Copy of Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar

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Pedestrian, 2001-2002

Technologies: 3DS Max, AfterEffects, Character Studio, motion analysis equipment, Premiere, Quicktime Pro, Tree Professional 5

Keywords: animation, intervention, motion capture


We experience a brief moment of vertigo when looking at Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar's Pedestrian, a New Media art project that requires us to peer down, as if we are hovering from high above, at tiny human figures projected on the sidewalk or gallery floor. These animated Lilliputians move with uncanny verisimilitude over the streets and plazas of a trompe l'oeil city that has been rendered digitally with near-photographic realism. The figures move in and out of virtual buildings, open umbrellas to avoid synthesized raindrops, and dodge one another in crowds. Occasionally, they seem to move in formations that suggest flocks of birds, or to trace complex patterns on the ground as if performing choreographed routines. Yet there is no linear progression of events, no singular narrative.

Kaiser and Eshkar used motion-capture technology to imbue their miniature characters with realistic movement. They asked eight people to wear form-fitting suits on which reflectors were attached at strategic locations to articulate the motion of their body parts. Infra-red cameras recorded the performers' movements as data that were then manipulated, recombined, and mapped onto three-dimensional models of human figures the artists call "bipeds," (the artist's software is also called Biped). These models are covered with digital renditions of skin, hair and clothing to represent a range of urban types, from men in business suits to school children. Kaiser and Eshkar's use of motion-capture suits recalls the nineteenth-century experiments of French physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey, who invented a system for placing lights on various parts of a subject's body to track movements on camera as a way of analyzing the mechanics of human action.

Pedestrian was inspired in part by Crowds and Power (1960), a book by Nobel-Prize-winning author Elias Cannetti that examines follow-the-leader behavior and the pack mentality of crowds. In addition, the artists drew on urban images by the modernist photographers Aleksandr Rodchencko, Gary Winogrand, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Pedestrian includes a soundtrack composed by computer musician Terence Pender, featuring a soundscape of urban noises like a gate opening or a discarded soda can bouncing down the street. Sometimes these sounds aurally illustrate the animated action; at other times, the soundtrack evokes a world outside the immediate frame. For example, in one scene, we hear an ambulance siren in the distance as an inline skater rolls into view.

Pedestrian positions us as omniscient observers, panning over the city as if from a police helicopter. Removed from the figures below, we witness the movements of the city's inhabitants without the ability to interact with them. At the same time, because these figures occupy the actual physical space in which we stand, we are somehow implicated in their lives. Pedestrian has been installed at many sites around the world, including the Studio Museum in Harlem, the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, and the Inter-Communication Center in Tokyo. Viewers often call out to the figures, or walk among them, casting shadows that invade their world.

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