Project Series 37: Ben Dean
Ben Dean’s new multimedia installation, Account, and six related C-prints reflect his long-term investigations into the history and theory of modernism, early film history, Structural film, video art, and the growing prevalence of computer generated imagery––specifically in cases where it is used as a surrogate for, or “improvement” upon, photography. With Account, Dean meditates on film and new media technology as vehicles to explore visual and psychological perception, modern temporality, and the structural possibilities of film and video.
Account began as a proposal, a tool, or a structure through which Dean could question how film and media change over time and how economic and social forces have evolved since the mid-19th century. Dean explores how knowledge of the histories of spaces and places informs––or fails to inform––a direct phenomenological understanding of those same spaces and places. Account thus combines and links together his background and interests in history, economy, and sculpture, with his practical experience in digital technology.
After scouting numerous locations in the San Francisco area and conducting research into the most promising, he chose three specific sites—Islais Creek, San Francisco City Hall, and Pacific Shores Center—upon which to base his project. The dual projection format this project took stemmed from a fundamental question Dean asked himself: “What would be revealed if two uncannily similar moving images, each executed in a different media, were placed side-by-side?” With Account, Dean looks at how modes of representation are deeply embedded in our consciousness—not just through accidental incident, fragmentary memory, or momentary glimpse. He attempts to unearth the myriad of ways representations resonate with historical periods and viewers’ knowledge and memories.
Dean set out to film the three sites, and then digitally re-create each film using strict rules and parameters as guides to conceptually unify the project. Dean designed and fabricated devices that he used during the filming process—a protective framework for the camera and a catapult, among others. At the two outdoor locations, Dean punctuated the completion of the filming with a “vaulting” of the camera: he catapults the camera into the sky. The “vault” enhances the viewer’s identification with the camera’s viewpoint—as the camera ruptures the visual plane, the viewer is alerted to a sense of dimensionality and physical presence. But the footage of the camera shooting into space then bouncing on the ground also reflects a sense of humor, belying the intense seriousness of filming and production.
Ben Dean’s exhibition is the thirty-seventh in the Pomona College Museum of Art’s Project Series, an ongoing program of focused exhibitions designed to introduce experimental art with new forms, techniques, or concepts to the Pomona College campus.
For “Project Series 37,” Dean is premiering a new multimedia installation, Account, and six related C-prints. The exhibition reflects Dean’s long-term investigations into the history and theory of modernism, early film history, Structural film, video art, and the growing prevalence of computer generated imagery––specifically in cases where it is used as a surrogate for, or “improvement” upon, photography.
Account began as a proposal, a tool, or a structure through which Dean could interrogate how film and media change over time and how economic and social forces have evolved since the mid-19th century. Dean explores how knowledge of the histories of spaces and places informs––or fails to inform––a direct phenomenological understanding of those same spaces and places. Combining his background and interests in history, economy, and sculpture, with his practical experience in digital technology, Dean began exploring the possibility of linking them all together. This very complex project—Account—is the end result of over five years of research, planning, filming, building, and editing.
After scouting numerous locations in the San Francisco area and conducting research into the most promising, he chose three specific sites—Islais Creek, the San Francisco City Hall, and the Pacific Shores Center—upon which to base his project. Dean filmed the three sites, and then digitally re-created each film using strict rules and parameters to conceptually unify the project. When displayed, the film and the animation are projected side-by-side, perfectly synchronized. The dual projection format this project took stemmed from a fundamental question Dean asked himself: “What would be revealed if two uncannily similar moving images, each executed in a different media, were placed side-by-side?” With Account, Dean looks at how modes of representation are deeply embedded in our consciousness—not just through accidental incident, fragmentary memory, or momentary glimpse.
Essay by Glenn Phillips
As Perfect as We Made It: On Ben Dean's Account
By Glenn Phillips
Account presents a visual analysis of society’s tendency to project its belief systems onto its environments. To produce the work, Ben Dean filmed three locations whose architecture, landscape, and history are representative of different attitudes towards urban redevelopment in the San Francisco Bay Area. The films were then reconstituted, frame by frame, as photorealistic computer-generated animations. When displayed, the film and the animation are projected side-by-side, perfectly synchronized using a system that Dean invented.
The experience of viewing this installation may at first seem to revolve around an appreciation of the technical facility by which Dean has produced his digital reconstruction of the film, a process that took nearly five years. However, it is the sites themselves, and the stories embedded within them, that are Dean’s main interest. Latent visual evidence within the architecture and landscape at each site alludes to a series of utopian ideologies and urban realities that have led to proud and sometimes brutal modifications to the local terrain. Dean calls attention to these details through an extensive series of omissions and adjustments to his animated scenes. Tracking these alterations requires an aggressively active mode of attention, as the viewer must attempt to watch the juxtaposed images comparatively—a challenging process that requires constant readjustment of the gaze between the two projections, as they in turn pass relentlessly from one scene to the next.
