UB collaborates on one-of-a-kind new media gallery

Artist rendering of The Front Yard at night. Courtesy of Isabella Brito and Brad Wales.

Published June 19, 2014

“The Front Yard will ‘project’ the sunset, ‘play’ the sunrise, respond in colors to a rainstorm and create music from the wind.”
Anthony Bannon, executive director
Burchfield Penney Art Center

The Elmwood Avenue façade of the Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC) has been transformed into a permanent, constantly changing new media gallery, thanks to a collaboration between SUNY Buffalo State and the UB Department of Architecture.

Dubbed “The Front Yard,” the outdoor installation for electronic image and sound will open at sunset on Oct. 18 with work by media artist and project co-designer Brian Milbrand and numerous other artists, including many current and former UB faculty members.

The sweeping curve of the Burchfield Penney’s exterior has become a projection surface that will operate 24/7, 365 days a year, creating what the art center is calling the world’s first permanent, environmentally responsive, outdoor audio and video environment. Installations will be curated from image and sound art, including new work created for this project, as well as from the Burchfield Penney’s collection.

The concept for The Front Yard is the brainchild of Milbrand, technical director for Buffalo State’s communication department and a 2002 graduate of the UB media study program, and video artist Brad Wales, UB clinical assistant professor of architecture. The pair envisioned transforming the exterior of the BPAC into a backdrop for audio and image, created and based on cues drawn from changes in the weather. The project is a tribute to Charles Burchfield, the American watercolorist whose art and archives are preserved in the BPAC’s collection, and whose art incorporates the phenomenon of nature.

“The Front Yard will ‘project’ the sunset, ‘play’ the sunrise, respond in colors to a rainstorm and create music from the wind,” says Burchfield Penney Executive Director Anthony Bannon. “Spectators will enjoy a powerful visual illumination in the midst of high-quality sound where they are the subject or focal point of the production unfolding all around them.”

The design concept for The Front Yard was developed and implemented by Milbrand and Wales, working with undergraduate architecture students from Wales’ Small Built Works studio and communication students from Buffalo State during the course of the 2012-13 academic year.

The Front Yard consists of three 24-foot steel and glass-clad towers, each housing a 7,500-lumen video projector, and eight military-grade, surround-sound speakers. Details of Burchfield’s paintings “Moth and the Thunderclap” (1961), “Wind-blown Asters” (1951) and “Oncoming Spring” (1954) are etched onto the stainless steel cladding of the sculptured units.

Initial tower designs were created in a competitive charrette format as part of Wales’ Small Built Works studio. The finished structures were co-designed by Wales and Isabella Brito, an architecture exchange student from Brazil, using Brito’s winning sleek shape and dot-pattern concept.

Wales and his students, collaborating with a diverse team, then led the final design and production of the towers, which were constructed in the School of Architecture and Planning’s fabrication shop.

The audio and image displays projected from the towers are determined by environmental conditions, including temperature, rain, light levels, wind, movement and other factors that are gathered via customized sensors installed on the grounds of the Burchfield Penney.

“When I proposed the theme of seasonal cycles for the triple-screen video, it was to honor Burchfield’s life-long interest in the changing seasons, which is such a large part of life in Buffalo,” Wales explains. “Many possibilities were inherent in that concept, such as the beauty of projections passing through snow in the winter. The idea of the projected light on snowflakes reminds me of how Burchfield painted sound waves passing through space.”

In addition, three weatherproof cameras on the grounds of the Burchfield Penney chronicle images from around the art center. These pictures, also recorded based on weather and time of day, are being compiled for artists to use in new work and may be presented in real-time based on the predetermined environmental factors.

“I’ve always been interested in Buffalo’s dramatic cycles of the seasons, and how we shift from season to season, a similar curiosity to that of Charles Burchfield,” says Milbrand. “Bringing public video art to this region is also a passion that I wanted to create with the talented media artists with whom I collaborate. Avant garde audio, film and video productions flood out of Western New York, and all the practitioners are presenting very experimental and challenging work.”

Omar Khan, associate professor and chair of the UB Department of Architecture, notes that The Front Yard design “will invigorate the Burchfield Penney’s facade."

"It makes a performance space of the front yard and allows for greater public engagement of the site. The Department of Architecture is happy to be part of this transformation of the space,” Khan says.

With its opening on Oct. 18, The Front Yard will launch a continuous audio-and-image installation by nearly 100 artists. The debut will be a world premiere of “Afterglow Arrangements” (2013), a work by Milbrand, followed by works by legendary film and video makers Steina and Woody Vasulka, both former UB faculty members; UB media study alumnus Peer Bode; and newly remastered pieces by the late UB faculty members Paul Sharits and Hollis Frampton. Works from more than a dozen artists then will be presented throughout the night. An audio piece by J.T. Rinker, managing director of UB’s Center for 21st Century Music, will accompany the sunrise, cued by the change in light levels of the breaking dawn. Later in the day, pieces by UB music faculty members David Felder and Cort Lippe; the late UB faculty member and computer music pioneer Lejaren Hiller; and Harald Bode will be presented.

Considered a permanent gallery space of the Burchfield Penney, new content will be added to The Front Yard’s repertory on the second Friday of every month as part of M&T Second Fridays at the Burchfield Penney.