Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - August 6, 2010

Life in a fishbowl

Artists make a statement on surveillance in new airport public artwork — built with a fish tank

by Emily Hamilton

The new Terminal B at the San Jose airport has that new-airport smell. There are shiny floors and gates where 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.

"People just love fish," Shona Kitchen said. A Mountain View resident, Kitchen is one of the creative Californians contributing works of public art to the new terminal. Kitchen co-designed the fish-tank piece, which is 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 said.

Her work as an artist (or, as she says, a "designer") has centered largely on the relationship between technology and nature. "I love machines; I love technology; but I love nature as well," she said. "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 said. "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 prevalent in airports. "Surveillance software is a piece of art," she said.

The title, 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 said.

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 said.

Funded through the city of San Jose's Public Art Program, the 1,500-pound piece cost $76,000 to design, fabricate and install, project manager Mary Rubin said. Weekly maintenance is estimated to cost $5,000 per year, and to include filtering and changing the water, cleaning off algae, polishing the aquarium's glass and rocks, and restocking food, Rubin said. She added that the city is committed to maintaining the exhibit for two years.

Kitchen said she hopes the installation will become a permanent fixture; she describes it as "very site-specific."

She said the fish will also be changed eventually, once the team determines the best species that will swim around the middle of the tank. Kitchen added that after all the installation work, she has grown attached to the fish.

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

The work came together as a collaboration from several sides, including Kitchen's "great programmer" in Seattle. She said that Rubin was also instrumental to the project's success.

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

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

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