Account opens onto a view of Islais Landing Waterfront Park. Problems in this area date back to San Francisco’s first burst of growth during the Gold Rush, when the creek began to be used as a sewage channel. For decades, the area was a dumping ground for the city’s slaughterhouses, before rehabilitation efforts brought in a series of successively less unsavory industries and a gradual improvement of the devastated landscape. The history of Islais Creek runs parallel to the history of a growing environmental consciousness in San Francisco and other parts of the nation. By the mid-1980s a coalition of community groups and non-profit agencies had begun a push to transform the area into a waterfront park—a task that was finally completed in 1998.
The most obvious alteration to Account’s animated scenes is the universal exclusion of vegetation. This absence is most thoroughly evident in the scenes of Islais Landing, where the tangled clusters of native brush that partially obscure the scene’s central building appear to have been cleared away, revealing in their stead (and actually present at the site) a rack of kayaks, pleasant in their arrangement. It is also here that Dean made his most intrusive adjustments to the digital scene, replacing the assortment of parked vehicles visible in the film with the boxy yet gently curving shape of a single sight-seeing bus. The resulting tableau, most readily viewable in the panoramic print produced to accompany the installation, can be viewed as a clear array of evidence suggesting the site’s past and present circumstances: the shambled pilings that once supported Islais Street during the period’s dirtier, slaughterhouse past; the warehouse and small shell building typical of simple redevelopments several decades ago; the five-story “copra crane,” used by the local coconut processing plant until the 1970s and now a designated historical landmark; and the kayaks, bus, picnic table, and other indicators of the area’s recent grassroots transformation into a public park and recreation area, lending a feel-good vibe to the eradication of the rivers of sewage, blood, and other industrial carnage that once populated the area and which, as in most cities, has since been diverted or relocated to less evident and remote locales.
That carnage, of course, is both the price and the picture of progress, and by the end of the nineteenth century the rapid growth of urban populations had created a frightening accumulation of filth, crime, and social unrest in many of the nation’s largest cities. The expansion of cities often led to the development of massive new city plans that aimed not only to channel supplies and waste into and out of urban centers, but, in its most utopian incarnations, to create a glorious series of parks, monuments, and municipal buildings that, it was hoped, would actually elevate public morals by engulfing the citizenry in environments that embodied the highest ideals and the greatest achievements of humankind. At the turn of the century, those ideals and achievements included a breathtaking ability to conquer and tame the landscape, remaking the world in Man’s Anglo-Saxon image. Conveniently, many new city plans also required razing the very slums whose inhabitants were to benefit from this new urban vision.
The second section of Account presents the interior rotunda of San Francisco City Hall, an awesomely scaled Beaux-Arts structure that features one of the largest domes in the world. The digital reconstruction of this space stops short of depicting the elaborate scrollwork and sculptural ornamentation gracing the walls and banisters of the rotunda. Instead, it focuses on the equally ornamental program of geometry that frames those decorations, its regularized forms serving to augment and articulate the building’s vast array of surfaces. Scrutinizing these stripped-down forms, one notes another of Dean’s common adjustments: the source and direction of light within the animation does not always match that within the film. This is most evident towards the end of the City Hall section, when the interior of the dome appears suffused with a brilliant and symbolic light, a beacon at the western edge of empire now emanating the higher power it was built to summon. And while it remains unclear whether City Hall’s majestic design elevates the morals of those subject to city rule, the rule of law is followed by the artist, who declined to catapult his camera across the space, a humorous flourish that concludes the first and third sections of the film. In the City Hall section, however, the film goes dark at this moment, and the viewer is left to watch the launch approximated within the animation, the simulation here perfecting what could not be accomplished in reality.
The utopian aspirations of City Hall find their most profitable heir in Pacific Shores Center, featured in the third and final section of Account. Touted as the largest mixed-use development ever built in a single phase in the United States, Pacific Shores Center was sold at the end of 2006 for approximately $825 million, roughly $325 million more than the cost to build it. Marketing literature for the site describes it as “a next generation work environment, designed to facilitate productivity, satisfaction, and balance for industry leading companies and their employees.” It is mega-development which, like City Hall, assumes that the properly conceived environment can elevate a citizenry. In this case, however, it is a more refined capitalist value (higher productivity) rather than a broader category of civil obedience at stake, and the Pacific Shores structures almost appear as if fragments from the geometry of City Hall’s decorative program have been enlarged to the scale of a building’s entire facade. Taking a lesson from disputes at Islais Creek, the entire development was also designed to be ecologically friendly, and the project involved restoring 135 acres of wetlands and integrating hiking trails as well as extensive fitness facilities into the campus, catering to both the political and the sporty sensibilities of the tech-industry employees to which it aims to be landlord.
