Charlotte Kent on how Nancy Baker Cahill’s “Slipstream Times Square” transformed the busy commercial hub into a space of meditation.
Courtesy of Times Square Arts.
Nancy Baker Cahill has been moving across media since the 1990s, exploring technologies as they emerge while remaining steadfast to her drawing practice. In Slipstream Times Square...
Nancy Baker Cahill has been moving across media since the 1990s, exploring technologies as they emerge while remaining steadfast to her drawing practice. In Slipstream Times Square, produced for Times Square Arts’ Midnight Moment in July 2022, that intimate original hand gesture pulsed over one of the most trafficked spaces in the world, radiating across 93 screens to envelop the gathered audience into a mutual whole.
Her Slipstream series stems from early graphite drawings that she ripped and rebuilt into sculptures before transforming them, via an AI program, into spiraling 3-d objects that lo...
Her Slipstream series stems from early graphite drawings that she ripped and rebuilt into sculptures before transforming them, via an AI program, into spiraling 3-d objects that loop in virtual reality installations (VR). Some seem made of metal, others of bone, cellular tissues, or even distant galaxy clusters, a diversity of associations which Baker Cahill cultivates by constantly modulating her media practice and research interests in order to ensure she brings new perspectives and insights as she iterates the form. These looping installations immerse audiences in dense color, producing an unexpected tactility. Selecting a dramatic moment from each work, she returns them to their material base as prints that resist representation. It’s a practice that moves in and out of tangible and virtual realities to resist categorization.
Courtesy Nancy Baker Cahill.
Baker Cahill’s background in chiaroscuro and basic rendering techniques from years of drawing classes at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts provides the basis for an attention to the subtleties of light in space found in her VR and AR works. As an undergraduate at Williams College, she studied both video and drawing, defying the disciplinary divide between time-based media and the mainstream category of drawing. Across her work, she illuminates forms and cultivates points of refraction to reveal and obscure elements of the focal object, compelling audiences to move around and search within what they see. Audiences followed the undulations in Slipstream Times Square, manifesting the mobility that screens typically eliminate.
"The animation heaves, breathes, and on one curved screen seems to billow into space."
Courtesy Times Square Arts.
Her title for this series recalls the little known arena of slipstream fiction that bounds across science fiction, fantasy and high literature to produce sophisticated yet playful ...
Her title for this series recalls the little known arena of slipstream fiction that bounds across science fiction, fantasy and high literature to produce sophisticated yet playful narratives. She fosters a similar fluidity in her studio, resisting temptations to define her practice. Information gleaned from one art serves another and this is the hybridity that is at the heart of Baker Cahill’s body of work. There are politics in refusing categories or media specificity that are integral to the conceptual underpinnings in all she does.
Just as Baker Cahill’s background in drawing enhances her work in virtual spaces, so did working with VR and AR prepare her to produce the kind of site-specific and dynamic work necessary for the scale and context of Midnight Moment. When I met Baker Cahill before seeing Slipstream Times Square one night, she described the effort of integrating her vision across 93 screens with different orientations and dimensions, various pixel resolutions (from 334 to 10,000), assorted latencies, as well as disparate timers tied to the business operations of the 16 distinct companies running the billboards. These problems complicate efforts to create synchronicity, and yet as the screens shifted to the old film-reel countdown from 10 to 1 in preparation of viewing her work, the thousands of people across the Broadway blocks pooled their attention.
Baker Cahill knew that she wanted to dissolve expectations of what those screens might deliver while still adopting their language of light, size, and 360-degree containment produced by their locale. The billboards have historically helped define Times Square as an epicenter of capitalist exhortation, but Slipstream Times Square blurs the boundary between the screens and something alive, dissolving ad tech culture’s endless pitching for a sense of life’s own pitch.
The animation heaves, breathes, and on one curved screen seems to billow into space. The deep rose hue of Slipstream Times Square radiates with her careful study of color and shadow, crafted through a render engine to produce something otherwise impossible. The artificial colors somehow recall the interior of the body, a tension that perfectly represents the familiar strangeness or strangely familiar qualities cultivated by slipstream fiction. In contrast to the cool tones of the blue light we typically absorb through our digital media encounters, the pinks bathe the body in balmy chroma. And, where our bodies mindlessly bend down into those sleek black boxes, here torsos turn up with ergonomic awe.
For three minutes, Slipstream Times Square transformed the fire storm of advertising into a temperate clime for human connection. The pulse of humanity slowed with the radiant hum of Baker Cahill's work.
Courtesy Times Square Arts.
Courtesy Times Square Arts.
Charlotte Kent, PhD is the Assistant Professor of Visual Culture at Montclair State University. Her work theorizes how visual and linguistic rhetorical devices constrain what we see by exploring their historical and political context. Her current research investigates the absurd in contemporary art and speculative design. Her writing has appeared in Leonardo, Word and Image, Journal of Visual Culture, Art Review, BOMB, Wired, and the Brooklyn Rail, where she is also an Editor-at-Large.