Nitemind is a collective of artists, engineers, designers and visionaries recognized by most for their contributions to NYC nightlife. Some projects are contracted as corporate opportunities. Others manifest in the underground art world. They balance function with design equally through engineering and aesthetics. We sat down with Michael Potvin and Steven Grisé to discuss their most recent endeavors, from simulating fire to the importance and benefits of being part of a vibrant arts community.
What are you working on right now?
Michael: We are working with Sarah Kinlaw and Monica Mirabile of Authority Figure. They are from Otion Front, which is housed in the other building at Stream Gallery. They are doing a large-scale choreography installation at The Knockdown Center in May with 120 performance artists, a dozen choreographers, installation artists and musicians. The list of musicians is great - Dev Hynes, Dan Deacon, etc. SOPHIE is making a soundtrack for it and Travis Egedy is making a bunch of Pictureplane stuff for it too.
What’s your role in the piece?
Michael: We are creating this surveillance-based installation for the performance and we are acting as lighting people for the event.
Are those two things separate?
Steven: But all tied into the same aim as one functional installation piece.
Michael: To create the installation, we are bringing in a bunch of surveillance cameras to go alongside the themes of "Authority Figure" and "Surveillance." We’re also using iPhones and iOS devices as surveillance cameras. They are pretty much built to be surveillance cameras if they are no longer functional. They have a built in camera, charger and WiFi. You can use iPhone 3s or 4s - ones with cracked screens. I have these left over from old video installations that I have done in the past where I used them as players. If you can get an RCA cable that connects to a TV they can function as that too. I used them as playback to loop different videos for installations.
The footage will be piped to this video main framing control center, which is going to be this huge video, basically control center - something out of a movie or NASA or almost more cinematic than NASA. Film is a reference because I like that - like something out of the Matrix with all the screens and wires. It's all serving a purpose, and there is a computer hacker in the center, checking all the feeds, so it’s going to be both aesthetic and functional. We can watch the entire performance from this station, and control lighting and audio cues from it. Also it becomes part of the visual art installation. You will be able to view all the different feeds, and there is data visualization coming up. Some is real, some fabricated, and some just animated.
Steven: Yeah, it's an interactive piece but the interaction is limited to the controller or the "Authority Figure."
Michael: We are working on some cameras that detect people. I'm working on maybe putting together this motorization component were cameras follow viewers. It’s super creepy. Or maybe ones that shine light on you when you walk by. Detection algorithms and things like that, robots that can kind of make things turn or pan.
We are going to be filming people in the space as well. Recording loops of different video loops and playing it back. Creating this ultimate sense of surveillance, but, simultaneously, you aren't sure what is reality. Some of it is real time, some of it is prerecorded, but it's all in the same setting, and there is going to be one group of people in the control room, watching and another group experiencing it. Are you watching them? Or are you watching yourself on screen? Who knows? We are just now figuring out what the possibilities are.
Is surveillance a common theme in your work?
Michael: Not up until now. It has been a small part. We've used security and surveillance cameras before, but more as an aesthetic element.
How did you guys meet and start working together? How long have you been collaborating?
Steven: We met each other at SxSW in 2011.
Michael: Our five-year anniversary just came up. We accidentally had a romantic dinner.
Steven: My girlfriend was going out to dinner, and I prepared this really nice meal.
Michael: And I ended up at the house...
Steven: And I was like "If you're not going to be home I'm going to call Mike"...Yeah, we met at SxSW.
Michael: Just randomly.
Steven: I was doing visuals there, and I had this whole VCR and colorizer and cameras recording and televisions. I was walking around with suitcases of analog gear. Doing visuals for whoever would have me at their showcase.
Michael: Our friends set us up.
Steven: He's a tech head. He's an artist.
Michael: We were both living up in Massachusetts at the time, and then shortly after SxSW, we were hanging out in Boston a lot. We kind of let each other know that we both love video work. I got down to New York in June, and Steve was talking about coming down for August. Steve was looking for spaces, and I was subletting. He was coming, staying and crashing. We lived here (in the studio) for two-three years.
Steven: It use to be dual use space, and then that ended.
Michael: The typical Williamsburg story. We were lucky enough to keep the space. We were clever about the transition.
What materials do you use?
