A Q+A I did for my Writing and Reporting II Class at NYU:
When Gabriel Barcia Colombo was a kid he collected random stuff—everything from hot sauces to insects. These days, Colombo collects people through digital art, passionately preserving moments and memorializing individuals. The NYU professor has projected videos of his friends into jars, a 1950s housewife into a blender, and created a vending machine that distributes human DNA. Most recently, Colombo has collected New Yorkers.
His art installation “New York Minute” encircles the giant atrium beneath the skylight oculus of the new glass Fulton Center, a subway station that connects 10 lines. The piece features slow motion, video portraits of New Yorkers—in-between advertisements—on 52 screens up to 32 ft. long. A basketball player spins a basketball on his finger. A businessman throws money into the air. A little girl blows bubbles.
|Gabriel Barcia Colombo giving his TED talk in 2012|
What is the idea behind "New York Minute?"
To slow down the little moments. New Yorkers are very familiar with this term because of the frenzied lifestyle we lead.
The term originated in Texas around 1967.
Yes. The saying goes: A New Yorker does in an instant what a Texan would take a minute to do. I want this piece to slow people down. I want people to look up from their phones.
Why are New Yorkers always in a hurry today?
I think the pace of life is too fast due to our connection to digital media and social networking.
How did you get this commission?
I'd been working with the MTA on a previous project called Springfest, which involved poetry on the walls at Grand Central Terminal. Words were projected onto the walls and then assembled into poetry. Then they commissioned me for the Fulton concourse, which I visited several times before filming and constructing the piece. It’s easily the largest scale art installation I’ve done.
What do you think of the new Fulton Concourse?
I think it’s amazing! I think the architecture of the space is really incredible and it feels a little like a space ship because everything is so clean and silver-looking. The “Sky Reflector-Net,” which is the piece that’s on the top—the James Carpenter piece—is incredible.
The F because it’s the fastest.
What do you usually do on the subway?
I listen to music and read, but I also like to people watch. There are so many different types of people in New York.
How did you choose which New Yorkers to include in your piece?
There was an open call. I ended up filming 52 New Yorkers many who I met while working in various jobs around the city. The girl who is dressed up as the Statue of Liberty in the piece is actually a girl I met while I was working at a bar years ago.
What is so great about capturing people on film?
It’s fascinating to me to memorialize moments, even simple ones.
You have done two TED Talks. What were they about?
The first TED Talk that I did was about my video art pieces, my installations. It was about these people that I filmed and I would project into different materials, whether they were bottles or blenders or jars. It was asking how we could immortalize people through video. The second one was about this vending machine that I built that sold human DNA.
[nods] That was a collaboration with another TED fellow who runs an open source bio lab in Brooklyn called Genspace. And I went there and started discovering this whole other world of possibility for art with bio-tech which I had not really known about before. We decided to get this collection of people’s DNA and then put it in a vending machine and sell it as if it were a luxury item.
Do you think we will get to the point where we will have our own digital clones?
I think we already do to a small extent. I think like the way we interact with social media is sort of like having a small clone of ourselves online. [laughs] I mean obviously there’s no free will, like we don’t have our Facebook account posting things without us.
Do you have any future projects in mind?
I'm working on a series of projects right now as well as a second edition of the DNA vending machine that will be displayed in London at the V&A Museum as part of a show titled "What is Luxury?" It will be up from April ‘til September. The DNA vending machine looks into the future. Access to biotechnology is just going to increase so ownership of one’s own DNA might become a luxury.
What is your favorite thing to teach your students?
How to create meaningful interactions through art. Art is a communication tool and should be used as carefully as any other form of communication.
What are some projects you’ve assigned in your classes at NYU?
[he laughs] I try to teach really interesting things that they won’t get elsewhere. So I taught a class called “Pop-Up Windows Displays” which is about making interactive window displays in New York. And a class called “Ready-Mades,” which is what I’m teaching right now actually, which is about finding vintage objects and putting sensors and new technologies in them to make them have new personalities. And then last semester I taught a class called “Haunted House” where we made an immersive theatre haunted house as the final for Halloween.
I understand Westfield, the company that manages the Fulton concourse, lost some ad revenue because of the “New York Minute” art installation.
It became a battle between them and the MTA about how much art was going to be on these screens. So I think it’s still undecided about how much art there will be after my project. My project is up until March and I don’t know what’s happening after that.
When do your video portraits play?
The first month that Fulton opened they came up every minute on all the screens and now its every thirty minutes. There’s nine different things that come up on the big screens over the course of a day. The chance of seeing the same things are pretty slim.
With everything that grabs our attention today, what is the appeal of digital art to the New Yorker?
I think digital art is appealing because we interface with so much content digitally already. There are digital screens on busses, in subway terminals and its only a matter of time before art makes its way onto these screens.