cornered: The Process

In researching the material for Cornered, I travelled to Morocco, as well as Melilla to see location and regional art, and to talk to aspiring and successful migrants and the people with whom they regularly interact. One aspiring migrant I talked to is Omar (fictitious name) a Senegalese now living in Dahkla in the south of Morocco. He had already made four attempts to cross the border near Nador. In his first attempt, Omar waited for a month before trying to cross. While camping in the Gurugú forest, he and his peers were chased frequently and had to run and hide. In one of his later attempts, Omar was on the top of the fence for 1h before being captured and sent to Rabat (300miles away). He then found employment in Dahkla, where he worked for about 3 months to earn some money to try again. In his last attempt, Omar was so badly beaten that he went back to his work in Dahkla to recover. The main structure of the installation captures the beauty of Moroccan craftsmanship: it was inspired by tables, walls, doors and floor lamps covered in beautiful geometric design patterns, often used in Moroccan architecture. Contrasting this beauty is the impression that the structure encloses the figures that are projected onto the dome, holding them captive, as they are captive in Morocco.

For the first iteration of the installation, the dome structure was created using a 3D-printable geodesic connector system with hardwood dowels. Trace paper was used as the rear projection screen. The second iteration was created using plywood and the final piece was built using oak, often used in Moroccan woodwork. To reduce the possibility of fire hazards, a professional rear screen projection film was chosen that is reminiscent of silk, which is an often-used fabric in Morocco.

After finding a projector that could throw the image at a sufficiently short distance, one of the biggest technological challenges was to keep the image from getting distorted by the shape of the projection screen. The process I used to achieve this is called UV Mapping, which is a technique borrowed from applications where a 2D image is mapped to a 3D model’s surface for texture mapping. UVs are two-dimensional coordinates that correspond to the vertex information of the geometry of a 3D object. They are basically marker points that control which pixels on the image/texture correspond to which vertices on the 3D mesh, thereby providing the link between a surface mesh and the application of images to the surface. The process begins by laying out the UVs by creating a 2D representation of the 3D object, as if it were unfolded and flattened out. Then, working with a software such Isadora that is mostly used in theater for projection mapping, the original flat image is deformed to align with the triangular segments of the flattened dome. That way, when projected onto the actual 3D dome, the image does not appear deformed anymore.

The geometric patterns engraved into the body of the structure are an original design that takes inspiration from patterns frequently found on Moroccan doors and furniture. In particular, the design is a variation of one that can be found on a door in Madrasa Bou Inania, an educational institution founded in AD 1351-56 in Fez.

The pattern I created using Adobe Illustrator, a vector graphics software, stacks up intricate variations of the original pattern in order to give the impression of changing size, thereby emphasizing the projection dome atop the structure. Fading off the pattern towards the bottom further strengthens this emphasize.

Engravings were created using a laser cutting process. First, many different design drafts were printed on paper. Second, a small selection of drafts were laser cut in cardboard for more efficient experimentation. Finally, the engraving of the final design in wood was fine tuned in many iterations. To fill the structure with light, LEDs were placed inside it. Each LED was behind a covered lens to reduce the amount of stray light that would otherwise diffuse the visuals projected on the screened dome. The light shines through the engravings to create patterns of light and shadow on the floor and walls surrounding the structure, enveloping and drawing in viewers so that they themselves become part of the installation.

Swirling patterns of bright colors are an integral part of the video animation. They were generated by filming ink billowing and sliding in water. Video of the swirling ink was merged with patterns inspired by African fabrics to create a contrast to black and faceless human silhouettes.

To create the silhouettes, dancer Tristan Park was filmed against a white background, and the video was composited with the rest of the visuals in post-production.

The sequencing of colors and evocative body language work together to reflect on the migrant’s journey, where the color palette follows the course of a day, from bright blues to the deep reds and oranges of sunset.

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The video was shot as footage that would later be fragmented and reassembled to create the story line and a mood oscillating between hope and desperation. This process was crucial in integrating video and soundtrack. In fact, the soundtrack was created by Jonathan Henderson before the post-production of the video took place, constrained only by the need to capture the increasing emotional tension experienced by migrants, as well as the geographic distance between the African plethora from where the migration originates and the Moroccan forest where migrants take their last stand before attempting to enter Spain. The audio begins with sounds of the forest, such as voices, crickets, running steps and the wind, which Jonathan Henderson recorded in the field in Senegal. These sounds are blended with Northern African instruments and melodies, followed by a variation of a traditional Senegalese song and the recorded voice of Diali Cissokho, a Senegalese musician. Diali has family members that attempted the crossing and speaks about their experience in his native tongue. Matching the video to the finished soundtrack made it possible to reflect the changing mood not only via images, colors, and the body language of the dancer, but also by creatively cutting, duplicating and blending video footage in the rhythm of the music.

Jonathan Henderson (Music)
Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba (Music)
Tristan Park (Dance)
Dimitri Titov (Geodesic Dome)

Valuable assistance provided by Lexi Bateman, Katy Clune, Michael Faber, Estlin Haiss, Steve Milligan, Philip Moss, Gabriel Pelli, Victor Ribet, Mark Olson, Austin Powers, Robert Zimmerman and Yuchen Zhao.

Cornered is supported by Duke Africa Initiative, Duke Arts, the Josiah Charles Trent Memorial Foundation, the Arts & Sciences Council, Art, Art History & Visual Studies at Duke University, and the Puffin Foundation.