Ethan Miller and Bruce Gardner present Urban Observatory, by Sally Sumida

Shoes are removed and once inside the Urban Observatory, foot movements control the interplay of images on a grid of translucent blocks. photos by Kirk Amyx top and Michael Herrman

Located on top of the seal of the state of California at the center of the palm grove in Fairmont Plaza is architect Michael Herrman, and digital media artists Ethan Miller and Bruce Gardner’s creation Urban Observatory. Based on the idea of a tourist’s kiosk found in cities throughout the world, this modular, nomadic, tent-like structure, with a white peaked roof and walls made of translucent resin and fiberglass blocks, is suspended within a metal framework. From a distance, your curiosity draws you toward what appears to be the flickering of green walls. Close up the individual blocks are like puzzle pieces forming one image of an environment of dense green trees that has been cut up and embedded in the grid of individual blocks. On the west face of the structure, visitors are instructed to remove their shoes before stepping through the wall and onto a padded gray surface with directional arrows marked on the center of the floor. Once inside, you can step on the arrows to control images projected onto the four interior walls. One visitor likened it to the game Twister where a plastic sheet is spread on the floor and players contort their bodies positioning their hands and feet on different colored circles. Another thought it was more like surfing. I felt like I was on a magic carpet ride balancing and navigating with my feet. From an aerial view of the world, you can zero in a specific location; get down to ground level and see images that have been uploaded to the Internet from that site. Travel to Paris or Bali, Greenland or Africa without even leaving downtown San Jose.

Inside and outside, here and faraway, reality and illusion are merged.

Hermann uses Rene Magritte’s surrealistic painting The Human Condition to explain his work. In this artwork we can see the legs of the artist’s easel but the artist’s canvas merges seamlessly with the scene outside the window. Like Magritte’s “fool the eye” painting, the Urban Observatory is a window onto the world. From outside the structure we can see people’s legs but their bodies are blocked by the environmental images embedded in the walls of the kiosk. Are they real or part of the illusion? Once inside we can easily lose site of our actual physical location. The idea of Bali can be more enticing than the facades of the San Jose Museum of Art or the Fairmont Hotel. Hermann’s structure provides an aesthetic framework while Miller and Gardner’s software provides the opportunity for audience participation that makes the experience come alive.

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