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Walking With Urban Drawing, Version 1
An Interview by Kinga Araya, Locus Suspectus Magazine

What follows is an edited version of an interview conducted in Montreal in June, 2005, for Locus Suspectus Magazine.

In April 2005, Urban Drawing, Version 1was displayed as an interactive new media installation during the BFA Graduation Exhibition held in the Visual Arts Department at the University of Ottawa, Canada. I was drawn to this artwork not only because of its interactive element, but also because of its well-balanced juxtaposition of diverse elements such as video, computer program, drawing, performance and documentation.

Kinga Araya: Could you please introduce and formally describe you work for me?

Robert Watson: Urban Drawing, Version 1 is a new media work with performative and drawing elements. It is the first version in a series of portable works with which I move through urban environments, creating real-time digital sketches of a constantly moving landscape. It consists of a 15-inch viewable LCD screen strapped to my back and a surveillance video camera on my chest. When you look at the LCD screen, it is as if you are looking through my body. When I am walking, I am carrying a computer in one hand and a 300A portable power supply in the other. The signal from the camera is converted to something that looks like a drawing, which is translated by a custom edge-detection script running on the computer and displayed on my back within a split second.

KA: I enjoyed the interactive aspect of your installation where not only I was able to view a documentation of your walks in Ottawa, but also to experience a making of my own portrait, on the spot. My image was captured by the camera, translated by the computer program and reflected back onto the LCD screeen as a black and white, stylized drawing. Could you tell me more about this computer pogram that composed your digital drawing?

RW: I developed an edge-detection script in a programming environment for a couple months before deciding on the look of my digital drawing. In this environment, called Gridflow, I started with a blank screen, like a blank canvas, in which I fed real-time information. Gridflow allowed me to manipulate the real-time video using matrix algebra. That is, the video is converted into a grid of numbers, with rows and columns like a tic tac toe game. This sheet of numbers represents an image to which you can apply all sorts of mathematical operations. With a relatively complex edge-detection algorithm, I can vary the way the signal is detected, how much lines it will draw, how smooth those lines are, how much contrast I want to be shown, etc. Primarily, I was dealing with how "dirty" and abstract the image would look. I looked at it as sketching my drawing with math.

KA: One of the most critical elements of drawing your images was walking in the public spaces and collecting data for the artwork. Could you tell me about the significance of walking in this work?

RW: My original idea required walking through crowds. I wanted to integrate with a crowd's unique kinetic and intimate space. As you walk, you move forward in your environment while the body rises and falls and sways with each step. Walking with the work allowed the cameras to pick up all those motions. As I walked through crowds, the movement of people's bodies became the subject and also the environment and what appeared on the screen on my back highlights the interaction with that environment. That is not something you can experience seated in a car or bus while everyone just looks out the window. Being within a walking crowd allows you to interact with individuals, something that is also happens when this work is displayed in a gallery setting and the viewer approaches the screen.

In addition to crowds and individuals, walking in a city allows you to experience its architecture. As the work instantly converts the world into a 2D drawing, depth of perception is removed. The digital translation makes what is near indistinguishable from far inside from outside. So sometimes as a viewer you have to take a second or third look at the architecture to recognise it. That reawakened a lot of the buildings that I had become so used to.

KA: So where did you walk, and what was the criteria for choosing a particular itinerary?

RW: I, and the cameraperson following me, started in a parking garage in the middle of Ottawa's ByWard market. You can walk ono the top level and look out at the whole market. That way we were able to look off each side and spot the pockets of activity. I planned a route and followed it. The ByWard market was chosen specifically because it is a crowded area where you see a lot of different characters and variations of activities. There are crowded pockets near different landmarks, but also open areas where you can view more of the landscape with cars and motorcycles moving past. The crowded areas provided so much movement for the work, I slowed down the video so the viewer could appreciate the details. Though I slowed some parts down, I was careful to preserve the original audio pitch so that the voices and sounds would still be familiar.

KA: Was there anything that was limiting your walk?

RW: Walking was a big challenge for me logistically as I had to carry all the equipment without adversely affecting my movement. In the end, I had to hold the heaviest of of the equipment away from my body. In addition, the duration of my walk was limited by the battery life of the power supply. The power supply prevented me from walking more than 30 minutes. Also, the LCD screen was only so bright. If the LCD was not brighter than the daylight, it would turn into a mirror; and if the light was not bright enough, say in the evening, then the camera had a hard time picking up things around it. These factors combined with weather conditions forced me to plan carefully the whole day to be ready at a certain time.

KA: What were some of the people's reactions towards your performance?

RW: During the walk, the only reactions that I got to see were those of people trying to figure out why I was walking towards them with a video camera that was coming out off my chest by about half a foot. Also, the reception I received differed depending on whether people saw my back or my front. There were mixed reactions, especially when people passed by me. Usually they would not give me eye contact, just shift their eyes like they did not notice me. I do remember one guy in particular when he walked by me and saw the LCD screen, he changed from being a guarded and anonymous pedestrian and said, "That's intense!"

KA: What are your artistic plans for the near future?

RW: I'm anxious to start working with new computer technology. Titling the work Urban Drawing, Version 1 was a way of saying it is finished but it is also the beginning of a series. So I want to work on Version 2 which will be more portable. When I am not carrying 20-40 pounds worth of stuff but rather contain all of my equipment on my back, I will have more freedom with my movement. I am working on this version right now and I would like to take it for a walk in other cities. Maybe I will ride a bicycle with it through traffic or on the sidewalk where I can get into people's space a little more.

KA: Thank you very much Rob for sharing with us your recent artwork. Wishing you all the best in the upcoming projects, I am looking forward to experience your new portable artwork, Version 2.

The interview was conducted in Montreal on June 25th, 2005.

Edited by Robert Watson
March 2, 2006

Related texts:
Urban Drawing Version 1 - A Description by the Artist
Artist Statement