Techniques like long-exposure photography give us new perspectives on time and motion, distilling movements that occur over several seconds or hours into a single image. These pictures don’t really show us anything we’re not seeing in the first place—we could sit on a hilltop for a few hours and watch all those tail lights drive by—but seeing that activity in aggregate is a totally different experience. Transits, a one-hour, five-minute video of vehicular and pedestrian traffic in Basel, Switzerland, has a similar time-warping effect, but instead of achieving it with clever photography or digital effects, it relies on hand-crafted code to generate the stunning visual. In one sense it’s traffic, but in another, what we’re seeing here is the beautiful product of an intentional feedback loop.
The piece, currently on view at the House of Electronic Arts in Basel, was created by Ursula Damm and Martin Schneider, two artists with long histories of creating work that refracts reality through cutting-edge science and technology. For Transits, the duo wanted to explore how a video could be transformed with a custom-built neural network—a model that creates a complex, unpredictable relationship between the data feeding into the system and that coming out of it. Damm was responsible for the concept, and Schneider built the code.
Conceptually, Damm wanted the piece to be about the movement of the city, "different layers of means of transportation, overlapping and interfering with each other," she explains. But it was also a chance to experiment more with some of the neural science that’s inspired her art for the last decade.
"I had a very clear idea about the video," she explains. "[And] since it’s not the first time I’ve worked with these algorithms, I also had a detailed plan for the shooting." She knew that this particular intersection at Aeschenplatz, in Basel, would provide the diversity of perspective, color, and movement for a visually compelling final product. Schneider designed the neural network that processed the original footage, building a piece of software that turned the model’s parameters into sliders, which Damm then used to fine-tune the product.
The final piece is not just a distorted version of the original footage, but its own unique, generative work. "What you see on the screen in Transits is not a transformed image," Schneider clarifies, "but actually the state of the output layer of a recurrent neural network." It’s the visual product of an algorithm that not only leaves traces of movement through space—à la long exposure photography—but also blends colors and forms fluidly and dynamically, like a watercolor painting.
It’s just another example of the beauty that can be found at the intersection of art, technology, and biology—something artists have been exploring since the birth of the industrial age. The blog Prosthetic Knowledge likened Transits to Marcel Duchamp’s controversial Modernist classic Nude Descending a Staircase. I was going to compare it to the scene in Donnie Darko where the liquid time spear shoots out of Jake Gyllenhaal’s stomach, but, sure, Duchamp works, too.