The Meta Agency claims to represent “Talent Beyond,” which naturally raises the question of what exactly that means.
The answer goes something like this: Let’s say you’re a brand and you want to make a big splash at an event or in a public space. You want to create something your audience has never seen before and that will make them instantly reach for their phones to post a picture to social media. But you’re not exactly sure how to do it.
That’s where The Meta Agency comes in. The two-year-old Brooklyn-based firm represents around 20 avant-garde digital artists. These artists typically have careers outside of the agency, often in the fine arts. But Meta takes those aspects of their work that are applicable in corporate contexts and then promotes them—much as a traditional production company does for photographers or directors. Meta is also known for what it calls “synchronizing,” or teaming up its artists so that they can take on larger and more challenging projects.
In selecting its artists, Meta does not simply look for eye-candy or techno-experimentation. “With our artists, technology is very prevalent,” says founder Justin Bolognino, “but they also have to be good at creating an emotional experience. They have to be able to tickle something deep inside you.”
So what do Meta artists do? The short answer is: just about anything. They build sculptures, they project video on them, they link the videos to social media and they use data feeds to generate visual graphics. They have no rulebook. The only constant is that their canvas is usually a public space, and they’re always aiming to surprise their audiences with something new.
Probably the best way to understand their world is to review their work. On the following pages, we explore six of Meta’s current top artists.
Dev Harlan originally founded CTRL as a broadcast design firm, but in 2008 he closed it down to concentrate on the intersection of sculpture and motion graphics.
“The process for me is both physical and digital,” he says. “There are many times when I’m manipulating forms and patterns on screen. There are also times when I’m playing with paper and foam and seeing what feels right.”
Much of Harlan’s work involves a technique called projection mapping. The idea behind it is if you project a video clip on a flat wall, it usually looks fine. But if you project the same clip on an object, say, a ball, it wraps around and becomes distorted. Projection mappers have tools that allow them to “map” an object in 3-D and then pre-distort video so that it looks correct when it hits the object.
Many projection mappers use this technique to create illusions, but Harlan’s aim is more aesthetic. He typically fabricates polyhedrons, or solid three-dimensional shapes with flat sides. A sugar cube, for example, is a simple polyhedron. Harlan’s, of course, are much more intricate, sometimes with a dozen sides or more. He then projects additional shapes onto them, creating mesmerizing patterns of light and color.
CTRL has worked with a large number of musicians, like Tiësto and Beyoncé, as well as brands such as Lincoln, Y-3 and Target.
Imagine you’re strolling past an urban garden, a large raised bed filled with tomatoes and other plants. You reach out and touch a leaf, and the plant laughs or coughs. You send a tweet to the garden, and it gets a sprinkle of water in response.
The Naked Power Garden—constructed for Pepsi near Chicago’s Union Station last summer—was one of the more unconventional experiences created by Incredible Machines. Founded by former graduate students (and in some cases current professors) of Parsons The New School for Design, the firm does work ranging from data-driven video walls and wearable computing to, well, interactive vegetation.
Asked how they arrive at their strange ideas, founder Scott Peterman points to their schooling. “We come from an art school background,” he says. “We present an idea and everyone looks at it critically. No one’s work is precious, so we iterate on it, and that’s what allows us to come up with solutions and refine them.”
Contrary to what you might think, not all Meta artists are twenty-something hipsters. Glowing Pictures’ Benton C. Bainbridge and V Owen Bush have been creating live concert visuals and collaborative video art since before the interactive era.
To understand what they do, it’s best to start with the larger landscape of VJ-ing. Since the late ’80s, it’s been common to have not just a DJ or band at a concert or club, but also someone who creates visuals to go along with the music. Typically these videos are made in advance and triggered either by the VJ or, more often, by a lightboard operator.
Glowing Pictures represents an evolution of the concept: live visual performance. Bainbridge and Bush create visuals on the fly, not pre-canned ones. The Beastie Boys were the first major act to deploy this technique, when Bainbridge created oscilloscope-driven imagery live for the 2004 VMAs.
“I don’t like the word VJ,” explains Bush. “It sounds like a visual DJ, and we do much more than play clips. It’s a lot of generative work and projection design where we create visual environments.
