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Merge with Nature in Tin&Ed’s Digital Dioramas

By Julie Smith SchneiderApr 27 2021
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No matter which words you choose to describe Tin Nguyen and Ed Cutting—artists, experiential designers, creative technologists, environmental futurists—collaborators should be at the top of your list. The Australian multihyphenates behind the inventive art practice Tin&Ed have been creative collaborators for more than 10 years, after meeting as art and design university students in Melbourne. Now, they’ve brought forth “Life Forces,” a playful, environmentally minded installation to Rockefeller Center.

Inspired by the dioramas at natural history museums, “Life Forces” features interactive, 3D digital simulations of a variety of ecosystems. These natural scenes play on large LED screens that are encased in windows, in a space that used to house a bank at 48th Street and South Plaza. With this installation, the space now houses portals into rich natural worlds.

The installation invites passersby to pause and play, in turn becoming part of the installation. When someone walks up to the digital dioramas, the camera and software on an iPad picks up on the person’s form and projects the image of their body into a nature scene. They can then observe their image moving around the virtual habitat—perhaps a meadow, forest, or mountainous terrain—and interact with the landscape by playing with flashing fireflies or making mushrooms grow, for example. One scene features a rocky landscape, which echoes the building’s sandstone. Participants can virtually push over sandstone rocks or visually merge with them. “The big point for us is that by being able to embody these natural systems, you’re able to visualize your impact on the world and the way that you and everybody has an impact on the world,” Cutting says.

Before studying art and design, both Nguyen and Cutting spent formative swathes of their respective childhoods outdoors, going on bushwalks and exploring the diverse landscapes of Australia, with its flora and fauna that’s found nowhere else in the world. A desire to spread this awe and wonder about the natural world beats at the heart of their collaborative art.

In the years since forming Tin&Ed, the duo have explored a wide scope of projects that blur the boundaries between genres and disciplines, fluidly melding art, science, and technology. They employ an ever-expanding range of emerging technologies, including software for virtual reality, augmented reality, 3D scanning, machine learning, and real-time gaming programs. They’ve shown art at Australia’s Sydney Opera House and the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Liu Haisu Art Museum in Shanghai, and Artscape in Cape Town, South Africa, as well as collaborated with big brands including Nike, Apple, and Disney.

Often working alongside an eclectic cast of collaborators—including choreographers, musicians, scientists, and manufacturers—Tin&Ed are known for creating playful pieces and experiences that layer sheer fun (think: bouncy castles, for one) with reflections on the interdependent nature of life on earth. “Research and play is really crucial to our process,” Nguyen says. “At the end of the day we always try to have as much fun as we can whilst making the work, because then people will have fun experiencing it.”

In 2017, they created “Inflatable Futures,” a series of larger-than-life inflatable landscapes for children to play in. Teeming with bulbous technicolor tentacles and imaginary life forms, each was installed in various public locations in Australia, including shopping centers, which sent Tin&Ed regular safety reports. A favorite read: “vomit on bouncing castle due to extreme excitement.” The pair interpreted this tangible enthusiasm as a sign of success.

Motion and enthusiastic movement often show up in Tin&Ed’s work. Commissioned in 2019 to celebrate World Pride Month and the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, their video installation “We Come in Peace” turned a multilevel breezeway at Pier 17 in New York’s South Street Seaport into an impromptu dance party. To create this piece, Tin&Ed used 3D-scanning technology to scan their friends, and transformed the scans into hybrid organisms—part human, part slime mold, to name one. Using real-time video game software, Nguyen and Cutting “taught” these new creatures to dance. The result? Every hour on the hour when the video installation played, the space filled with vivid futuristic dancers.

The duo relocated their homebase from Melbourne to New York City about three and a half years ago. Nguyen has made a home in Chinatown, while it’s the Lower East Side for Cutting. The move to New York City marked a major transition for Nguyen and Cutting and an opportunity to get out of their comfort zones and grow as artists. It has also been a chance to expand their creative community as members of NEW INC, the New Museum’s incubator for people working at the intersection of art, design, and technology.

Nguyen and Cutting see a common disconnection between humans and their relationship to nature: a sense that humans are somehow separate from the natural world. “But we’re never not inside nature, even within our cities. Everything that we do has an impact on every single other living thing that exists in the world,” Nguyen says, noting how they “Trojan horse” ideas about ecological awareness into their fun and playful installations. “What we’re trying to do is help people to see the world a little bit differently, to shift the way that [we see ourselves] in relation to other things that we share this planet with—and the planet in general. And, hopefully, that can lead to different ways of moving through the world, different choices, different behaviors that can have a positive impact on the world.”

Tin&Ed also see this installation as a natural extension of Rockefeller Center’s legacy of championing innovative technology, art, and the environment—elements that are core to their own work. “[Rockefeller Center] sits at the heart of so many cultural aspects of New York,” Nguyen says. “We also love the fact that this piece is on the street, so that anyone passing by can see it. The public nature of the space is really exciting to us.”

Tin&Ed’s installation “Life Forces” is on display at Rockefeller Center, at 48th Street and South Plaza (across from the Nintendo store) through June 30. Free and open to the public.

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