It's the largest canvas in town, so when Jeff West suggested the idea -- that local video artists create their own programming for the Omni's flashy exterior walls -- the project was too alluring for anyone to pass up. September 26 will be one, memorable night many months in the making, and the massive spectacle will combine the visual grandeur of innovative video art with music, as each work's soundtrack is simulcast live on KXT public radio, kicking off the 25th annual Dallas VideoFest.
Bold ideas like this one were what West was, and will continue to be, known for instigating. He passed away in May after thirty dedicated years of arts activism. In that time he brought his business acumen and passion to countless institutions, from the Dallas Theater Center to the Sixth Floor Museum, and through his role at development company Matthews Southwest, he'd assembled the Omni's interior art collection by populating the walls of rooms and common areas with pieces created here in Dallas. But a bigger wall sat, beckoning him. So West challenged some local video artists to commandeer the thing for a night, and show the city what they can do with 198,807 square feet of futuristic canvas.
The Omni's exterior LED display currently operates off a short library of programming software, issued by Maxedia Compact, the company that created the system. The scope of what is shown from that collection is a role assumed by Pat Anderson, a Matthew Southwest employee who moonlights as Dallas' aesthetic protector. He's passionate about this giant screen and fiddles with the software to produce the most visually appealing lighting combinations that it's currently capable of running. But even he is limited in power: Creating the code for a new neon product stretching 20 stories tall is riddled with challenges. A fact that Carolyn Sortor, the local artist who stepped up to help organize the exhibition, soon learned quite intimately.
"Only a handful of buildings in the world offer display systems similar to the one on the Omni Hotel," explains Sortor, "and since this particular system was specifically created to fit the hotel's architecture, it is unique." Unlike more standard issue buildings with four, distinctive sides, the Omni wraps and bends. It curves rather than leaving hard angles. The audience can, and will see multiple edges of the building at a time so the programs that are made must take those factors into consideration. Also, since there is no physical start or end point along the hotel's exterior stretch, the video artists must consider how to carry a flat image accross a 360 degree circumference, with digital items exiting and entering fields at the same rate.
From there, it gets even tougher. Each vertical floor is a patchwork. The large, reflective glass windows space out the light bars, creating an extremely low-resolution pixelation, similar to an '80s dot printer. So while the horizontal lights are each three feet long and hold hands, at times creating the illusion to one, long loop of light, they are not connected vertically. Instead, the walls of each floor create giant gaps, causing those dozen or so artists writing programs to take negative space into consideration. They are working with 20 pixels in height by 333 in width and using them to illuminate a canvas that's 193 feet tall and 999 feet across.
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Through trial, error and a great deal of research, Sortor and her husband were able to create an MP4 input template for the artists to work with. Still, none are entirely certain how to marry the building's massive potential with its very specific programming needs. Many ideas are still being toyed with.
Two artists, for example, considered using Morse Code in their final products (although, only one will present the idea), others are attempting more recognizable or completely abstract images. Nothing is off the table.
The program itself is named "Expanded Cinema," and it will celebrate both the Dallas VideoFest's commitment to bringing video artwork to the public and also the legacy of one of the fest's guests of honor, Gene Youngblood, who's 1970 book Expanded Cinema was the first to give media art its due. Youngblood will be on hand both in person and digitally during the fest, which runs from September 27 to 30 at the Dallas Museum of Art. He's been the subject of a recently documentary.
Watch the Omni takeover on September 26 and pick up tickets for the Dallas VideoFest here. We'll give you a list of great vantage points closer to the date.