Archive for September, 2010

Elevator phantoms / people space

Note: This is a proposal for Claudia X. Valdes’s course, Physical Computing for Interactive Video (ARTS 532) at the University of New Mexico.

My proposal:

The elevators in the Art and Architecture building will be augmented with cameras and projectors. The cameras will capture video of the riders as they take their short trips. These videos will be rendered pseudo-anonymous by means of a software component that will reduce the images to white shadows of the original subjects.  Exactly one year after each video is captured, it will be re-projected on the back wall of the elevator as a bright silhouette in real time. Elevator passengers in the present will therefore occasionally encounter “phantom” copies of former passengers – perhaps even themselves.

The project would ideally run for several years in order to allow for a substantial crowd of phantom passengers to accumulate.


When properly designed, the thoroughfares of institutional buildings fade from conscience almost immediately upon one’s passage through them. Even when hallways, stairwells or elevators are decorated with notable furniture or art, the spaces themselves tend to recede into the background. Though we spend a significant portion our daily travels passing through these interstitial spaces we tend to exercise very little thought about them, choosing instead to focus on our destinations.

This is curious matter, because passage through these common spaces is a nearly universal experience for anybody who must enter a particular building. It would seem to be the goal of contemporary architects to design institutional buildings such that they virtually “disappear” to the inhabitants. A visitor climbing an otherwise empty stair to the second level may feel like they are alone in the space, but is unlikely to have any thoughts of proprietary over the stairwell. For that matter, they are also unlikely to identify the stairwell as a purely utilitarian measure designed to facilitate movement between floors. The interstices are effectively transparent. In other words, while these interstitial spaces certainly exist, our presence in them is readily disconnected from our peripheral knowledge of them: the memory of a trip down a particular hallway tends to dissipate almost before the voyage is complete, though we could probably describe the layout and unique features of the hallway if pressed to do so.

On a broader time scale, it is even harder to conceive of the multitude of people who have briefly inhabited the space in the past, especially since most trips are executed completely without trace. Time-lapse photography can be employed to work around this perceptual limitation, especially by working with temporal periods as great as a year. While individual journeys are essentially transient, an accelerated portrayal of time might reveal a daily tide of staff and students as they show up to work and leave at night. A weekly meeting, for instance, held regularly by library staff might constitute a secondary harmonic centered around a particular room, and various student groups with their weekly or monthly gatherings would comprise a burbling, cyclic background hum. Over the course of the year we might expect to see the human activity ramp up several times before halting abruptly, and this would correspond with midterms, finals, and breaks.

To better understand the ramifications of the proposed art installation, however, we must also examine how the psycho-social properties of certain passages affect the perception and conduct of their occupants. Of special interest in this case is the elevator, which represents a particularly complex class of architectural interstice. Typically the occupant of an elevator is denied any sort of indexical cue as to the true position of the elevator car in its shaft: as soon as the doors close, we lose all track of our position. When we walk into elevators, we expect to feel some sort of inertial motion, and there will typically be a light or buzzer that indicates (if imprecisely) what floor we are on; but until the doors reopen, these cues aren’t sufficient to truly apprehend our location. Who hasn’t disembarked from an elevator only to discover they are on the wrong floor?

Furthermore, elevators carry with them an additional layer of social complexity that is relevant to the proposal. By one account, we voluntarily surrender ourselves to captivity in an enclosed space for a short time in exchange for greatly facilitated movement from one point to another. But the rules for behavior are slightly stricter: we tend to avoid eye contact in elevators. Conversation among a group of people, even if lively before shuffling in, typically wanes; it is as though we hold our collective breath until the moment we can resume walking through the (relatively) socially unencumbered locale of the institutional hallway. This has the effect of further distinguishing elevators from their connecting spaces: not only do they tend to be physically isolated, but socially isolated as well.


This art project intrudes on our expectations in a multitude of ways. First and foremost, it transforms the participant’s passage through the neutral, interstitial space of an elevator into an evocative encounter. Secondly, it should cause the participant to become newly aware of their presence in the space. Finally, it will provide the participant with an (abstract) visualization of the historical presence of others in the space as well.

While at first glance a phantom encounter would hardly seem subtle, the actual effect may be fairly nuanced. A student who randomly finds herself with the silhouette of another student may react quite differently from the faculty member who realizes she is riding to work with a copy of herself from the same time last year. The cumulative effect of the piece, if it were to run for multiple years as intended, must also be taken into account: a student travelling to the library the night before finals might find himself standing among a legion of studious pupils from years past. Irrespective of the particular scenario, a common message seemingly crystallizes: you are part of the history of this space. This is the final aim of the piece.

Variations and further details:

  • In order to make the piece more directly interactive, it would make sense to provide a visualization of the elevator passengers’ recorded forms in real time, either directly superimposed on the subjects or perhaps offset by one or two feet (such that passengers are standing abreast of themselves). Furthermore, the animation of the real-time simulacra might be delayed by some seconds in order to help the subjects intuit the temporal disconnect between the recording and its eventual reproduction.
  • Older “phantoms,” that is, recordings made two or three or four years prior, might be displayed less intensely in order to provide some visual variation. This could substantially alter the attitude of the piece as well, by bringing in the notion of impermanence.
  • In addition to posted notifications about the installation, there should be some facility provided to halt the recording for a particular elevator ride.
  • The piece could easily be made to work with still images instead of videos, if the public objects to having their video recording exhibited.
  • The camera would ideally be located at or somewhat below eye-level to distinguish it from actual surveillance equipment.
  • With their combination of isolation and heightened social expectations, elevators would seemingly provide the ideal experience for the phantom encounters. However, the piece could be ported to other interstitial spaces (stairwell, entryway, etc.) with many of the concepts remaining intact.

Two final questions:

What exactly is the phantom, philosophically / semiotically speaking? Is it indexical (to whom or what)?

What are the consequences of directly intruding into socially inhibited spaces?