The Front Yard


Located in Buffalo, NY, artist Brian Milbrand and architect Brad Wales envisioned the transformation of the Burchfield Penney Art Center’s exterior into a backdrop for audio and image, turning the traditional notion of a gallery inside out. They imagined art curated—created even—by the seasons, the weather, the passage of time. On October 18, this concept became reality as the Front Yard at the Center was unveiled.

The sweeping curve of the Burchfield Penney exterior will become a projection surface, creating the world’s first permanent environmentally-responsive, outdoor audio and video environment. The Front Yard will turn the Center inside out both architecturally and socially. Installations are curated from image and sound art including new work created for this project, as well as from the Center’s collection.

Using Max/MSP, artist Brian Milbrand with electrical engineer George Hampton and programmers Paul Visco, JT Rinker and John Bono designed an interface that will curate audio and video pieces based upon the weather data from a weather tower on the top of the Burchfield Penney. That weather data is also used to create audio and video using Max/MSP. Artists have created Max/MSP patches specifically for the installation, including John Toth’s Time Interval, John Bono’s Topia, JT Rinker’s Tangents and Milbrand’s Afterglow. Max/MSP acts as a bridge between the arduino based weather tower and the SQL database that media is selected from. Max also synchronizes the video and audio playback across 3 projectors and the 6.1 surround sound system.

Do you remember the first Max patch you ever made? What was it?

The first Max project I ever made was at the Experimental Television Center (ETC) in Owego, NY in 2003. In my time as an undergraduate at the University at Buffalo in the late 90's, I had seen Max on the computers, and tried opening the program up, but was faced with a blank white screen that meant nothing to me. When I had a residency at the ETC, I saw they had Max on the computer, a bunch of demo files created by Aaron Miller, and a print out of all of the tutorials. I took that week to completely immerse myself in learning the program, and the fun part was that it was hooked into all of these great analog audio and video devices that could communicate back and forth via control voltages and midi. The first patch I made I used to create Feedback Oscillations, a combination of the visualization of high frequency control voltage waves and video feedback, with a midi and korg soundtrack all controlled by Max.

How did you come up with this project idea?

I came up with the idea for the Front Yard project around 5 years ago when the Burchfield Penney was about to open their new building, and they put out a call for public art work. I worked with architect/artist Brad Wales collaboratively, and we came up with an idea for a 3 screen outdoor installation that would be controlled by the weather. At the time I had started working with sensors to control max both in my own work, and helping fellow artists to incorporate sensors into their own work. I had worked extensively with nimbus dance, directed by Beth Elkins and Brad Wales, with using sensors on the dancers or around the dancers to control audio or video. I was really intrigued by the thought of media selected to fit the current weather conditions, and I thought that Buffalo was the perfect place for such an installation, given the wide variety of weather that we have, ranging from the raging snow storms that Buffalo is notorious for to the beautiful, clear summer days that sadly seem to be a well kept secret. Brad and I were also inspired by the namesake of the museum, painter Charles Burchfield. Burchfield's work is known for looking at the subtle changes in the seasons, and we thought this work would take his interest and study into a new medium.

What sorts of problems did you have to solve?

There were a wide variety of challenges along the way, and I'm certain, given the "forever" nature of the project, there will be plenty of new challenges into the future. My first challenge was trying to learn JavaScript and SQL for databasing the media and weather data. I usually only program in Max, so this was a very daunting task and one I realized pretty quickly I couldn't accomplish alone.
I was very lucky to be able to hire a team of programmers to work on the project, including Max programmers JT Rinker and John Bono, along with Paul Visco who is a SQL and JavaScript guru and server administrator, as well as electrical engineer George Hampton who designed the weather tower (also thanks to Andrew Benson's JavaScript/SQLite databasing sample). Together we were able to figure out the best ways to create and call the databases so that they would select videos based upon the current weather conditions.
Another big challenge was programming a 24/7/365 media installation with ever changing content. The Burchfield Penney Art Center's mission is to be a catalyst for the creation of art by Western New York Artists, and there is a rich media arts history in Buffalo that goes back to experimental artists like Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits, Woody and Steina Vasulka and Tony Conrad and that experimental culture is still very active today in the works of artists including Meg Knowles, Dorothea Braemer, Vince Mistretta, Peer Bode, Andrew Deutsch and Barbara Lattanzi. My goal was to make an installation that would celebrate the history and future of media arts in Western New York through other media artists creating work for this installation. I've been very excited about the response we've gotten and continue to get from the community and the wide variety of work that has already been made for the installation. It's exciting to create a jumping off point for artists to explore, and also create a very public venue for these works to be seen. Experimental media is something that most people aren't exposed to. I remember in school watching films like Meshes of the Afternoon (Deren, 1943) or Mothlight (Brakhage, 1963) for the first time and being shocked by them, not really understanding them, and I really hope The Front Yard will expose viewers to different types of media than they are normally exposed to.

If there were one person who you would want to see your project, who would it be?

I want people to enjoy looking at abstract video and listening to experimental audio, to begin to understand the language of them as well as they understand the language of narrative film. I'm also really excited that the installation will continue to evolve as new media work is added each month, but also as unique weather events happen that will create unique work that will never be the same twice.
I'm going to give two people I would want to see this project, since one is dead and one is alive. I really would love to have had Hollis Frampton see this work, since he has been hugely influential on my work, and I really wish I could have met him and learned from him. Zorn's Lemma was an incredibly overwhelming experience the first time I saw it. I remember being so overtaken by the film, that my breathing began to follow its rhythm, and was then disrupted when he begins disrupting the beginning structure of the film. Structural film influenced the way I think about media, looking at media not just for narrative, but as a way to deconstruct images, to create meaning from repetition and form, to experiment. A few of the pieces I've made for the Front Yard could be considered modern interpretations of structural filmmaking, using the weather data to define the length of a cut or which clip to play. Plus, Frampton was a digital arts pioneer, and I think would have been really interested in Max as a media tool if he had lived to see it. I'd also really love for James Benning to see this work. I've had very moving experiences watching 13 Lakes and 10 Skies, and I think he would create a very interesting work for this project.

At the conclusion of this project were you:
a) exhausted
b) ready to do a new one
c) thinking of ways to expand it
d) [other, please describe]

At the conclusion of the project I was completely exhausted, but also thinking of ways to expand it. When I imagined the project, I always thought I would need 2 years to create it, but to coincide with the Burchfield-Penney's calendar we only had 11 months, so it was a real tough marathon to the finish line (with some work still ongoing). At the start of the project, I had many ideas of what I wanted to create (some of which I am still working on). The first piece that played on the system, Afterglow, is a piece that transitions at sunset from an audio installation (since the daylight washes out the video projection) to a video and audio installation. The piece uses the weather data to control instrumental drones by guitar, flute, saxophone. Every day the machine randomizes what weather data controls the pitch of each instrument. As the sun goes down the volume of these drones goes down just as the image of sunsets in reverse comes up on the screen, with the electronic "sound" of those images replacing the soothing drones of the real instruments. Now that the Front Yard has turned on, though, I've had a plethora of new ideas and new paths to explore. Since it¹s been on it¹s been collecting data, so now I actually have a database of weather values that I can look at, I can really start to understand how the weather changes, and which variables will give the best data for different ideas. Plus, I've been so focused on the weather and cycles in life, that I constantly see new angles to explore. I think that's one of the most interesting things about the installation is that it's digital media that makes you think about the natural world around you.