Michael Takeo Magruder
with David Steele (server architecture) and Drew Baker (3D visualisation)
“Imaginary Cities” (2019) is an art project that transforms the British Library’s online collection of historic urban maps into fictional cityscapes for the Information Age. The work explores how large repositories of digitised cultural materials can give rise to unique born-digital artefacts and real-time experiences. It is comprised of four interrelated technology-based art installations that have been exclusively created using images and live metadata of 19th-century city maps drawn from the Library’s "One Million Images from Scanned Books" collection on Flickr Commons. Each installation remixes a famous Western city (Chicago, NYC, London and Paris) and blends contemporary digital technologies with historical analogue processes. Algorithmically generated imagery and interactive 3D virtual environments are intermingled with precious metal gilding and traditional woodworking techniques. Shown alongside maps from the British Library’s digital archive and original source books, “Imaginary Cities” reveals the changing nature of collections in the Digital Age and highlights how archives are not simply repositories of knowledge, but storehouses of creative potential that can engender new avenues for creating culture. Installations: “Imaginary Cities – Chicago” is a physical data sculpture that has been made through combining modern digital fabrication processes and traditional woodworking techniques. The project’s underlying server application has generated the raw image material for the composition from an urban street map of 1870s Chicago. The source data from the server has been translated to an intricate vector pattern. The design has been laser-engraved into solid pieces of hand-finished sapele hardwood that were then inlaid with a fluorescent UV light-reactive pigment. “Imaginary Cities – NYC” is a real-time virtual ‘city’ exclusively created from an early urban map of New York City. The 3D environment is algorithmically rendered anew each day from a 2D ‘map’ that is being constantly regenerated by the project’s online server application. The synthetic world shifts according to a hyperreal day/night cycle and offers two primary viewpoints. The first is a randomly animated vista of the city’s skyline, whilst the second is a floating street-view perspective that is experienced through the Oculus VR headset. An atmospheric soundscape (also generated in real time) completes the experience. “Imaginary Cities – London” is an ever-changing digital ‘landscape’ created from a historic map of late-Georgian London. The work’s physical ‘canvas’ is constructed from three 55” 4K LED screens that are encased in custom silver-gilded frames and controlled by a single computer. A Flash program running on the system composes the scene from a dataset containing an entire year (2018) of processed image material that was generated by the project’s online server application. The ephemeral visuals are constantly remixed in real time and are accompanied by an algorithmic soundscape that completes the aesthetic experience. “Imaginary Cities – Paris” is a sequence of four monoprints that has been created through combining leading-edge digital technologies and processes with precious fine art materials and historic craft techniques. The project’s underlying custom server application has algorithmically generated the image data for each print from a single 19th-century map of Paris. Each piece represents a unique moment from the work’s continuously running computational framework. The final objects are fabricated using direct-to-media digital printing onto 24ct gold-gilded cotton boards that have been traditionally produced and hand finished by the artist.