by Alvaro Cassinelli, 2008

News: (Nov. 2008) Ouroboros among the 53 Finalists, selected from 295 entries for the “LIVE BITS: Art Exploring Real-Time Connectedness

  • 1000 word abstract of the project [pdf]
  • Budget description [pdf]
  • Preliminary schedule for production and deployment [pdf]
  • CV with Publications & Awards [pdf]
  • Examples of previous work (URL)
  • Contact: Alvaro Cassinelli, Assistant Professor, Ishikawa Komuro Lab., Graduate School of Information Science and Technology / University of Tokyo. Personal Address: HonKomaGome 5-72-3, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo 113-0021. Phone: (+81)(0)9087756173 / work: +81.3.5841.6937 (laboratory) / Fax: +81.3.5841.6952
    Email: cassinelli.alvaro(at)gmail.com


“Ouroboros” is a shared virtual space, a world-scale tunnel built by chaining video-conferencing cameras and projectors in a closed loop around the world. This virtual space comes into contact with the Earth at several entry points or “Gates” situated in different cities, each standing in a location particularly representative of the place (public squares, markets, private homes, etc). Each Gate is simply composed of a (portable?) projection screen, a video camera a little far away, and an “interstitial” public space in between. The camera captures the whole view – that is, the passersby and the standing projection screen blended in the background – and the resulting live stream is sent over the Internet to be projected onto a similar structure – in a different city, in a different country, in a different continent. The process repeats itself until the loop is completed, as the final video is projected back onto the first screen – only to restart a tour in an eternal circulation (Fig.1a). In its (almost) instantaneous travel around the world, the video stream will gather “souvenirs” of the visited places. People from all around the world will appear on the screen as standing in the middle of a tunnel whose walls are composed by an infinite recursion of (Matryoshka-like) nested video windows; one can recognize the actual location of the shooting in each of these rectangular frames (Fig.1b).

Fhttp://www.k2.t.u-tokyo.ac.jp/members/alvaro/Ouroboros/tripletourColors.jpgig.1a: Ouroboros network topology http://www.k2.t.u-tokyo.ac.jp/members/alvaro/Ouroboros/pantalla1.jpgFig.1b: Ouroboros guts as seen from any gate

The Main Gate in Linz

To make these ideas concrete, let’s picture a gate in Linz (Fig.2).

A large projection screen in Hauptplatz is filmed (along with the crowd) by a camera on the other side of the square or from the window of a building nearby); the captured video appears a few milliseconds later on a large advertisement screen in Shibuya-crossing at the heart of Tokyo. It is then filmed by another camera from a spot nearby (perhaps this time at foot level from Sachiko square where young people use to gather); this live video stream is then sent to a similar screen in Singapore… and so on, until the chain closes itself and the image is sent back to the Main Gate in Hauptplatz. This is just an example – the actual places that can be connected in real time may be all or a subset of those sites selected for the 80+1 project.

Of course, Hautplatz is not the only gate where people can peer into the guts of Ouroboros, for there is neither start nor end in its topology.

http://www.k2.t.u-tokyo.ac.jp/members/alvaro/Ouroboros/linzSetup3.jpgFig.2: The Main Gate in Hautplatz, Linz.
 http://www.k2.t.u-tokyo.ac.jp/members/alvaro/Ouroboros/framesA.jpg  http://www.k2.t.u-tokyo.ac.jp/members/alvaro/Ouroboros/torii.jpg  



Fig.3: Ouroboros’ interior will look like a crowded road towards the (cyclical) Infinite. Space is layered as in a traditional “torii” gates.

Artist Statement

The body of Ouroboros is both a virtual space for inter-personal communication and a (networked) land-art monument: a world-scale rosary composed of living beads of people and places. Ouroboros’ body is nowhere and everywhere at the same time for it is the collection and arrangement of all these different places. Ouroboros’ interior looks slightly different from gate to gate, yet it is a view of the same space, from different perspectives (in a geographical but also in a sociocultural sense). People from all around the world will be able to see and communicate with each other (if not with voice, at least by waving their hands), while a hint of the location and time of shooting can be sought in the borders that frame each image (Fig.3). Depending on the number of cities visited by Ouroboros at any particular time – as well as the resolution of the gate’s cameras – people may even be able to perceive their own “reflection” in the distance, as if standing between two mighty parallel mirrors.

