Picturing every word

Jackie Stewart

David Shamma is an artist, but he doesn’t need paints and pencils to complete his work. Instead Shamma works with computers.

Shamma, a third-year computer science graduate student at Northwestern, is the creator of the Imagination Environment, a custom-designed computer system that transforms the closed captioning that accompanies movies, television shows and music videos into images pulled from the Internet.

The images are shown on eight screens surrounding a center screen with the original movie playing on it.

“I basically taught a computer how to watch television,” Shamma said. “What happens when you watch TV or a movie? What are the images that come to your mind?”

Prof. Kristian Hammond, director of the Information Technology Development Laboratory, originally developed the idea for the Imagination Environment.

“What would it be like to provide an artist with some type of information tool to get images based on what they were doing?” Hammond said. “Once we walked down that path, we discovered we could put any kind of media in it.”

For more than a year, Shamma developed the project, using “The Godfather” — and later other media including an Eminem music video and live TV news — to inspire the computer.

“I got very excited about this,” Shamma said. “It’s important for me that non-technology people look at it. It is not going out into standard art circles.”

One art venue that did accept the Imagination Environment is The Second City e.t.c., 1608 N. Wells Street in Chicago, where the project is displayed with the visual and performance show “Show Title Deemed Indecent By FCC.”

The system fits well with the show, said Kelly Leonard, producer of The Second City. The show examines what people mean when they say certain things, he said. The Imagination Environment does the same thing visually.

“People are entranced by it,” Leonard said. “People have said they were caught standing there for an hour staring at it. There has been nothing like it before at this theater.” About 10,000 patrons have seen the display since its April 8 debut, Leonard said. It should remain at The Second City e.t.c. for six or seven months.

“I call it a technological installation, almost like a museum piece as well as a fun, eclectic installation,” Leonard said. “Second City is also an eclectic theater. We defy easy categorization and this piece does as well.”

Hammond and Shamma both said they consider the display a combination of technology and artwork.

But that doesn’t mean others have accepted the piece as easily.

“Computer science people have liked it and the reviews have all been good,” Shamma said. “About 60 percent of art people don’t like it while 40 percent do like it. That is a good place to be because it means we are doing something controversial.”