Making Time: An Interview with Klip Collective about their Transcendental Visual Experience
At the end of September, Fort Mifflin, a historic revolutionary war fort on the banks of the Delaware River in Philadelphia will host the ethereal, one-of-a-kind transcendental music experience, Making Time. The brainchild of futuristic musical pioneer, Dave P, the event intertwines a massive electronic music lineup featuring performances by the likes of Four Tet, Floating Points, and Bicep with a 48-hour continuous visual architecture by the iconic Klip Collective. As they prepare for the event we sat down with Klip's founder, projection pioneer Ricardo Rivera, to get some insight into their creative process, how projection mapping has evolved over the years, and where it's headed.
Alex Nicholson: What is the journey that led you to what you do now as part of Klip Collective?
Ricardo Rivera: As a bored teenager growing up I would make silly shorts and experiment with stop motion. I always wanted to be a filmmaker but didn’t have the tools or training, I just loved movies. In college, I picked up photography and eventually found my place behind video cameras and editing systems at the college TV station. The University of Delaware did not have a proper filmmaking program so I taught myself how to edit and shoot. I was always fascinated with “video art” but other than a few of the big hitters like Nam Jun Paik, Bill Viola, and Tony Oursler, I wasn’t really enamored with most of the work I was seeing in galleries that we would frequent when we visited NYC. I eventually found myself randomly performing live visuals for DJs in the rave scene in Baltimore and Washington DC. Thus began my life as a video performer (I hate the VJ designation, but I was an OG in that scene… VJ Kaboom).
Eventually, I started breaking into the Philadelphia art and music scene where I really found myself. It was around then that I met Dave P and started doing projections and lights for Making Time. Collaborating with dancers, choreographers, sculptors, musicians, and DJs, was a real boon for my growth. Philadelphia was such a rad place (it still is IMO) to be an experimental artist. It was during this time that I really came into being a site-specific installation artist. In 2003, I started Klip Collective with the vision of utilizing these skills on a commercial level. Making ends meet by utilizing my creative energy at a commercial level was more attainable than going the grant writing route. I found that working at that level forced me to work with people on all different levels and it really taught me the value of creativity within the machine of capitalism (it’s not good!). During that time I stayed true to my artistic whims and ideas and would always make time for my passion/experimental projects. That all changed after we created our first garden experience. After that, the commercial projects were slowly phased out and I started working 100% on creative-driven projects, with no agencies, and no more ad work. Sound and Vision. Those are the pillars of my work at Klip. To achieve truly immersive experiences that use a unique approach and by utilizing technology as a paintbrush.
What inspired you to start experimenting with projection in the first place?
I eventually grew bored with photo and video and started experimenting with video sculpture and live video performance. This led to heavy usage of projectors and once again, I grew bored with the flat rectangle of video so I started experimenting with projecting onto space instead of a rectangle within them. At some point in the late 90s, I developed an odd and janky way to draw mattes onto the spaces through the projection, which would then become what I would call a video map to use in the design of the visuals. And projection mapping was born! I have seven patents on the process (more bragging rights than anything since we’ve never enforced them). This became my baby and I still love the process to this day. It was also born out of necessity. I wanted to use multiple feeds of video on multiple surfaces throughout a space, but couldn’t afford all the projectors. It’s a very efficient process! Anyway, nowadays I use it in all kinds of ways from simple 2D stuff that I do for small pieces to very complex produced projects with teams developing the pieces that are 3D and generative, interactive, you name it. I even started utilizing this approach to lighting design (LED pixel mapping) and a few years ago we figured out how to leverage my video library and mixing skills onto actual programming-led lighting fixtures. It’s wild and always challenging. I don’t get bored anymore!
Which usually comes first, the ideas or the location? How do the two influence each other?
Great question! Site-specific is so important to me. Once I see a space, I immediately start putting together the design of the projections, like what is physically possible. But at the same time, I am bringing all these conceptual ideas and from there, the marriage of the space, design, and content starts melding. I always say that WHAT we are projecting on is just as important as what we are projecting. It needs to be cohesive and make sense. I often use the space as the inspiration for what I have to create content. There is this amazing project we created called Vacant America, where we kind of tackled this process head-on and is a great case study for this question. We had the wonderful opportunity to workshop it at the Sundance StoryLab in Utah in 2014 with all these amazing people. We received a Creative Capital grant to explore it further. We utilized physical objects, ephemera, and the space to tell the story of itself, with our projections and audio bringing it to life in a very cool unique kind of way.
What are some of the main tools you use to plan and execute a project?
Beyond the basics of projection, lighting and sound, photography is such a simple and necessary part of what we do. Site photos are key. In the beginning, this was so important as I would use the photos from the POP (point of projection) to create preliminary maps. Aerial photography, especially for our larger outdoor work, is also essential. We often need to create 3D models of some of the objects we are projecting on so we use photogrammetry to create the 3D model which is used for content creation and later during the mapping process.
Obviously, we use a lot of computing. We are digital artists. People always inquire about what programs we use. The answer is the same as it was 15-20 years ago. A lot. Our current favorite is TouchDesigner. Such a beast and it is so great for our tinkering ways. Such a malleable and fun tool. We are currently creating a large-scale 3D projection-mapped experience that is basically a music video game in TouchDesigner.
