At the Tom Bradley International Terminal arrivals hall at LAX on a recent Thursday morning, tired travelers pushing carts of suitcases erupted from the doorway into the arms of anxious greeters. Flight attendants in figure-fitting uniforms giggled and gossiped in foreign tongues. The new arrivals hall is part of $6 million in upgrades and renovations, and the whole building has a sleek, sophisticated air.
Many of the Angelenos waiting to greet guests that morning were caught up watching a mesmerizing pulse of moving pictures and light. After seven years of development, "See Change," an innovative video-art installation by 17 different artists, has arrived.
The installation comprises two large-scale displays: a 25-screen media wall near the terminal's dining area and, at the other end of the building, a 90-foot linear film strip hanging from the ceiling, consisting of 29 screens back-to-back with 29 others, so you can see screens from either side. Each work lasts five to 15 minutes, and they use the screens in different ways: Some crawl across the film strip, while in another, the monitors simulate airplane windows showing clouds morphing into creatures. Another uses the 25-screen media wall to manipulate amateur footage from the 1960 Rose Parade, which seems to snake across the screens without a beginning or end.
Many of the artists drew inspiration from traveling. Patty Chang and Noah Klersfeld made a piece called Current, which was filmed in the baggage-handling area of LAX, with two kaleidoscopic videos playing back-to-back. Twenty-five screens follow a houseplant as it travels down the mazelike bowels of the terminal on a conveyor belt from the check-in counter to the baggage sorter. The effect of seeing an airport from the inside out on so many screens is dizzying and fascinating.
For his piece To & From LAX, Chip Lord took footage of airports around the world that are common destinations from LAX, such as those in Latin America and Asia. He displays the footage on the media wall, putting LAX in the center and the other airports north, south, east or west of it, as if the grid were a map. At certain points there are simultaneous moments — when video of moving walkways of several airports syncs up, for example. A year ago, Lord was at LAX documenting his piece, and he noticed a family group that had just arrived from Guadalajara, pointing to his screens showing the airport they came from.
"Airports are these kind of nonspaces, not distinguished in any way," says Lord, who has been collecting images of airports for a decade. "But I started thinking about the fact that the network of travel is so vast — at any moment 1 million to 2 million people engaged with it."
The technology is as much a part of the art as the images themselves. At the far end of the arrivals hall is the small "art-traffic control room," where screens show what is playing outside, and what's next. "We actually have an entire multilayer media server for each screen," explains Jon 9, a programmer and production designer.
Each piece of the art is programmable, as the system can take raw material and manipulate it in many ways in real time, creating an almost endless canvas. Special machines called Hippotizers take layers of video, audio or still images and can add 150 effects per layer. The technology is intended as a workshop for future video artists — yet it has to remain invisible to the public. "We don't want someone to think about screens and computers, but just enjoy the piece," Jon 9 says.
While video art has long lived in gallery spaces, it's just beginning to pop up in public spaces, says Felicia Filer, director of the public art division of L.A.'s Department of Cultural Affairs, which funded the artists. Since most of the video art is facing people waiting for travelers, not those exiting the airport, locals will be the primary audience.
The Tom Bradley Terminal sees nearly 10 million passengers per year. The average wait time for someone picking up a passenger is a whopping three hours, so the video art is designed to run for four hours. "It's a no-brainer in terms of reaching the largest and widest potential audience," Filer says. "Public art should be where the people are, as opposed to building a gallery and waiting for people to come."
All around the terminal, other more utilitarian screens blare messages: sports scores above the bar, a giant "Welcome to L.A." sign near the exits, screens announcing the arrivals of flights. How can the artists separate their work from this white noise of light and image?
According to Anne Bray, video art consultant for the project, artists can subvert our typical response to a screen: "The question is, can we take the familiarity of screens and transpose it for artistic purposes?"
Bray says public art screens help reverse a trend in the history of technology. "We've gone from cinemas with hundreds of people, to TV at home, to computers and now smartphones that are smaller and project to just one person. Moi!" Public video art is beginning to change all that.
The official dedication for "See Change" will take place at LAX Saturday, June 16, 5-8 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. Details at facebook.com/culturela.