NEW YORK -- The 50-foot-high faces that flash and twitch on a massive LED screen 48 stories above Times Square are all different. Some smile. Some scowl. Some try to look sexy. Some look like they're ready to brawl.
Unlike all the other faces in the advertising-saturated sky above midtown Manhattan, the ones in Raul Vincent Enriquez's latest art installation, which launches Thursday, aren't trying to sell anything. The only concept Enriquez says he is trying to convey with his new piece, I in the Sky, is the importance of eye contact.
"We just need more eye contact; it's what makes us human," the Brooklyn-based artist says. "I think it's really fascinating. It can be the invitation to a fight or a sign that you're understanding somebody."
I in the Sky's giant color close-ups mix the sci-fi creepiness of Big Brother's omnipresent eye with twitchy and amusing personal moments, depending on the subjects' facial expressions and animators' tweaks. Although the project's scope is big, with plans for more than 10,000 people to have their faces shown on the 2,500-square-foot Lumacom screen over the next seven weeks, Enriquez says the focus remains small -- on the eyes.
In fact, the eyes are actually what make the whole process technologically possible.
Each video portrait used in I in the Sky is the result of a subject sitting in a specially designed photo booth at the nearby chashama gallery. Participants stare at a camera for 30 seconds, and 30 photographs are produced. A computer program lines up the eyeballs in each of the pictures, and animators enhance certain facial movements to create a vibrant video portrait with a flip-book feel.
"You get to pick up on people's little tics and twitches, because they are sitting in front of the camera for 30 seconds," Enriquez says. "Some of their personality comes out in this very curious way. People [who've seen the portraits] have said they feel very voyeuristic, like they're looking at somebody who's looking at themselves in the mirror alone. They kind of feel like they're violating that person's privacy because you get to see this moment that they're having with the camera."
Anita Durst, chashama's artistic director, says that when she learned the $200,000-a-month LED billboard above the Durst Organization's building at 4 Times Square was available for a public art project, she thought Enriquez's animated portraits would be an excellent fit.
"It lets ordinary people be famous for a minute," Durst says. "It reshapes the way we think about the skyline."
I in the Sky adds a bit of human warmth to the Manhattan skyline, and Enriquez wanted that warmth to be reflected in the photo booth that serves as the interface between the public and the massive sign. Artist-designer Michael Casselli says that the booth was inspired by Federal-style architecture, H.G. Wells' The Time Machine and bits of the industrial revolution: all juxtapositions with the high-tech processes that would go on inside.
"If it's too slick and cold," Casselli says, "it wouldn't be as inviting."
For Enriquez, the invitation is important, since public involvement will help make the installation a success.
"It's important to take these little mundane moments and make them grand," he says. "There's an absurdity to it, but that's what makes it fun and engaging."