and semantic coherence, and informational unpredictability via the means of its form, materials, and their relations. We have found generative tools an asset in interrelating materials, building micro-macro structural relationships, and iteratively developing and combining materials.


[1] Augé, Marc. (1995). Non-places: introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity. London, Verso, p. 78.


[2] de Certeau, Michel. (1984).The practice of everyday life. Berkeley, University of California Press.