Pacific Shores presents a landscape where the digital world appears ascendant. The glass walls of the corporate complex are rendered opaque in the animation, capturing deeper shadows that make the buildings seem more solid than their filmed counterpart. It is an apt reversal, since the animation was produced using the same type of software that was likely used to create architectural renderings of the complex before it was built. Many of the tenants at Pacific Shores are businesses known for producing some of the most complex and realistic digital animations in the world—companies that are ushering forward a new era of image-making that will define our perception of reality in coming decades.
Indeed, the virtual reality of computer-generated imagery is an inheritor to the dominating spirit of previous eras, as it allows its makers total control to create and modify their world to perfection. It is not lost on Dean that he uses those same tools to create his analyses in Account, and it is something for which he offers no apology. After all, the intellectual force of Account does not ride on its hyper-controlled and seamless digital landscapes, but within its humble method of juxtaposing two projections, and the active, engaged mode of looking that can be elicited as a result. It is a type of looking that developed most productively during a golden era of experimental cinema in the 1960s and 1970s, and which grew in concert with one of the most turbulent and radical political periods in U.S. history. Within the abstracted and minimal avant-garde productions of that era dwelt a belief that an active and engaged mode of looking would naturally become a politically aware and activist mode of being. That assumption is the fourth utopia examined within Account, and one for which Dean offers no corollary in the landscape. Rather, it is a hypothesis that remains to be tested by the viewer, alive by its very means of being discovered.
Glenn Phillips is Senior Project Specialist and Consulting Curator in the Department of Contemporary Programs and Research at the Getty Research Institute.
In Account, two looped, adjacent projections—a 16mm color film and a black-and-white video—play in perfect synchrony. Both projections show the same events simultaneously. The sites presented are emblematic of phases in San Francisco’s social and economic development: an industrialized area near Islais Creek, the interior of San Francisco City Hall, and an outsized corporate campus called Pacific Shores Center. Each site is shown by way of slow pans and tilts, punctuated by long pauses between movements, and concludes with the camera abruptly vaulting into the space it was previously depicting. The film and video accounts share identical camera movements and framing, yet the two representations are radically different: while the film was shot in the manner of actualités, the video is an exacting—if abstracted—computer simulation of the same nominal subjects.
While the camera movements were planned in advance, the action within the films was not scripted. At the appointed day for shooting, I arrived at each site and filmed what was there. Each vignette was shot in single takes with a 1930s-vintage spring-wound camera. There was no cast and no crew. The result is a straightforward record, but one rich with incidental, ephemeral detail.
Upon completing the films, I meticulously reconstructed each site as a three-dimensional computer model, using software and techniques common in the special effects and computer-aided design industries. I began by returning to each site and studying it closely. Objects were sketched, measured, and photographed from multiple viewpoints. (The resulting archive grew to include hundreds of pages of notes and thousands of photographs.) In addition to these traditional means of study, I built several custom instruments to measure specific features, including an apparatus to survey the topography of Islais’ bank and a device to measure details on the inaccessible inner dome of City Hall. United States Geological Survey data was used to locate buildings within the landscape. Reference material in hand, I proceeded to model each object within the simulated space of the computer software, where volumes are described as mathematical surfaces resembling hollow shells. My goal was not to make the simulation as real as possible, but to elicit an uncanny sense of ‘sameness’ between two fundamentally different representations. Accordingly, some objects at the original locations were not included in the reconstruction, and those objects included were modified and simplified to varying degrees, following unique rules developed for each site. A uniform, light-gray surface was then assigned to everything in the environment. Finally, artificial lighting was introduced and the appearance of each environment calculated from the vantage point of a simulated camera. As the computer simulation was also done without the aid of specialists or assistants, Account took nearly five years to complete.
Islais Landing Waterfront Park is situated on the current southern bank of Islais Creek, near its outlet into San Francisco Bay. Before San Francisco was settled, this area was a vast tidal marshland, through which Islais Creek meandered on its way from its origin in Twin Peaks (visible in the film and video in the far distance) to San Francisco Bay (behind the camera). The creek’s decline began during the Gold Rush, when it was used to dispose of waste from the numerous makeshift encampments along its banks. In the 1870s, the city’s butchers were moved to this area, by city ordinance, from their prior location near downtown. The new Butcher’s Reservation—or “Butchertown”—was erected on wooden piers over the marshland, and ultimately grew to cover nearly the entire tidal flat. At its peak, Butchertown was home to more than 35 butchering operations processing as many as 2,800 animals per day, as well as ancillary industries—tanneries, fertilizer plants, and hair mattress and glue factories. The blood and offal, along with garbage and sewage from nearby residences, were dumped directly into the creek. By all accounts, the stench was overpowering. Eventually, “Shit Creek” (as the creek was commonly known) was understood to be unfit for any use, and diverted to run in underground culverts.
