by Geoff Gehman, photos by Chris Post
October 09, 2013
Jason Zulli is preparing to turn one of Bethlehem Steel's massive blast furnaces into things it isn't. A magical piece of video performance art in 4-D. A bubbling billboard. An illusory documentary of a dead plant's illustrious history.
The NCC assistant professor of art will wrap a rusty 200-foot-high tower in kinetic images beamed by a giant projector controlled by a computer keyboard he will play like a DJ. This sense-surround experience, technically known as projection mapping, will take place Oct. 12-13 during the second weekend of an Oktoberfest at SteelStacks, an entertainment center run by ArtsQuest, the parent of Musikfest. The site is anchored by five blast furnaces, which at night are lit with choreographed colors.
The project extends Zulli's extensive work as a digital artist and teacher who sculpts with motion sensors and light-emitting devices (LEDs). It's the first major project in his position as NCC's second Lipkin endowed chair in the fine and performing arts. He's in the middle of a three-year mission to bring projected happenings to NCC campuses and other places and spaces around the greater Lehigh Valley and beyond, including NCC's new Monroe Campus which will open next fall.
Zulli discovered the remarkable world of projection mapping three years ago during the opening of a friend's exhibit in Manhattan. He was immediately fascinated by the technology, which involves mapping a virtual version of a surface with a computer connected by software to a projector; digitalizing the surface into mercurial entities, and beaming the new universe back onto the surface.
Dazzlingly creative and dizzingly interactive, the process has been a hit at everything from the Super Bowl to a Virgin Mary festival in France. One of Zulli's favorite creations was mapping that made the medieval clock tower in Prague appear to temporarily dissolve like imploding, waterfalling glass during the celebration of the clock's 600th anniversary in 2010.
"The images change every second, which means that every time you walk up to the artwork, it's different," says Zulli. "You're not only in another dimension, you're in a whole other realm. It's easy to catch yourself thinking: Is that building really moving?"
Zulli has tested projection mapping at NCC in ways small and large. Using a borrowed projector with a two-and-a-half-foot lens, he created a video of fluctuating, flashing eyes for a faculty show. He also transformed the College Center into pulsating blocks of colors, dancing in sync to a flamenco soundtrack.
For Zulli, the blast-furnace projection is a family affair. He was recommended for the job by his sister, Nicole Dotta, ArtsQuest's director of business enterprises. The project, she says, "is so my brother." He has a spiritual brother in Ron Unger, ArtsQuest's director of special projects. Unger not only shares Zulli's quest to make digital art a communal enterprise, he shares a multi-generational link to Bethlehem Steel.
Unger's father worked as a maintenance foreman at the Steel's Coke Works and Unger himself worked three summers at the local plant. Zulli's grandfather, Pasquale, took breaks from braking steel-carrying trains to watch workers tap the blast furnaces to pour molten steel into molds. His great-grandfather, also named Pasquale and also an Italian immigrant, actually worked in the furnaces as a roller, flattening hot metal.
For Zulli and Unger, the blast furnaces are magnetic beacons. They have been industrial landmarks since 1904, the year the first furnace opened and the year Bethlehem Steel incorporated. For nine decades the towers produced iron for steel for landmarks from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Chrysler Building. Primitive and futuristic, they have been aesthetic landmarks, too. They starred in 1935 photographs that Walker Evans took for a federal unit assigned to make Americans treasure national treasures during the Depression. In the 2009 movie "Transformers 2" they doubled as a portion of a futuristic Chinese city. Since the 2010 opening of SteelStacks they have been illuminated by subtly shifting Tequila Sunrise hues. Framed by the two-floor window of the Musikfest Café, they resemble an industrial aquarium.
Zulli created another kind of liquid charisma during a test run of projection mapping last spring at Furnace A, the oldest tower. He projected side-by-side images of a bubbling bottle of Yuengling beer, made by the primary sponsor of the Musikfest Café and Oktoberfest, and Yuengling lager pouring into a glass. The latter picture had a fizzy explosion, an amber fire. It could have appeared on a Times Square-on-steroids billboard in the sci-fi movie "Blade Runner."
Zulli's blast-furnace mapping is limited by practical matters. He's projecting on only one furnace because he can rent only one projector. He's projecting on the second weekend of Oktoberfest to give him more time to unkink kinks. His challenges include keeping images from warping on the tower's cylinders and keeping oranges and yellows from bleeding into the rusty brown paint.
Weather permitting, Zulli will perform in the courtyard below Furnace A, behind the Visitors Center on the eastern border of the Oktoberfest grounds at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. From a computer keyboard, he will manipulate projections of everything from Yuengling products to vintage footage of blast-furnace workers working. His greatest trick will be making the furnace appear to melt.
"I'll be playing with time, space and motion, showing how the plant changed over the years, bringing the old back to new and back to old again," says Zulli. "I want to make the furnaces live again, make them linger, boggle the senses. I'll be very happy if I hear 'Wow!' or 'Holy crap!'"
Unger cautions that Zulli's project is "a demonstration, a proof of concept." Still, the ArtsQuest official envisions projection mapping as a commercial/cultural incubator. The technology, he says, could be used during a projected biannual competition for digital artists, a way of "firing up" SteelStacks and other sites on Bethlehem's South Side. It could promote digital art and corporate sponsors on the blast furnaces. The towers will become more accessible with the planned 2014 opening of a former Bethlehem Steel elevated walkway, or trestle, running from the Visitors Center to the Sands Casino complex.
Zulli has a longer, deeper bucket list. He wants to find supporters for funding of a large scale projector to be used by digital artists in the Lehigh Valley. He would love to curate an exhibit of digital works projected on public buildings all over Bethlehem without notice, a sort of video flash mob. His dream project? Imagine five projectors mapping the five blast furnaces, turning an industrial suite into a symphony.
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