Neural Architecture

California Artist Makes Building Art that Gets Smart


sing infrared home security systems, motion sensors, nanny cams, TV monitors, and vinyl tubing, Los Angeles-based artist Deborah Aschheim is creating nervous systems for buildings. Her six-part series of museum art installations that began in 2003, Neural Architecture, explores the idea of buildings as biological extensions of the body that get smarter each time they move to a new space. Her newest exhibit - and final installment - opened at the Frist Center in Nashville in September 2005.

The tangled network of transparent vinyl tubing, pods, motion-triggered lighting, monitors, and cameras hanging from the ceiling are the building’s brain and central nervous system, as envisioned by Aschheim.

“I’ve been making work that’s been based on microbiology since 1995,” notes Aschheim, who also teaches in the studio art department at the University of California at Irvine. “I’ve been interested in the nervous system for a few years, and I’ve been making a lot of works that were thinking about the metaphor of buildings and bodies as being so blurred. They both have a skeletal structure, they circulate fluids, they regulate their temperature. I was really interested in the neurophysiology of buildings, because of the idea of smart buildings.”

The Neural Architecture series took shape after September 11, when she noticed the proliferation of security systems. Not only were these types of products getting less and less expensive, they were also showing up in places she never would have expected before, like Rite-Aid drugstores. This proliferation of detection and security devices struck a cord with Aschheim.

“After September 11 I got really interested in the idea of how buildings and bodies and the cultural moment that we lived in, ... how we felt in public space, was all playing out in these concrete ways through these devices and these products,” Aschheim says. “I got the idea, what if you morphed them a little bit, sort of rearrange the DNA, and you start growing this autonomous entity? And each time it moves to a new institution, like a gallery or museum, it would get smarter, and it would develop new sense? That was the birth of the project.”

She took a year to develop the concept using money she had received from a City of Los Angeles (COLA) Individual Artist Fellowship she received in 2002-2003. The result was the Neural Architecture series, the first installation of which opened at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in 2003.

The form of this piece, as well as the other five installations in the series, was modeled on a variety of life forms, including the cellular cerebral cortex and jellyfish. In addition, she used transparent materials like bubble wrap and vinyl tubing as a way of incorporating transparency as a value, something that may be lost with increased reliance on automated surveillance.

Its sense of “awareness” came from the passive infrared motion sensors that would light up as viewers moved by.

For the second piece, which was set up in Consolidated Works, Seattle Art Gallery, in 2004, Aschheim used baby monitors so the installation could grow a sense of hearing, picking up conversations of viewers and broadcasting them elsewhere in the exhibit. “Based on this sense of security and surveillance, its equivalent would be a sense of eavesdropping,” she notes. “I’m fascinated with baby monitors because they’re these benign, user-friendly, toy-like devices, but they’re also these sophisticated wireless microphones and transmitters.”

One of the key ingredients of the pieces has also been the ubiquitousness of the elements she incorporates. Once a technology reaches the $50 price level and shows up on the shelves of stores like The Home Depot and Target, then Aschheim considers it to be widespread enough to incorporate into Neural Architecture.

The third installation, at Laguna Art Museum in Los Angeles, was set up in a 2000-square-foot gallery in the lower level of the museum. She transformed the gallery into a cave-like space that was growing with neural stalactites. Walking through the space, each column would light up as the viewer tripped a sensor. In addition, the columns had mini spy cameras embedded in them with a small pocket television, so in a sense the viewers would participate in the museum surveillance because they would see themselves on the screens of the little TVs.

“It was as though it was gestating in the lower level of this museum, which has California Impressionist paintings in the upper level, and an expensive security system with cameras trained on these expensive paintings,” Aschheim explains.

The fourth installation, at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, turned things upside down and made the viewer the subject. The structure was woven out of 260 lamp cells created with vinyl and clear plastic bath mats that served as the structural unit of the installation. For this incarnation, the entity developed a memory via DVD players, which had finally dropped to the $50 price range.

“The center of the structure was lined with 23 cells that had monitors in them,” she says. “Some of them had nanny cams, sending your image back to you. Some of the monitors were live-feed CCTV from the other galleries on the campus participating in the security system of Otis College. And on some of the monitors I played short DVDs that I had recorded when I was taking the show down at Laguna. So this is the idea of video as prosthetic memory, the way we now use camcorders, where we’re storing memories of our own life off site, on our computer instead of in our brain.”

For the fifth installation, which was at the Armory Center in Pasadena, CA, Aschheim snaked a network of red vinyl tubes out of second-story windows and wound them around the branches of the trees. She removed the windows and replaced them with Plexiglas that had cut outs to allow the tubes to move from inside to outside. As pedestrians walked down the street, they triggered motion detectors in the trees, causing each tubing-encased tree to light up. Closed-circuit cameras in the trees sent the pedestrians’ images back to the lobby, where they were broadcast on mini TVs suspended in cell clusters.

