Think Locally: Artist Jake Barton
Jake Barton's media installations capture the many faces of New York
Craig Kellogg -- Interior Design, 9/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
Born in Brooklyn in 1972, at the beginning of an exceptionally bleak period for New York, Jake Barton has done more than his part to celebrate the rejuvenated city. His media-design firm, Local Projects, has produced installations everywhere from Copenhagen to Beijing, but he's made a specialty of innovative tech-driven exhibitions for and about his hometown—being named a National Design Awards finalist in the process. He first won attention with a booth for StoryCorps, the oral-history project that began at Grand Central Terminal in 2003. That, like many of his projects, was a collaboration with architects. Helping to turn interiors and buildings into narrative experiences, his 12-person staff treats media as a "material." Recent collaborations have been with the likes of Maya Lin Studio on SoHo's expanded Museum of Chinese in America and WXY Architecture + Urban Design for Midtown's NYC Visitor Information Center. He's currently working with Thinc Design on the National September 11th Memorial & Museum at ground zero.
How has the city shaped you?
In New York, you cannot escape people who are radically different, so diverse characters and cultures were a large part of my childhood. My parents referred to my friends as the League of Nations. My best friend in elementary school was Japanese, and visiting his home felt like going to Japan.
Did you always want to work in this field?
Not specifically. As a performance-studies major at Northwestern, I designed sets and directed. After graduation, I decided to become a doctor, and I moved back to New York to take the science classes I was missing. Then my day job at Ralph Appelbaum Associates, doing interior architecture. . .just got to be so much fun. My interest in narrative in the theater led to the idea of a firm to create media experiences.
You believe that personal stories convey larger truths.
Developing our designs for the Museum of Chinese in America, we thought about how radically different immigration is now from what it was a century ago—but the immigrant experience in Chinatown is embodied both in the architecture of the past and in the population of the present. You really can read history in the faces of people. Meeting with Maya and the exhibition designer, Matter Design, about the museum's atrium, we came up with the idea to cut full-height slots in the walls and install screens inside. That allowed us to project archival and contemporary portraits of Chinese-Americans, both prominent and unknown. If you stand there, you simultaneously see the sweep of history.
Technology introduces layers of meaning to physical space.
For a Brooklyn Historical Society installation about abolitionism, we may project larger-than-life images of an orphanage onto a concrete wall topped with razor wire. The installation questions how a thriving African-American neighborhood in the mid-19th century could be replaced in a few generations, on the same plot of land, by urban blight. It's really to provoke reactions as much as be a didactic statement about the actual historical narrative.
Will the 9/11 museum be so provocative?
The events of September 11 demand innovative storytelling techniques. Most museums are set up to interpret a set of artifacts, but in this case the museum will evolve in real time. They already have a fire truck and huge steel girders. But the collection is intended to be fluid and grow as visitors add their own accounts. We asked, "How do you aggregate individual experiences into a larger narrative that begins to make emotional sense?" The introductory museum installation will tell the story through an audio collage. You'll hear one person saying, "I picked up the telephone. . . ." Individuals will finish each other's sentences.
So technology helps exhibitions stay flexible.
We focus on typography, light, music, hardware. The technology is there to facilitate storytelling and interactivity. But you want something that will last for the ages, and nothing ages worse than the newest technology. So we use a minimalist style.
You say that you consider media a material?
Visitors should experience media like they do architecture, while moving around. Building video screens into walls adds dynamism. Video projectors are even easier, since you can crop and edit to fit walls, floors, ceilings. At the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, we'll project onto hanging scrolls milled out of Corian and sculptures created from 20-foot-high stacks of paper.
How would you describe your philosophy overall?
A lot of my designs deal with some form of participation—exhibitions as a platform for people telling stories. Even before I founded Local Projects, I worked with Nancy Nowacek on a New York—related Smithsonian installation. We had people write their memories of the city in pen on sheets of vellum and pin them to large foam-core maps of the five boroughs. The memories we gathered were displayed and used as a tool for civic understanding and conversation. Many of them were true stories that helped to clarify what makes New York New York. Some were tall tales, which is also very New York.