By controlling the zooming of the cameras it is possible to momentarily give focus to a particular place; for instance, by setting the zoom on every camera (but one) so that the filmed screens cover almost the entire field of view of the cameras, the place where the zoom is still set to wide will grow on every screen, while the images of all the other places will be reduced to abstract colorful sediments piling up on the borders or compressed in the center of the screen (Fig.4). By controlling the zooming in a synchronized way (with a time frame of several days), attention can be sequentially shifted from place to place, perhaps following the schedule of the 80+1 main tour and ending of course in the Main Gate in Linz.

http://www.k2.t.u-tokyo.ac.jp/members/alvaro/Ouroboros/givingFocus.jpgFig.4: Shifting attention to a particular place..
Since one of the proposed locations is “Internet”, a computer generated image could be injected in Ouroboros body: a simple alphanumeric banner framing the image currently in “focus” and displaying data related to its associated Topic (Fig.5). In this way, Ouroboros can add an aesthetical and conceptual layer to the main 80+1 project goal.
http://www.k2.t.u-tokyo.ac.jp/members/alvaro/Ouroboros/internetLayerOnFocus.jpgFig.5: Highlighting an abstract topic associated to a particular place.

Technical statement

The “Gate” structure is a very simple thing: a standing front or rear projection screen and a video camera. Neither the equipment (projection screen, projector and camera) nor the Gate configuration needs to be the same everywhere. For instance some Gates can be open in a (no longer!) private living room or on a public bar, while others can be set on open spaces or occupy for a moment large advertisement displays. Moreover, a clear wall (inside or outside a building) can be used as a screen if the lighting and the surface is adequate (rear projection may in principle be better to avoid capturing people’s shadows, but if the projector has a short throw, or is set on the ceiling or placed sideways, then rear and front projection will perform equally well). Finally, there is no need to use a professional camcorder to shoot the video: a good webcam may provide very decent resolution (but perhaps not optical zoom functionality). In a first research phase I will evaluate the best shooting configuration (best shooting angle, zoom, appropriate size of screens, etc.).

The networking infrastructure is also elementary, as even standard video-conferencing software can be used; however, in order to enhance the quality of the images, I will write an applet for those “gatekeepers” having a better camcorder at their disposal. (This software can also be used to inject personal text messages in the alphanumeric banner.) I will aslo stydy two possible networking infrastructures – a simpler ring topology or a star topology with a central server capable of quickly handling any link disruption.

After the exhibition, one can imagine that Ouroboros will be kept alive running as a screensaver in any desktop or laptop computer, interconnecting the World as gates randomly open and close all around the surface of the Earth. The figure on the right (Fig.6) represents a proof-of-principle demonstration (interconnecting Tokyo, Paris and Montevideo – but not in real time).

http://www.k2.t.u-tokyo.ac.jp/members/alvaro/Ouroboros/OuroborosTunnel_clip_image002.jpgFig.6: Proof of principle experiment

Collaboration and actual deployment

Although not technically challenging, this project may require a good (international) coordination. Individual collaborators will be people heavily involved in the project, providing advice for refining the concept and aesthetics, as well as taking care of its production for free; contributors (or gatekeepers) will be people willing to run a gate from the whole duration of the project or for a brief period of time (a gatekeeper fee may be an incentive for them). Finding collaborators and contributors will involve a lot of emailing, phone calls and when possible, traveling to check and discuss issues in place. To this date, I already have a list of half a dozen potential collaborators. It is even conceivable to advertise this project as a large common project between media-art institutions or even capitalize on the infrastructure of temporary festivals – there are enough media art festivals out there so as to cover the whole duration of the Live Bits project. (This could be a premiere: a single work, exhibited in many places at the same time that does not disintegrates despite the closing of one or more of these events – and involving in an essential way each particular place since the work is in itself the collection and arrangement of all these places). Sponsors (shops, galleries, showrooms, bars, hotels – and even holiday resorts that could even pay to advertise their paradises!) may be also an alternative worth exploring. All this is without taking into account many friends that will probably try opening a Gate just out of curiosity – but this will be in a random and punctuated way though.

While one cannot expect to have it working with a hundred cities at the same time and/or for the whole duration of the exhibition, it can be relatively easy to automatically “stitch” the broken topology by redirecting the internet addresses whenever necessary. A realistic strategy may be to maintain three to five “official gates” around the world (perhaps on buildings, museums or places momentarily related to the main 80+1 project). Other less stable, “unofficial” gates may open and close randomly. This solution has the additional advantage that the visuals will be easier to decrypt (since the borders of the video frame will be significantly fatter). Finally, in order to accommodate a more dynamic topology embracing as many places as possible, one or two official gates could physically travel from one city to another every now and then, perhaps partially following the main 80+1 route. The challenge will be to recruit “gatekeepers” all around the world willing to install and take care of the Gates, but I am confident that this can be easily achieved by properly advertising the project, contacting fellow artists and recruiting gatekeepers among the circle of my friends.