A conversation with artist Nick Bastis
Artist Nick Bastis
brings an education in architecture and urban planning to his work, which frequently focuses on the relationships between people and urban structures or spaces. Last fall, Bastis used a Wingscapes Timelapse PlantCam
like a Timelapse ProjectCam
to document a Chicago project called “Forms of Spectacle and Solutions to Vacancy.”
Working with local middle-school students, he built a replica of a structure by renowned architect Frank Gehry
in an empty lot to observe its impact on the neighborhood. The project earned a grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation and was featured by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs as part of Chicago Artist’s Month in October 2010. Wingscapes was pleased to learn more about the project from Bastis.
Forms of Spectacle and Solutions to Vacancy from Nick Bastis on Vimeo.
Q: What was the genesis of this project?
NB: I was intrigued by the vast amount of vacant space in Chicago — some 14,000 empty lots. The particular area on the west side where this project took place had about 70 foreclosures per square mile, so there was a massive amount of vacancy. Chicago operates on this “City Beautiful” model, and they’ve invested a lot of money into really beautiful architectural objects downtown, targeted toward tourists and created by famous architects, including Frank Gehry.
Gehry is credited with having such a strong architectural aesthetic that he can transform cities with his buildings. For instance, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, is being called the most important building of the 20th century. I was really intrigued by how a famous architect could potentially transform a neighborhood or a whole city through an object’s aesthetic.
So that started me off thinking that there wasn’t a lot of investment going on in this particular dilapidated neighborhood, so why not do what has been done downtown and commission the building of a really famous structure? I don’t personally believe that it’s just a structure that makes a healthy place, and I think it’s interesting how a lot of the wealth of Chicago has been directed toward structures like these. It’s unfortunate, because a lot of the city, in particular neighborhoods like the one I was working with, have been left out of that investment. So my project was an institutional critique, poking fun at some of that.
Q: How did you involve the students?
NB: I worked with a group of seventh and eighth graders from East Garfield's Beidler Elementary school
. It was completely by coincidence and really serendipitous that the empty lot I was able to use was about a block from this school and a group of kids who needed something to do.
Q: What famous structure did you choose and how did you recreate it?
NB: We built a replica of the Venice Beach House lookout tower
predominantly out of cardboard, for several reasons. First, we didn’t have a lot of money to work with. Second, these kids don’t have a lot of financial or logistical mobility or access to real construction materials, so building it out of everyday, common materials like cardboard was an opportunity to show them that you can make something beautiful out of something really simple, and you can make something strong out of a material that by itself might not be that strong.
Q: How and why did you use the PlantCam in this project?
NB: One of the pieces of documentation these famous architectural projects love to boast is the process of construction, which is usually done thru timelapse photography. I wanted to echo that in our process.
The PlantCam was a major component of the project. When you’re working on something where the process is so durational, there’s no way to capture that with a regular video camera without going through hundreds of dollars’ worth of videotape and compiling hundreds of hours of footage. With the PlantCam or ProjectCam, a whole day can be compressed into a short time.
In that respect, the tool was really consistent with the project itself. There was this space/time compression going on. We were building a replica, which is a kind of compression, and doing it in three weeks, which is an extreme compression of how long it would typically take to build. Plus the lifespan of the building was only a day, which is a huge compression as well. So having the camera capture all that compression was consistent, and now I have the footage to sort through so easily. It’s pretty amazing.
Q: How have you used that timelapse footage?
NB: The construction took place every day inside the school, and I have about 30 days of timelapse construction footage. The most immediate benefit was that every day when the kids came in, they got to watch what they’d done the day before. That was invaluable. The kids are between 12 and 15 years old, their attention spans are short, and most of the project was during their vacation time. They weren’t getting any school credit, it was just something they wanted to do, so a goal was definitely to make it as fun as possible. Being able to come in each day and see what they’d done the day before really inspired them to work so that tomorrow they could come in and watch it again. The kids really enjoyed that, and it allowed constant framing of the work.
In the end, the PlantCam served as a great way to document the process as a whole. The resulting video is in three chapters: the construction process and our communication with Frank Gehry’s office, the unveiling ceremony, and the aftermath.