Animal processing in this area came to an end in the 1940s, with the passage of stricter sanitary regulations and pressure from nearby residents. Numerous auto-wrecking yards replaced the slaughterhouses, heavy industry moved in, and a deep-water channel was dredged from the last mile of Islais Creek that remained above ground.
Today, the area is changing again, transitioning from such base industries and embracing tourism and the culture industry. Nearby buildings house several set construction facilities for the advertising and film industries, a large-volume commercial photography studio, and San Francisco's only sound stage. At night, sight-seeing busses are parked behind a fenced lot beside the channel.
The cameras in Account are situated within the recently established Islais Landing Waterfront Park. The park, with its native plantings, picnic area, and kayak club, signals a shift in interpreting and utilizing this urban landscape as a space for leisure and recreation rather than labor and production. The exposed pilings near the shore are the sole remains of what was once Islais Street.
In the 1890s, a number of problems related to the growth of urban populations caused middle and upper-middle class concern for, and anxiety about, those living in the poor urban centers. While in many American cities this situation was brought about by the shift from an agrarian to an industrial economy, San Francisco’s dramatic urban growth was due primarily to mining and its supporting industries. Tenement squalor, crime, labor strikes, and perceived moral decay were seen by some observers as symptomatic of a public in grave need of assistance, and to others as social ills that needed to be controlled, lest they result in deeper unrest or dissent.
In 1893, at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, altruists and cynics alike found a promising solution: a full-scale model for a new urban utopia. Daniel Burnham’s monumental composition of Beaux-Arts style exhibition halls, green space, and ponds would later provide the dominant pattern for civic improvement throughout the United States. The ornate, uniformly brilliant white buildings contrasted dramatically with Chicago’s coal-smoke tarnished tenements. (Account refers to this materiality in its uniform treatment of surface.) The “White City,” as it came to be known, was a conscious material representation of ideals of dignity, harmony, cleanliness, and order. One tenet of City Beautiful—that the lower classes would internalize the virtues promoted by the aesthetics of redesigned urban centers, thereby elevating the spirit while ameliorating social ills—attracted San Francisco mayor James K. Phelan, who led the effort to commission Burnham to create a master plan for his city. While Burnham’s design was ultimately rejected, the aesthetics of City Beautiful and its progressive political tenets nonetheless shaped the civic center that was eventually built. Completed in 1915, Bakewell & Brown’s San Francisco City Hall serves as a focal point for the grouping of twelve municipal buildings. The extraordinary Beaux-Arts structure embodies the aspiration of the City Beautiful movement, while combining it with an impulse unique to San Francisco: through its prodigious scale and symbolic motifs (mining, seafaring), it signals the city’s understanding of itself as heir to the empires of antiquity, with aspirations to further empire in the Pacific.
The unscripted behavior of the children in the film is typical for people encountering the rotunda for the first time. Visitors’ movements become self-conscious—even giddy—in the presence of the spectacular, cavernous space; walking slows to a shuffle as visitors crane to take in the dome 200 feet overhead.
Pacific Shores Center
Redwood City’s Pacific Shores Center is a 106 acre, 1.7 million square-foot office complex. Planned during the tech boom of the late 1990s, the project was not completed until 2001, after the technology bubble had burst. During the production of Account, much of the office space was still vacant. In the film, light passes though one building completely; having never been leased, it lacks interior walls. Consciously or not, the complex furnishes the abstract ideal of a ‘new economy’ with an emblematic, physical form: a real space to represent the intangible promise of globally exchanged knowledge, services, and capital. Heady optimism for cutting-edge technology, coexisting uneasily with aspirations to ecological sustainability, has resulted in an unlikely combination of flashy, aggressive architecture (perhaps inspired by monumental structures from science fiction) and ecologically-minded landscaping (native plantings, water conservation measures, and a nearby wetlands restoration project).
The Pacific Shores Center was built on what was until recently a tidal marsh. At the time of shooting, the adjacent land parcel was in the earliest stages of development. Construction machinery can be seen tilling the bay mud, likely introducing lime to harden it into a substrate capable of supporting buildings and roads—preparing a blank slate for the future.