Inside Rensselaer: Cinema Without Film

Physics and engineering students collaborate with artist Melvin Moti on EMPAC premiere

By Josh Potter

November 24, 2014

It’s 10 p.m. in Rotterdam, Netherlands, when Emily Zimmerman, associate curator of the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC), Skypes artist Melvin Moti from a cluttered workspace in the Rensselaer Science Center. A team of undergraduate students eagerly assemble the components of their project on a workbench and Zimmerman turns the laptop so Moti can assess their progress. It’s mid-October and the group have only a few weeks left to iron out the bugs in The Vision Machine before it’s scheduled to be installed on the EMPAC mezzanine on December 4. These weekly Skype sessions are critical in linking Moti’s vision of a “cinema without film” with the brainpower and busy hands of the physics and engineering students who are building the piece as an independent project with Peter Persans, professor of physics, applied physics, and astronomy.

“Fantastic!” Moti exclaims when the team—consisting of Parvis Alam, Henry Choi, Ravi Panse, Eduardo Gonzalez, Joseph Lapierre, and Philip Sweeting—switches off the lights and begins to demonstrate how Box 1 (of 4) will work. A light source shines through a prism and reflects off a series of Mylar-covered panels affixed to a rotating bike chain, projecting a kaleidoscopic display on the wall. The effect is meant to evoke rainbows, sun dogs, halos, and other atmospheric optical effects that rely on the position and perspective of the viewer to become visible. When all four boxes are running together, stacked as a type of kinetic light sculpture within the installation’s housing, they will create a cinema that doesn’t require a medium (film, digital platform, etc.) to be experienced.

The project is, in part, Moti’s response to the obsolescence of celluloid film: an attempt to create a movie that will still be viewable 50 years or more from today, due to its mechanical rather than electronic construction. It’s also a response to the work of Italian psychologist Riccardo Manzotti, whose theory of “The Spread Mind” posits that consciousness is not housed in the brain so much as spread between the material world and the observer. In an interview, set to run next month in art magazine BOMB, Moti explains that “at some point, I realized the connection [of Manzotti’s work] with how I consider cinema, as something that is located outside the film.” Hence, The Vision Machine demonstrates Manzotti’s theory by creating a film that does not exist without the interaction of the viewer.

On December 4, Manzotti will deliver a lecture on “The Spread Mind” in the EMPAC Theater at 7 p.m. Moti too will be stateside for the premiere.

But there’s still much work to be done to get the piece ready. Gears for The Vision Machine’s specialized motors must be 3-D printed and the housing for the light source must be designed to minimize escaping light. While the EMPAC stage crew constructs the small room in which the piece will be viewed, the students need to determine how the four separate light boxes will stack and how the remaining effects will be mounted. One student holds up a fluorescent light reflector for Moti to consider through the computer. While the artist steers the project according to the effect he’d like to see actualized, he’s left it up to the students to design, strategize, and construct, drawing on their understanding of mechanics and optical physics to troubleshoot problems as they arise and shift course when necessary. Moti first visited EMPAC in September of 2012 to deliver a talk called The Eye As I Can See, as part of the Observer Effects lecture series, curated by Zimmerman. These ideas gave rise to a subsequent arts residency, which is now culminating as a collaborative project.

Along with an upcoming spring 2015 project that has paired Rensselaer physics professor Heidi Newberg and her students with Italian artist Rosa Barba, in a collaboration between EMPAC and the Hirsch Observatory, The Vision Machine is a prime example of EMPAC’s mission to link artists, scientists, and engineers across the boundaries of discipline—and, in this case, geography—connecting Rensselaer students and professors with international scholars through EMPAC’s technical and curatorial resources.