Can you give us a sense of what the collaborative process is like with the rest of your team? How does a project usually unfold?
Even before Covid, we were working virtually/remotely during the planning and production process. Many of the team members are not in Philly so it’s always been part of the process. It always starts with the site visit(s). From there we work together on building teams and then the production animal just takes over. The first and most important team member that I immediately go to is Michelle Barbieri. She has been with Klip since the beginning and is my life partner. She is the one that says, “Yes, this can work” or “Hell no.” From there we begin the process of making the idea a reality. Budgets, timelines, team members, client management, the scope of work, pre-production, content creation, music production, installation design, vendor management, installation execution, and documentation. It’s a lot!! But it’s great. We have been doing this so long that we have a pretty good comfort level with each other. It’s like we are in a weird multimedia band.
I usually come up with what the installs are gonna be, vibe-wise. Then I work with my music director on what type of music is going where. We usually start with a collaborative playlist and then go from there. Once we have some music/sound sketches for the installation we then start the visual end of things. This is a great process and I am so fortunate to have an amazing group of people that work on that end of things. I really see myself as a director more than an “artist” most of the time. I still get my hands dirty as much as I can though. Recently, I created a light sculpture animated to sound. I was able to use my 3D printer and create a scale model of my vision. This became invaluable in the fabrication process in translating my vision to actual production. I create boards and inspiration sketches but so much of our work is installation. Its manifestation doesn’t really happen until we are on-site and installing. Otherwise, it’s in my head and I spend all my energy communicating that to the team so it is executed properly. It is so often done right lately, it really is a rush. It’s amazing to have these ideas and visions and having them come to life for others to enjoy is one of the most gratifying things I have ever participated in.
When it's going really well what is usually the reason?
When it all comes together, it’s because I have an amazing team that helps me get these things to where they need to be. Having the experience and bringing all that to the table is invaluable. I always talk about how invaluable failure can be. You learn so much from it. We are able to do the crazy things we do because we are always learning. Always figuring out better ways to do it all.
What other mediums and arts do you draw the most inspiration from and has that changed over time?
Music and cinema. They have been my passion my whole life. There is a line from a Built to Spill song, “I wanna see the movies of my dreams.” I just want people to walk through the movie of my dreams. That and cyberpunk literature. I love that nerd shit.
When you are working with other musical artists, how much of it is you interpreting their music, and how much is it them pitching ideas to you?
It has historically been me interpreting their music. It wasn’t even a pitch, they just did their thing. What started out as VJing as a gig is now something I do for pure gratification on weekends and my nights out. It’s kind of the core of Dave P and I’s relationship. We even have a name for it, Book Club. I would do some research if I didn’t know the artist and prepare. The live-ness of it all was what was always exciting for me. It’s now second nature. After years of this approach, I started getting projects where the tables started turning and I was able to dictate what I wanted. Now, it’s a nice blend. Our larger outdoor multi-installation projects all have original music created just for the work. It’s amazing. We still have a back and forth. I pitch the concept to the composers, then they make some tracks, I review them and give them notes. Then it goes to animation and I use the music to inspire the visuals. We are even using midi data and the stems to literally drive visuals. And even after all that, we sometimes bounce it back to the composer to edit moments to image.
What are some of the most valuable things you've learned, process-wise over the years?
Embracing failure as a learning experience, 100%. We know what we do is hard, it’s part of the gig. If it was easy (and believe me, it is getting so much easier) more people would do it (and they are!) But innovation and pushing tech to make weirder and cooler art experiences are at the core of what we do. You get there through experimentation and learning from not only what works but what doesn’t.
Can you give us a hint of some of the things you're planning for the Making Time event in September? What has been the most exciting aspect of the project?
Oh, man. I love Making Time. It’s one of the best things I have been a part of in my life. I love Dave P so much. He is always pushing me to do more. My time with MT is also coming up on twenty years. Jeez, this interview is making me feel so damn old. But honestly, the most exciting thing is that we are doing Fort Mifflin again and going hard. It’s a really fucking cool space. And the transformative nature of a day festival that transitions into the night is great for our work. It’s really magical. Let’s just say we have a LOT of projections and a LOT of lights! Can’t wait to light it up with this amazing ass lineup.
What is your dream project? Dream collaborator? Are there things you haven't tried that you would love to do? Are there things you have in your mind that you have yet to find a way to execute?
I have so many project ideas, we could be here for days. I want to create a traveling carnival full of psychedelic reinterpretations of classic attractions, like the Gravitron and House of Mirrors for example. I want to make a Mobile Urban Projection Mapping Unit (a tricked-out ambulance) that can roll through cities or towns and a projection map from the curb. I want to create a cyberpunk dystopian series of installations throughout a city. I want to work with more musicians. I want to create an immersive projection, sound, and lighting experience at Los Pazos in Mexico. I want to create a version of It’s a Small World After All but with Tierra Whack and call it, It’s a Whack World After All.
It’s a Whack World After All HAS to happen.
Should I keep going? No, I think I’m done for now.