“I wanted to extend the idea of the project outside the gallery space and have it be colonizing both the gallery and the nongallery space, like the lobby and the administrative hallways of the art center. It’s a very heavily used community art space, so the gallery is only one of many things that go on there. It’s also in the old town part of Pasadena, with a real active retail and restaurant district, so a lot of people walk by as they go from the parking area to the restaurants,” she says. “I wanted to dissolve the boundary between the art space and the public space so that people who are just walking by are completing the piece because they’re activating it; and then whether or not they enter the art space their images enter the art space because they’re projected inside.”

Adds Aschheim, “I also wanted to make a link between these inorganic networks that we’re connected to now, like technology networks and communications networks, and then the organic networks of the trees and of other things that are growing, like in our bodies, that have these complex branching and looping structures.”

The piece at the Frist is the sixth piece in the series and the culmination of Phase I. It’s composed of six independent neural columns, each of which the viewer can enter. The content inside of the columns sorts into different areas, just like our brains do, with different areas for things such as memory and experience.

“There will be monitors playing videos from each of the earlier installations,” explains Aschheim, “and then it will be some other live feed, and then as you move from column to column you’ll be participating in this experience as though this entity is growing into a brain.”

In addition, the piece brings together the acoustic and visual senses. This includes baby monitors that transmit to other parts of the art center, so that viewers’ conversations can be overheard throughout the museum.

Aschheim is already thinking ahead to her next project, which will build on some of the themes she touched on in Neural Architecture. “The thing that I’m envisioning for the installation after the one at the Frist is that I want to start thinking about senses that the piece could have that we don’t have organically, but that are very much a part of how we live right now. For example, we live one way in physical space with our bodies, and then we also have this existence in virtual space, via telephone and e-mail.”

“I think more and more we’re feeling disconnected from ourselves, and I’d like to explore that further,” she says.

Photo courtesy Deborah Aschheim

This installation at the Laguna Art Museum in Laguna, CA, is of eight cortical columns colonizing the museum’s lower level.

Frist Center Shows its Smart Surveillance

By Sara Malone

The upgraded security system at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts highlights the message of the center’s current exhibit by Los Angeles artist Deborah Aschheim. Called Neural Architecture, the exhibit is one in which buildings develop senses and memories.

The camera system is NiceVision by NICE Systems, a company that provides video security monitoring solutions and video content analytics. Ian Ehrenberg, NICE’s vice president of sales, is intrigued by the juxtaposition of Aschheim’s installation in the Frist Center and the NICE security system.

“Security systems are like our five senses,” he says. “The Frist was looking for a new system, something state-of-the-art to integrate all the senses to create a complete solution.”

Martin Terrien, Frist’s director of finance and operations, says, “We were completely an analog shop before. The new digital technology allows greater storage capacity, greater retrieval capacity, greater flexibility. It also allows us to move away from specialized equipment to equipment that’s more off-the-shelf, like DVD recorders.”

NICE Systems’ technology got its start in more sensitive facilities like banks, airports, and even the Statue of Liberty. The Frist is one of the first museums to implement the NiceVision System.

Providing the highest image quality per given storage consumption, NiceVision is two-and-a-half to five times more efficient than comparable JPEG/Wavelet solutions. NiceVision delivers high-resolution (4CIF) images at a full 30/25 frames per second, with high 4CIF unit channel capacity, as well as MPEG4 main profile compression, allowing it to perform well on all spectrums at the lowest bit rate. It also includes noise reduction filters for enhancing image quality.

The system combines real-time alerts and instant investigation to help security personnel decide quickly on the best course of action and reduce the chance of human error.

“We’d done a lot of research, but at the time a lot of other solutions were very expensive, and required us to scrap the detection part of our system and put in a different one,” Terrien says. “NICE was the first one to really come along that had what we wanted and could integrate with the other equipment that we had so it wasn’t necessary to do a lot of revamping of our systems.”

NICE’s systems integrate with checkpoint

x-ray and related equipment, access control, and many other security systems to better ensure prompt threat detection and identification.

The new digitized surveillance system allows the Frist Center to record real-time video of multiple locations, and it gives the center the ability to archive and preserve images for security or safety investigations. The system incorporates required camera controls, recording capabilities, and a content analysis feature that monitors and manages multiple cameras by distinguishing between activities of interest and normal events.

Ehrenberg referred to this content analysis capability as asset protection. “Asset protection is smart technology because it’s not just a recording device,” he explains. “It looks at the scenery and learns it, and any change in it causes an alarm. It also recognizes that people will walk through, and that they’re not part of the scenery.”

The 105,000-square-foot Frist Center, initially a post office, was built during the Great Depression. In 1984 the building was added to the Historic Register as an architectural treasure from the Art Deco period. It was acquired for the Frist in 1998, and significant renovations were completed in 2001.

In fact, as Terrien notes, the renovations made the upgrade to a digital security system much easier.

“We had the opportunity to open a lot of things up during the renovation,” he explains. “Technology was integrated into the plans, so we were able to plan for the wiring, the raceways, the connections. We put a fiber-optic backbone system in the building to ensure we have the capacity to allow us to take advantage of newer technologies.”

The fiber-optic backbone, monitors, and cameras of the Frist Center’s security system form their own central nervous system for the museum, strikingly echoed by the Neural Architecture exhibit housed within.