Vending machines that sell human DNA. People trapped in jars and blenders. Bottles of perfume that smell like burning books. You have to expect the unexpected with Gabriel Barcia-Colombo, a New York–based artist who works with film, electronics, performance, biomaterials and more to create mind-bending interactive artworks.
His latest piece, “New York Minute,” confronts commuters in a subway station with slow-motion, large-screen portraits of New Yorkers at play. As this work debuted in the Fulton Center subway hub in New York, we asked Barcia-Colombo to take us on a tumble down his own private rabbit hole — past dreams of derailed roller coasters, mummified spaghetti brains, and other weird wonders.
Tell us about your latest work.
I just launched “New York Minute,” a 52-channel video art piece. It’s a 60-screen installation at a new subway station in New York, and it features super-slow-motion portraits of New Yorkers. It’s about trying to get people in this new subway station to slow down and look at art on the wall. The characters that you see on the street when you used to look at people on the street. So every ten minutes, all the screens in the new Fulton Center play all 60 of my 30-second videos of New Yorkers doing a slow-motion dance, all at once. I’m doing a lot of performances in New York, and a lot of larger public works. I decided just last year that I want to focus on public pieces.
“New York Minute” features 52 slow-motion portraits of New Yorkers doing everyday things. This subway installation points out the things we miss when we rush around the city at a frantic pace. It was commissioned by the MTA Arts & Design program.
That was an installation in the mid-Manhattan branch called the “Secret Society of Forbidden Literature.” There were two components. First, I put LED signs in the windows that played lines from famous banned books, viewable from 5th Avenue. And then I made custom perfumes, based on the plots of famous banned books. So I made a Fahrenheit 451 perfume that smelled like burning books, and a Lolita perfume that smells like teen romance (a lot of candy and fruit), and a Brave New World perfume that references a passage about a machine called the scent harmonium, which creates smells for the future. I created the smell they describe in the book for Soma perfume. It smells like metal and spice.
Then, for one night, we gave a performance. I collaborated with a theater director named Benita de Wit for the piece, in which each member gets a fake library card, gets initiated, and takes a vow to protect the banned books. Then each person was assigned a book. A character would come out and pull each audience member into the library somewhere to perform a scene from the book, as a character from it. It was a one-on-one performance. In fact, we conceived the idea as a sort of literary lap dance.
Above, sneak a peek into the “Secret Society of Forbidden Literature,” an immersive performance by Gabriel Barcia-Colombo and Benita de Wit about the history of banned books in the New York Public Library.
That sounds like an amazing experience. What were some of the characters?
One was a kid from Lord of the Flies, who built a little tent for you, you’d huddle inside together pretending you’re on the island, and he’d recite part of the passage to you. For A Clockwork Orange, a doctor would grab you and take you into an elevator. As you went up, she’d ask all these questions, and then put you in front of a window, and give you headphones playing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. And when you looked into the street, you’d see a guy dancing perfectly in sync with what’s playing in the headphones.
For Alice in Wonderland, the caterpillar would hand you a pill: “One of these will make you smaller, one of these will make you taller.” It was just a Tic Tac, but people were unsure whether they should eat it or not. I like the idea of doing immersive projects where there’s no boundary between audience and the actor.
The overall idea was that in the secret society, they’d found other ways for you to ingest books, whether through propaganda — the LED signs — or via the sense of smell, or through sound, in the theater component.
Where do you get such wacky ideas?
I get them usually from walking around the city and looking at people, and then seeing all the things that people seem to miss in the city — street interactions, that kind of thing. Most people are looking at their phones nowadays, where they don’t notice there’s all this crazy drama that’s happening around them. I’m also influenced by dream imagery. I have a lot of crazy dreams all the time. I go to these places that don’t exist, but I go to them over and over again in the dreams. I have a dream where I go to the same amusement park over and over again. There are these different rides. But every time I go on them, something goes terribly wrong — they’ll catch on fire, the track won’t be finished.
You should make that.
I’ll work on it. I could all it “Danger Park.” I grew up in Los Angeles—that could be why there’s all these amusement park dreams too. And I go to Coney Island every weekend in the summer. I’m actually teaching a class right now on how to make a haunted house. It’s my favorite class to teach, because it’s part acting and part immersive theater, using technology — remote control lighting, soundtracks for spaces, interactive motors — to create immersive effects.
Above, see “Animal Chordata,” a collection of Barcia-Colombo’s friends captured in jars.
Where did you get the idea to capture people in the jars, blenders, and so on?
I went to film school at USC and made a bunch of films – but the medium felt very static. It’s this experience where you’re sitting there and watching this art form take place in front of you. You have emotional interaction, but you don’t have any physical interaction with it. I wanted to make filmic experiences, but things that you could actually interact with physically in some way — whether that’s touching something, or affecting a material by moving in front of it, or using sound sensing.
So I started thinking about what you could do with characters in 3D space, in real life. As a graduate student, I went to the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, where I now teach. There, I learned to work with sensors and microprocessors. I started incorporate the technology into film, creating pieces that were half cinema, half interactive-art hybrids. I filmed my friends, and then I projected them into these jars. Then I used a proximity sensor that would trigger different reactions, so it’s as if the people can see you from inside the jars. I worked on this series of pieces for about five or six years. Now I’m doing different pieces that are similar in style, but not with projection into glass.
I have those pieces in my house now. It’s funny, because none of the group of people I filmed in that first series live in New York anymore—a lot of them have moved away. So it’s this nice memorialization of them—and of my life—at that time.
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