November 25, 2013  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions
Behind the Screens:
Installing Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves
Installation view of Isaac Julien: Ten Thousand Waves at The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar

Installation view of Isaac Julien: Ten Thousand Waves at The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar

Isaac Julien (British, b. 1960) is one of the most innovative artists working at the intersection of media art and cinema today. With his vivid multi-screen works—fractured narratives that fuse breathtaking images with immersive sonic elements—Julien is internationally regarded as a key figure in the vitalization of the gallery space through new exhibition strategies of time-based art. Julien’s most ambitious work to date, the nine-channel video installation Ten Thousand Waves (2010), is projected onto nine double-sided screens in a unique arrangement designed especially for MoMA’s Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium. This immersive cinematic installation, which entered the Museum’s Department of Media and Performance Art collection last year, is a dynamic reflection on the movement of people across continents. Julien interweaves the 2004 tragedy of Morecambe Bay, in which 23 Chinese migrant workers lost their lives off the coast of northwest England, with stories set in contemporary Shanghai and drawn from ancient Chinese myths. With this fragmented and poetic installation, Julien invites visitors to take on multiple viewing perspectives, encouraging them to move freely through the work.

Installation of Isaac Julien's Ten Thousand Waves at MoMA. November, 2013. Photo by Ashley Young

Installation of Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves at MoMA, November, 2013. Photo: Ashley Young

The work’s multi-dimensionality is reflected in its highly technical, complex installation process; a complete list of experts who played a crucial role in the realization of MoMA’s presentation would read like a thank-you speech at the Academy Awards. The installation was spearheaded by Aaron Louis, Aaron Harrow, and David Hollely of MoMA’s Audio Visual and Exhibition Design departments, sound designer Jamie McElhinney, and screen designer Neal Wilkinson, in close consultation with audiovisual designers Tom Cullen and Nick Joyce. The Marron Atrium is a particularly challenging space for media art installations—it rises to over 60 feet, is filled with natural light, and acts as a massive echo chamber. The installation at MoMA is not only one of the most ambitious presentations of Ten Thousand Waves to date, it is the first iteration to include screens suspended at multiple levels. Typically, due to the layout of most gallery spaces in museums, multi-screen media artworks are presented more or less at one height level. But the soaring Marron Atrium allows—even demands—far greater complexity in video design; the artist and designers had to think vertically. For example, Ten Thousand Waves is viewed from many different vantage points in the Museum. Therefore, we had to make sure nothing was blocking the projectors, and the images had to be aligned exactly with the screens. Due to the brightness of the space we also needed high-lumen projectors by Christie®, on par with those used in cinemas, to ensure proper image quality. The screens are made with material that allows an equally bright image on both sides, ensuring the best possible visibility from every angle. This is precision work—a kind of media art-surgery.

Installation of Isaac Julien's Ten Thousand Waves at MoMA. November, 2013. Photo by Ashley Young

Installation of Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves at MoMA, November, 2013. Photos: Ashley Young

From the previsualization drawing by Aaron Harrow, MoMA’s Audio Visual Design Manager, depicting the different light beams crossing, one can see the visionary thought and meticulous calculations that go into such an undertaking. One of the most important factors in both the audio and visual aspects of the design was the screen rigging. The rigging team, led by Michael Sapsis and coordinated by David Hollely, had to span high-tension cables at ceiling level from east to west, so that the huge screens could be suspended at a precise height level. Our team also had to make sure the 300 pounds and over 400 feet of heavy cabling material would be invisible to the viewer.

Previsualization of Isaac Julien's Ten Thousand Waves at MoMA. Rendering by Aaron Harrow

Previsualization of Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves installation at MoMA. Digital renderings by Aaron Harrow

The brilliant sound design by Jamie McElhinney includes a brand new speaker model, which was released only about a month before the exhibition opened. These speakers cut out ambient sound and are designed to prevent sound from leaking into other parts of the Museum. The special challenge for Jamie was that the piece’s elaborate soundtrack needs to be equally audible from each screen, as the audio travels from screen to screen throughout the piece. (In addition, a hearing loop was installed under the floor to provide high-quality sound to anyone who has a hearing instrument or cochlear implant with an active, manually accessible, t-coil.) To think through the design possibilities, we organized a sound and screen test in late August 2013: a 19-foot-wide wooden frame stretched with linen sheets was mounted on a forklift, raised up to 19 feet high, and moved through the Marron Atrium to position the screens, which vary in size. Measuring up to 23 feet in width, the screens are the largest ever to be suspended in an exhibition at MoMA.

Ten Thousand Waves is a milestone in Isaac Julien’s 30-year career as an artist and filmmaker, raising fundamental questions about the world’s rapidly developing global market systems and their multilayered impact, and offering a timely contemplation on the effects of economic development and migration on the lives of individuals across the world. The technologically advanced presentation of the installation at MoMA underlines the artist’s ongoing exploration of innovative modes of presentation for media art in the digital age of globalization.

Among the many people who made this undertaking a success, special thanks are due to the A/V team at MoMA: Mike Gibbons, Charlie Kalinowski (A/V manager), Howard Deitch, Reid Farrington, Lucas Gonzales, Joshua Young, and Travis Kray; MoMA’s Exhibition Design and Production team: Al Smith, Jason Fry, John Wood, Mike Alfano, Yanik Wagner, and Tony Jones (carpenters), Bryan Reyna, Kenny Erdmann, Paul Errico, and Jovanny Pena (painters), Sean Brown (foreman), and Ray Martin and Andrew Tedeschi (exhibition mechanics); Eric Meier, exhibition designer, who worked on the initial planning; Mark Nash, Elly Hawley, and Dora Stewart from Isaac Julien Studio; and Tom Heman from Metro Pictures, New York.