Simon McKeown’s animation project will be one of the highlights of Culture Night in Cork, writes Ellie O’Byrne
ARTIST and animator Simon McKeown broke six bones in the course of the two years that he has worked on Ignite, Cork’s flagship project for Culture Night. “Four ribs and a couple of fingers; the ribs were really painful,” he says, almost casually.
McKeown is a pioneer in the use of motion capture and 3D visual mapping, where a building gets “mapped” into a computer and animated projections onto the building bring it to flamboyant life. He suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta, a rare genetic condition that causes bones to break easily.
The resulting periods of hospitalisation, recuperation and restricted mobility inform his work but don’t define it, making him a natural choice for Cork’s contribution to Ignite, an Arts and Disability Ireland collaborative project, which will illuminate the outside of Cork’s College of Commerce on Friday.
Three “Ignite” commissions for Galway, Mayo and Cork represent the single biggest investment in Arts Disability Ireland to date, and McKeown says the College of Commerce was a natural choice for the spectacular animated project. “It’s in a sheltered, accessible location, and it’s a lovely 1930s building. Its symmetry makes it very easy to work with,” he says.
McKeown, who teaches animation in Teesside University, Middlesborough, is a fine art graduate renowned for his large-scale, highly conceptual animated artworks which often explore aspects of disability and mobility in broader societal or historical contexts.
Being labelled a disabled artist doesn’t bother him in the slightest. “I’m quite happy with it,” he says. “I have creative discussions and also academic discussions around disability. I have an exhibition coming up in Prague on digital futures, so my work is not limited to themes of disability, but it’s an important aspect of my work.”
Motion Disabled, a vast project seen by over 500,000 people in 17 countries in 2010, in saw McKeown motion capture the bodies and movements of Paralympians and create trademark pared-back computer animations that both allowed and challenged the viewer to explore how people with different disabilities move and interact with their environments. Projected onto buildings and screens everywhere from Saudi Arabia to Argentina, it earned McKeown the DaDaFest International Artist of the Year award for 2010.
“Ghosts” was a three-minute animation commemorating World War 1 that he produced for Channel Four, inspired by a Siegfried Sassoon poem and drawing attention to the effect the return of two million newly disabled British ex-servicemen had on society’s attitudes to disability in the aftermath of The Great War.
McKeown’s works on disability never examine the theme in isolation, but always in juxtaposition with other large cultural themes – design, historical forces, our interactions with technology. He considers the dialogue about visibility, accessibility and integration for disabled people to be far from over. “In Ireland, between one fifth and one sixth of people identify as having a long-term disability, and yet culturally the impact makes it seem like a lot less,” he says.
Like an intricate Tibetan sand Mandala, Dream Big will be transient, designed to be viewed intact just once, an aspect of the project that appeals to McKeown. Some of the components may emerge in other works, but many are site-specific to the College of Commerce. “Just thinking of the effort that it takes and the team of people behind it, the fact that it happens once is kind of special,” he says.
“A eureka moment,” is how McKeown describes the experience of actually projecting the work live for an audience of thousands. “Six of the largest projectors in Europe are being brought in for this, and the effect is amazing,” McKeown says.
Audiences respond with wonder to the magical visual effects McKeown creates in his work – bits of the façade of the building seeming to flip, revealing interiors, or climbing plants sprouting energetically from the brickwork, jungle-like, budding and flowering.
But it’s by no means all McKeown’s work that will be on display. Members of Suisha Inclusive Arts (part of COPE Foundation) and SoundOUT, an inclusive music technology project, collaborated with McKeown to produce the different elements of the piece.
“We had a really nice collaborative process,” McKeown says. “People applied to be a part of the project by submitting videos and we ended up working with 18 people.”
The group used the Theatre Development Centre (TDC) in the Triskel Arts Centre to workshop ideas and film portions of the material used in the projections, which will include famous Cork landmarks plus “a surprising ending”, McKeown says.
With his sensitivity to history and heritage, McKeown has managed to integrate a piece of shadow puppetry that evolved during the stint in the TDC with Cork’s notable 19th century Silhouette artists Augustin Edouart and Stephen O’Driscoll. The specially commissioned musical score, overseen by McKeown’s long-term collaborator and partner, violinist Ellen Brookes, is woven around an air by Irish harper and composer Turlough O’Carolan, who was blind.
For McKeown and his team, the hair-raising preliminary to the spectacular denouement on the 18th will come at the rehearsal of the piece.
“Until we switch on the projectors, we really don’t know if it’ll work or not. Then we have a few hours – and a couple of technical tricks up our sleeve – to tweak anything that may not be working perfectly.”
Is he nervous about it?
In an exploratory visit to Cork, Simon McKeown identified the College of Commerce as a location, and visited local attractions and landmarks for ideas.
Focus Surveys Ltd, a Cork engineering firm, took a 3D scan of the building, accurate to within a couple of millimetres.
Photos of the building were taken from the locations where projectors will be set up.
— Cork Ignite (@CorkIgnite) August 31, 2015
Software removed barrel distortion from the photos. “Theoretically, this means we should be able to reproject back an undistorted image,” McKeown says.
A team at Teesside University in Middlesbrough created a computer model of the building using the 3D scan, the corrected photos and further refinements to detailed features for McKeown to plot his animations.
Fantastic 3D scans of the College of Commerce for Cork Ignite! pic.twitter.com/ELY9dVcPRI— Cork Ignite (@CorkIgnite) August 25, 2015
McKeown used animation software to bring the modelled facade of the building to life and then used video- editing software to mesh the various collaborative elements together; some filmed footage will be projected onto the building as well as animated segments, and the audio elements were synchronised to the imagery.
Cork Ignite, Union Quay, Cork (access from Parnell Place/ Anglesea Street) on Sept 18, from 8.45pm for a 9.15pm start. www.corkignite.com
To live stream the event, go to: [/url=culturenightcork.ie/events/293/cork-ignite]culturenightcork.ie/events/293/cork-ignite[/url]
For the visually impaired, a live audio description will be broadcast on UCC98.3FM.
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