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Media Lab project documents sights and sounds in ICA

Which comes first, the visitors or the exhibition? In a new installation at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art, the noises and presence of visitors become the art.

The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) and the MIT Media Lab have collaborated on a project called "Artifacts of the Presence Era" that tracks and documents the sound, light and traffic in the ICA.

Conceived by Assistant Professor Judith Donath, director of the Media Lab's Sociable Media Group, and her students Fernanda Vi�gas, Ethan Perry and Ethan Howe, the project uses computer technology to compile a visual historical record of the sights and sounds in the gallery.

Donath likens the project to a geologic process where, she says, "layers of information act as the sediment that slowly builds into a historic record, while also metamorphosing the oldest layers."

A camera and microphones capture images and sounds produced in the galleries. The data are saved and the images are layered on top of each other, with the form of each layer being shaped by the audio waveform. The accumulating layers are projected as large images on the wall. Another large projection shows the current video image and audio wave--a peek into the goings on in the upper galleries.

Every 15 minutes, a new layer is produced that merges the images and the audio. Peaks show increased amounts of noise, and color variances depict the changes in ambient light and the movement of visitors in the gallery. As more information accumulates at the top, earlier layers become compressed and less distinct, like the layers of rock in a canyon wall.

By adjusting a knob, visitors can peer back at past events that have taken place in the ICA gallery.

"It's inventive and evocative," wrote the Boston Globe's Christine Temin of the "Artifacts" installation. "The technology doesn't get in the way of the poetry."

Founded in 1998 by Donath, the Sociable Media Group explores the social side of computing, building innovative interfaces for the online communities, virtual identities and computer-mediated collaborations.

"The idea of visualizing past events and social history has been part of our research agenda for a while now," said Vi�gas. The group's other visualization projects, she says, deal with past events online as opposed to the "real life" events being captured at the ICA.

"Our piece will result in a memento, whether digital or in fact rock-like, of this time in this space," said Donath.

The exhibition runs through April 27 at the ICA at 955 Boylston St. in Boston. For more information, call 617-266-5152.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 12, 2003.

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