Q: Can you tell us more about the aftermath?
NB: I had the timelapse PlantCam up on a telephone pole at the site, because I did feel something was going to happen, but I didn’t expect it to happen as quickly as it did. The whole structure got stolen within 24 hours. I drove back to the site the night after the ceremony and couldn’t believe it was gone. It was crazy.
That was another reason we built it out of cardboard. Otherwise, it would have been too similar to what I think Gehry does, which is impose permanent objects on a local territory. The idea was that if it were built out of a degradable material like cardboard, then it would really show the conversation between it and the community. And in this case, it was pilfered.
I’m not willing to dive into what I think are the reasons for that. It could be that the kids really liked it and wanted it in their backyards. Or maybe they hated it and wanted it down. I could never say why I thought it was taken, but I think how short a time it lasted is significant in and of itself and reflects the situation in the neighborhood. I also wonder what would happen to the structures downtown if they weren’t protected 24/7 by security. Structures so significantly affect the communities they’re in, and it was great to give the community the opportunity to have a similar effect on the structure itself. There’s a two-way interaction.
Q: In general, then, did the project unfold as you expected?
NB: Overall I couldn’t have been happier with how it all went. There are so many unforeseeable issues.
For instance, I went in thinking that because we were building out of cardboard, the students would be able to participate in construction. And while they were able to participate, when we started cutting cardboard, one girl cut herself three times. What was I thinking? Of course the kids are going to cut themselves, they’re thirteen and they’ve never used a razor blade before. So some elements of the collaborative effort were limited by their experience.
There were also some logistical issues where I’d made false assumptions. For instance, I had originally wanted to have more interaction with the site, but the kids weren’t allowed to leave the school, so every time I wanted to bring the kids to the site would have required another round of permission slips. And that takes a long time.
But when I look back on it, I’m amazed at how well it worked out. It was like a miracle, with the school located so close to the lot and the kids being so interested. They could have just said, “I don’t want to do this and not get credit for it, and who are you? Why are you in my school?” Plus it’s a year-round school, so for the last two weeks of the project they were on vacation. When I was thirteen years old, during vacation I wanted to be as far away from school as I could be, so I was really lucky they were interested, because none of them were required to be there.
But the other thing that became apparent during the project is that there are really no safe havens for these kids to interact with each other. The neighborhood is pretty sparing, there’s an incredible amount of empty space, and it’s pretty dangerous. You could say the kids are safe, for the most part, when they’re in their homes, but the school is their only social space where they can all just hang out without worrying about familial issues or stuff going on outside. Some of the luxuries I experienced as a child — being able to walk home and know I was going to be safe — are things a lot of these kids don’t feel. So the school was a place of safety.
So there were some curve balls, but overall, through a lot of luck, it worked out.
Q: Was there anything you wished the timelapse camera could do that it couldn’t?
NB: The one thing that would really be helpful is related to how much you can compress. It can capture somewhere around 2,000 images, which is a really long time when you’re only taking a picture every minute or less. That can be a full week. But you can only compress 360 of those images into a video clip at one time. I think that’s a limitation on the memory card or what the hardware can hold internally. It acts like a computer, which is amazing, but I think it would be really helpful if there was an option to plug the camera directly into your computer and compress all 2000 images at one time. That’d be great. When you’re doing these really long projects, it’d be helpful to perform larger operations.
But in general, the camera is really amazing. You take it out of the box and you’re using it within five minutes. It’s so fun.
The first night I got it, I took timelapse video of myself sleeping! I wondered if I was rolling all over the place or what. It allows you to see things you’re not typically able to see, so it’s pretty amazing.
Q: What are you working on now? Do you expect to use the PlantCam again?
NB: The Forms of Spectacle project was a huge undertaking, so I’m working on some smaller projects now.
I do have another project in the concept phase that I’m planning on using the PlantCam for. The timelapse camera has opened my eyes to its potential, and a lot of artists in the area have been exposed to it through this project, which is great. It’s almost like a new medium. When you know you have that tool available, it changes the way you can look at the built environment, because you have the ability to capture things you’re just not normally able to capture.
We’ll look forward to seeing your next art project with a timelapse component, Nick! Thanks for chatting with us!