Photo Essays

Guggenheim’s “Play: A Biennial of Creative Video” Wows

The awards show atmosphere began at the entrance where a backdrop and a gaggle of media types were talking to people whom I didn’t recognize. (click to enlarge)

Last night, Manhattan’s Guggenheim Museum was transformed into a futuristic new media awards show venue as the finalists of the first Play: A Biennial of Creative Video were announced to a crowd of Google, Intel, HP and Guggenheim employees (all event sponsors), as well as artists and new media types wowed by the large projections on the interior and exterior of the Fifth Avenue landmark.

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright could never have predicted that his building would serve as an ideal three-dimensional screen for a 21st-century online video extravaganza, but it was the ideal venue for the whirlwind of projections that provided the backdrop for a live-streamed event prepared by the online video giant, YouTube.

Infamous art vlogger James Kalm showed up earlier in the day and spotted the army of hipster prepping for the night’s festivities. His attempts at gaining access were thwarted (see the video below) but it also seems to suggest that Google was in control of most of the preparations for the event.

The Play biennial has attracted some controversy as bloggers including Tyler Green and Paddy Johnson have been critical of the event from the very get go. Green has been questioning whether the Guggenheim is engaging in “pay for play” with the corporate-sponsored event, and the Guggenheim won’t deny the claim. Johnson holds that the Guggenheim and their Play jury aren’t exactly ideal for judging the world of online video.

Tornado of Projections

The energy at last night’s event was frenetic and it was hard to focus on the show as it seemed geared more at the livestreaming online audience than those of us in physical attendance. I felt like wallpaper, much like the projections that whirled around on every flat surface, a visual effect probably orchestrated to make the evening feel more important to online viewers. From the floor, the scene was dominated by new media types huddled by the bar.

Looking up from the floor. (click to enlarge)

If it was difficult to watch the finalists’ videos in the space as the noise interfered, the whole experience was still pleasantly ambient, like a well-orchestrated online journey come to life. Still, it lacked the perceived intimacy. There were moments when I wasn’t sure what was going on and eventually I gave up trying to make sense of the visuals, voices, and performances that seemed to come out of nowhere. At various moments an emcee delivered corny jokes obviously targeted to a young online crowd, a dance group whirled around on stage, a classical ensemble played, and finalists were introduced.

The night ended with a featured performance by Ok Go, one of the first pop bands to go viral through YouTube (their world-famous treadmill video currently has over 52 million plays). The group climbed red ladders placed in the center of the atrium and performed wearing jackets covered with small lights.

The whole experience reminded me a little of the interstellar media personality Ruby Rhod (played by Chris Tucker) in the 1997 sci-fi classic, The Fifth Element. The character of Rhod was fast-paced, hectic, and wild, and he was constantly spewing out information at a machine gun pace. Surprisingly, he was also my favorite character in the movie. In the same way, the Play event had the same endearing — if at times, confusing — energy. I felt like I was treading water in an ocean of projections, an invigorating feeling. There was nothing to dislike, it was a visually exciting night filled with energy. Given the lack of clarity in identifying artists and works as well as the overwhelming media buzz of so much information at once, this was more event than exhibition.

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Remininscent of MIA’s recent album graphics, the Frank Lloyd Wright building looked stunning with the gigantic projections.

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I have to say that the real-life version of this looked remarkably close to the digital drawing that Guggenheim released before hand.

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There was a very New York feel to the energy in front of the Guggenheim.

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The projector doing its thing.

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A splash of Pollock looks fantastic on Guggenheim facade. It feels like a street artist’s dream come true.

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Tech geek graphics were part of the visual mix at Play.

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Even the ubiquitous branding wowed in the Frank Lloyd Wright interior.

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The interior of the Guggenheim was transformed for the occasion with a huge temporary screen that looks well-suited to the space … making me wonder if should they keep it.

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YouTube’s play button never looked so good.

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From the upper floors the view was equally impressive.

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The Play finalists were featured throughout the night, here you see some of them standing on the lower ramp waiting for their spotlight. I have to admit it was hard to enjoy their videos due to the crowd noise for those of us watching the event live.

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The Play exhibition’s logo consisted of artistic interpretations of YouTube’s play button. A friend of mine called them “digital jellybeans,” which is a perfect description of what they felt like. They were one of the most impressive graphics and when ever they appeared I could sense that people were transfixed by their playful beauty.

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The interior was constantly changing and kept you engaged if only to see what would appear next.

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A look behind the Guggenheim’s temporary screen, which reached from floor to ceiling in the atrium.

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When the ladders came out people knew that it was time for Ok Go’s performance.

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This flash photo reveals a perspective on the interior “stage” that isn’t obvious when you’re immersed in all the mood lighting and projections.

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Ok Go playing their newest song.

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The performance — and show — are over.

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The exterior projections, created by Obscura Digital and Consortium Studios, will be on display tonight from sundown to 10:30 pm at Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue, at 89th Street, Manhattan). The finalists’s videos will be on view to the public today until Sunday in the Annex Level 2 area of the museum and in an adjoining HP + Intel digital gallery, as well as on the YouTube Play channel.

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