Besides oscilloscopes, they have a number of improvisational techniques. A typical one involves something called generative design. Let’s say you have software that creates a series of overlapping circles. Bush and Bainbridge might have tools that allow them to change the size, shape, rotation or color of the circles, depending on what’s happening during the performance. Of course, their work is much more complicated than this example, but the idea is to enhance the concert experience by adding a responsive visual layer to another performer’s act.
Glowing Pictures has performed with an array of artists from Moby and Kanye West to Lynyrd Skynyrd and James Blake. Commercially, the duo has also created visual environments for a client list that includes Google and the American Museum of Natural History.
INVISIBLE LIGHT NETWORK
Like many firms represented by Meta, Invisible Light Network revolves around a single person: Elliot Kealoha Blanchard. While primarily known for motion graphics, he and his collaborators take on just about anything. They’ve created short films, a software program that generates 3-D-printed bracelets based on music and a social media-driven app that allows you to visually explore the buzz around bands at the South by Southwest Festival.
“The big thing about us is our background as traditional motion graphics designers,” Kealoha Blanchard says. “We bring that same design and storytelling approach to interactive projects, installations and industrial design too.”
Currently located in Brooklyn, the firm has worked with brands like Google and GE, as well as musicians and festivals around the world.
Large by Meta’s standards, SuperUber employs roughly 50 people at offices in São Paulo, Rio de Janiero, London and New York.
These days the firm is combining design, architecture and technology to create immersive experiences for everything from museums and festivals to industry events. For example, a recent project for Intel, called OctoCloud, featured a video game whose “screen” was a piece of sculpture that eight people could play at once using their cell phones.
“We’re very used to thinking of content in a screen-based world, where aspect ratio is important,” explains Lucas Werthein, the director of the firm’s New York office. “With a piece like [OctoCloud] we take the experience outside the screen and see how new types of expression are possible.”
Currently, you can find SuperUber’s work in many surprising places. In addition to backdrops for music and fashion shows, the international team has also designed TV sets and festival pavilions. Their oddest project yet? They collaborated with MIT, Pentagram and Kuka to create a real bar staffed entirely by robots for the Google I/O 2013 conference.
Not many artistic teams feature a trained psychologist, but when the goal is to explore connections between people and technology, perhaps employing a shrink makes sense. VolvoxLabs consists of Polish-born designer/artist Kamil Nawratil and psychologist Pa Her. Together, they experiment with projection, architecture and motion graphics, often trying to make digital things seem organic and alive.
Lucid Dreams, a recent project featured at the 2013 Digital Dreams Music Festival in Toronto, can help illustrate this theme. Inspired by the Codex Seraphinianus, a famous encyclopedia of imaginary creatures, Lucid Dreams filled a huge room with projections of fantastic animals. The creatures—many of which seemed to be oversized bugs—some-how managed to be grotesque and beautiful at the same time.
The “psychological” part of the installation involved connecting the viewers with the animals. Visitors were unknowingly filmed as they walked in, and that live feed was composited and eerily projected onto the walls along-side the animated 3-D creatures. Users experienced an altered sense of self within a surreal world.
The duo also works in the commercial world for clients like The Lincoln Motor Company and Live Nation, where they strive to bring people into closer contact with brands. “We all have a direct desire to connect,” says Her. “We want to belong. So Kamil and I create spaces for people to come and connect with one another.”
In a lot of ways, The Meta Agency represents the commercialization of a field that’s grown rapidly in the last few years. The rise of social media and the falling cost of digital projection have made it possible and affordable for brands to tell stories in a public space. Bolognino expects an even greater demand as broadcast proves to be a failed value spend, a younger generation takes over CMO positions and more and more marketing dollars find their way into the experiential space.
“There wasn’t a market for this two years ago,” he says. “And still most of what we do is a battle. But now we have a language set for describing what [the artists] do, and it’s become more familiar and easier to sell.”
As for the future, Meta is busy developing a more robust sales team with the hope of shaking bigger trees. But no matter how big the budget or client, the agency remains committed to quality over quantity. “We’re not interested in having 300 artists,” says Bolognino. “We want to have the best 25 artists at what they do and make sure they get the recognition they deserve.” ca