Mountain View Voice

News - July 16, 2010

Life in a fishbowl

Local artist's new work attracts airport passengers

by Emily Hamilton

San Jose's Mineta Airport has that new airport smell. The new terminal has shiny floors, a new Peet's coffee shop and the usual gates through which travelers come and go. But the terminal is also a museum, where artwork almost becomes part of the architecture.

A fish tank with cameras and screens that resemble a flight information display nearly blends in with the airport decor — nearly. The large metal structure between gates 25 and 26 catches passengers' eyes. Some are drawn to the fish, without always noticing themselves on display.

"People just love fish," says Shona Kitchen, a Mountain View resident and co-designer of the piece. "They don't know you're part of the project."

Kitchen co-designed the piece — called "Dreaming F.I.D.S." — with Los Angeles-based artist Ben Hooker.

"The concept was to bring an obvious infrastructure — surveillance — together with something natural," Kitchen says.

Kitchen's work as an artist — or, as she says, a "designer" — has largely centered on the relationship between technology and nature.

"I love machines, I love technology, but I love nature as well," Kitchen says. "I try to find a way to celebrate both."

Part of this task is transforming the way people see technology.

"A lot of people see technology as negative," Kitchen says. "I look at a negative aspect of man-made environment and find ways to make people think these things are positive."

For the "Dreaming F.I.D.S." project, Kitchen focused on the technology of surveillance, a system that is prevalent in airports.

"Surveillance software is a piece of art," she says. "Hopefully it (the installation) will make people see surveillance as a more playful thing."

"Dreaming F.I.D.S." was selected to be in the new terminal for at least two years, but it may become a permanent piece, Kitchen says.

She describes the piece as "very site-specific." The name, which stands for "Dreaming Flight Information Display System," ties together some vital elements of the work.

"The dreaming is surveillance that's gone more dreamy and playful," Kitchen says.

The three screens, which are actually within the fish tank, operate on three programs. The first, tracking, displays images of fish that swim in front of the cameras. The second is the processing mode that identifies fish exhibiting suspicious behavior and isolates them on the screen. Mode three is dreaming, in which the screens depict abstract flight information displays.

"This becomes a microcosm of the airport itself," Kitchen says.

A fascinating aspect of the airport display is the public interaction with the piece. Kitchen says she's heard all kinds of comments about the piece.

"With public art, what's great is people coming up with their own deciphering," she says. "You can't expect people to react the same way."

The piece weighs about 1,500 pounds and will require weekly maintenance for the fish. The fish will also be changed eventually, once they determine the best species that will swim around the middle of the tank. Kitchen says that after all the work installing the piece, she has grown attached to the fish.

"There have been an initial couple of deaths and I felt so guilty," she says.

The piece came together as a collaboration from several sides, including Kitchen's "great programmer" in Seattle. She says that her project manager, Mary Rubin of the San Jose Public Art Program, was instrumental to the project's success.

During the piece's tenure at the airport, Kitchen will continue to check in and gather public feedback about the piece. She hopes that it will present a different perspective to viewers.

"It's accepting the consequences that technology has created," Kitchen says. "It's finding positiveness in something seen as negative."

E-mail Emily Hamilton at ehamilton@mv-voice.com.

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