Michael: We work mostly with things that create light, LEDS, laser beams, projectors and television sets. Then we control them with our own software. We use open source libraries, just connect them together, run Arduino, Processing, OpenCv, or openFrameworks. It's hard to believe that people are developing these things. They are free and non - corporate. And there is a whole community of people just willing to help you. So if you don't know what you are doing, just go on a forum.
You have an engineering degree from Boston University. How did you end up here? How did you start making art?
Michael: People asked me to. A typical engineer path is you go on to work for a military subcontractor after you graduate college. Being a hippie, or not a hippie, whatever you want to define me as, a passive conscious objector...whatever the word is, that path wasn’t my vibe at all. I always had art friends who were doing different projects. I was a musician for a long time. Music is a collaborative practice. So I similarly started working collaboratively with artists. Part of being an engineer is figuring out how to accomplish anything. My friends came to me asking, “How do I make this work? How do you make a 4 layer print with no registration technology?”
Do you have any themes that are constant throughout your work? Before you said surveillance wasn't necessarily one of them. Do you have any repeating concepts you find yourself continuously coming back to?
Michael: Repetition. Parallel lines. We might have an installation where there are 48 parallel lines doing different things. Or there is some action that is happening as a visual image continuously. Generative algorithms and making algorithms that simulate natural processes.
How do you utilize natural processes in your work?
Fire is the one we keep referring back to. We made an algorithm that simulates fire last year for Korakrit Arunanondchai. He had a solo show at Palais de Tokyo this past year and we made a bunch of algorithms for him. He wanted everything to be inspired by nature. We could have just made a loop of fire but we didn’t make a loop. Instead we did some research on how fire works. That’s the scientific engineer in me. We discovered it works through the combustion of sparks and spontaneous generation from heat. Convection. So we simulated those parameters, and it looked great. We fired the thing up and it looked fired up. We were working with our friend Alex (Thunderhorse) who's a talented videographer.
We worked on another piece for Korakrit that was a simulation of a synapse in the brain, which was actually inspired by a job that I did for a medical company. It was for a medical exhibit, and we had designed a 3-D brain, which was clear and it had all these LEDs inside of it. In the exhibit you could select a brain disorder on a series of buttons: schizophrenia, mood swings, sheer excitement, etc. The people who wanted the exhibit didn't know what that should look like, but they loved it.
Do you prefer to have your work in nightlife urban environments rather than in a white wall gallery?
Steven: I think it depends on the work to be honest.
Michael: Depends on the day you are asking.
Steven: Some of it doesn't really translate to a gallery showcase.
Michael: Also depends on the gallery. Even though we have a whitewall gallery...But even Stream is an experiment for us. Stream is a tiny storefront gallery. It is not your typical space. It's on the street in Bushwick where you can watch the train go by above.
Do people reach out to you about collaborations or do they transpire more naturally? And whom would you want to collaborate with in the future?
Michael: Mostly naturally. Say Juliana Huxtable, she hung out at Steel Drums and was a really big supporter of the club. We always welcomed her there and now we see her say at Happyfun Hideaway across the street and let her know that we are working on something new. I get super excited about research for artwork, so I spend hours on my laptop, reading things, viewing open source software, researching new technology and exploring what is possible. When I see my friends or acquaintance I let them know “I’ve been messing with this thing, and it has your name all over it.” Or we could just have a conversation about it - even if it has little to do with them, and I’m just rattling off on what I’ve focused on this week. With the Juliana project at MoMa we did most recently, we had been contemplating for months and were playing with different concepts. Initially the idea we discussed was the animated avatar and we ended up making a laser portrait of Juliana.
How do you balance the corporate and the non-corporate opportunities?
Steven: It's important to sustain the corporate jobs so that we can continue the oddball and weirdo installation pieces. That’s for our heart. The corporate jobs keep the lights on.
Michael: The collective is growing. Now we have people running code, fabricators, installation artists, concept artists and studio managers - all of which are our friends.
Steve: It’s a very friendly operation.
Michael: That is why we are working on getting more jobs, so we can expand the team and bring on more people. It’s always all about the people.
What are you listening to right now?
Michael: A metronome, which is often just a drum machine. It can just play the high hat pattern for 8 hours. Hard beats and minimal techno, which also acts as a metronome. Music that my friends make. Even in the building there are a lot of music producers. We listen to that.
Steve: Brian Sweeny’s blog called “Listen to This.”