Let us imagine a straight line (2009)

Six installations for sound, custom instruments, & moving image

Interactive system design, video, sound, and hardware by Butch Rovan
Movement by Ami Shulman

  • Wall-mounted light sculpture
  • Biometric table & interactive video
  • Interactive whispering wall
  • Animated telegraph & small-format video
  • Large-format video & 5.1 surround sound
  • Small-format video triptych

Individual documentation

Click on the images below to play videos.

1. Wall-mounted light sculpture

The first installation is a 12’ x 8’ sculpture illuminated by over 9,000 LEDs. The LEDs are diffused through 96 translucent tubes arranged vertically along the wall. The apparatus was designed in collaboration with the Lighting Science Group in Sacramento, CA. The LEDs translate a high-speed video image of dancer Ami Shulman; the result is a flickering image of continuous movement that the viewer perceives in both its component parts and as a totality.


2. Biometric table & interactive video

The biometric table is an instrument I built to evoke the elegant machines of 19th-century science. It measures proximity, touch, and the electrical activity of the heart. When patrons place their hands on the brass sensors, the machine calculates their heart rate. As the calculation is reached, the table lights up. At the same time, a sound event is triggered and a video begins to play on a facing screen.

This two-part machine imaginatively combines two of Marey’s most celebrated inventions: the sphygmograph, which defined the field of modern cardiology by producing the first graphical records of pulse; and the chronophotograph, which anticipated the modern cinema by producing the first multiple exposures on single glass plates and on film. See the biometric table page for more information.


3. Interactive whispering wall

This installation includes an interactive wall that, in contrast to the chronophotography of installation no. 2, features a more impressionistic image of the dancer's movement. As viewers move toward the wall their shadows combine with the moving image, and fragments from Bergson’s philosophical texts appear in the spaces, whispering back to the viewer. Participants in this sense are able to “read” the dancer’s movement with their own bodies.

Real-time video tracking allows the system to correlate gesture and location to specific text and audio. The video processing is designed to promote slow and contemplative movement on the part of the participant. Fast or abrupt movement is invisible to the system.


4. animated telegraph & small-format video

This installation reanimates a vintage 1890s telegraph with the help of an embedded computer system. The interactive electronics enable the telegraph to read fragments from Marey’s scientific treatises, which are displayed on an adjoining video. When the texts appear the words are tapped out in Morse code.
Along with the texts, the video includes archival footage from Marey’s laboratory, as well as my own visual studies of a dancer’s body in motion. See the animated telegraph page for a more detailed technical description.


5. large-format video & 5.1 surround sound

This installation pairs high-speed video in large format with an algorithmically generated 5.1 soundscape that unfolds in subtle and ever-changing patterns. The image echoes the figure in the wall-mounted light sculpture of the first installation. The video itself is an 18-minute loop that forms an arresting centerpiece for the work: a sustained, slow motion improvisation that demands complete and unbroken attention.


6. small-format video triptych

Let us imagine a straight line, no 6: Small-format video triptych from Butch Rovan on Vimeo.

This installation features three small-format videos mounted in shadow boxes. Each one contains different high-speed imagery of the now familiar dancer, whose movement here forms a sequence from the concrete to the abstract. The effect is like a confrontation between the ideas of Marey, who understood movement as a series of discrete events, and Bergson, who imagined time as an unbroken line. The words of the two protagonists, scientist vs philosopher, run through the videos, silently commenting on the moving images.

For these shadoboxes I created custom video-processing routines that leave the impression either of chronophotographic measurement or pure continuity. The videos can be read, then, as a representation of the difference between science and philosophy.