Palo Alto may be one of the birthplaces of Silicon Valley, but this week, one of the city's parks is going Paleolithic. A "ruin" populated by colorful primitive life forms will arise in downtown's Lytton Plaza. Visitors can even interact with the beings that inhabit the ruin.
It's not a time travel portal, but an interactive installation called "Paleoalto" and despite its ancient theme, technology made it possible.
"Paleoalto" is a centerpiece of Code:ART, a three-day festival hosted by the city of Palo Alto that highlights new media, taking place on the evenings of Oct. 7-9 in Palo Alto. In addition to "Paleoalto," visitors can enjoy six other "urban interventions" — digital works that all invite interaction — placed in spots in and around downtown Palo Alto.
"Paleoalto" is a collaboration between Alameda-based Marpi Studio and technology system designers and installers Colour Feeders.
Artist Marpi specializes in interactive works, both large-scale installations and smaller pieces that can be experienced on screens as small as a phone. His exhibitions have been shown internationally, including in Shanghai, China, and Seoul, Korea, and often feature organic shapes that also have a slightly otherworldly quality to them.
"It's an interactive but imaginary world. So it's (about), 'How do you bring imagination to a physical, three-dimensional space?'" Marpi said.
He has collaborated with production designer Will Clark and systems architect Kevin Colorado, co-founders of Colour Feeders, for about three years. They have worked more closely together as pieces have become increasingly intricate or demanding in design.
"('Paleoalto') is more of a design collaboration rather than a technical collaboration. Traditionally, when I've collaborated with Marpi in the past it's been more from a technical perspective — designing the infrastructure that makes the digital experiences happen," Colorado said.
In this case, the collaboration meant getting more hands on in important details, such as how the piece would look.
"It's a big experiment, and even considering our previous work which was relatively experimental as well, this is just going further," Marpi said of "Paleoalto." "... with all of this we are treading in uncharted territory in a bunch of directions."
Marpi's works are site-specific, which posed a particular challenge for an outdoor space like a plaza. Most of Marpi's installations have been created for indoor spaces, and many of them have used projections. "Paleoalto" employs an LED wall and uses software to track and mirror visitors' motions.
"We've been researching different camera vision systems and hand-tracking software. In both cases we're focusing on technologies where you don't have to touch anything. Our work before was on touch screens and phone interactions, and touch-related interactions, but this time it's all tracking your skeleton and tracking your hands in midair," Marpi said.
Marpi's works often incorporate music, and although the specifics of what the music will be was still in development when Marpi and Colour Feeders spoke to this publication, "Paleoalto" will definitely have some original music to help set the scene for visitors.
One thing that makes "Paleoalto" especially unique as an interactive piece is its shape, with the installation built in a staircase shape.
"We've been working with the city of Palo Alto's engineers to design a truss system, and then attach a projecting LED wall to it. It's in a step shape, so it's not just a traditional square or a rectangle, like a screen would usually be. It has its own tapering edges and some extra panels on top of it," Clark said.
The pandemic delayed the exhibition of "Paleoalto" by more than a year. In the meantime, Lytton Plaza saw some changes that required alterations to the design, making the space for the installation a bit smaller, for one. Another significant change was the planting of some trees in the plaza that ultimately became a serendipitous addition, bringing an extra sense of realism to the piece.
"That became a design consideration, which was pretty cool, and we incorporated the trees into our setup. The trees are emerging from our digital ruins, and that ties it into the physical world," Colorado said.
"It (ties) into the theme, as well, because I am always a fan of this kind of overgrown ruins look, where nature takes over again," Marpi added.
Not only is its shape unusual, but the design of "Paleoalto" allows for greater interaction. Where many interactive pieces have only one side where visitors can participate, "Paleoalto" is double-sided and actually allows for interaction between the sides.
"I'm really excited for the design aspect of it. I've never really seen something like this myself in terms of an outdoor installation of this type. I feel like we've done a lot of work to make it not stand out as a big video wall; it's a fully immersive thing that looks like it belongs in that space," Clark said.
"Paleoalto" may have moved into its temporary home complete with its own population of brightly colored whimsical creatures, but it's waiting for the visitors who will really make it come alive.
"More than anything else, it's the interactivity that gives it a soul, that gives it life," Colorado said.
"Paleoalto" will be on view Oct. 7-9, 5-10 p.m., in Lytton Plaza, 125 University Ave., Palo Alto. For more information and a map of where to find all seven Code:ART pieces, visit cityofpaloalto.org.