Niles has been constantly changing himself. Once upon a time he was best known for renovating the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York and producing shows for stars including the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith and Tony Bennett.
Since then he has reinvented his career more than once, moving into theater, advertising, audio recording and now kinetic architecture, in which he produces videos that play on high definition screens adorning prominent spaces in New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, with more than a dozen more to come.
One of his pieces serves as a gateway to the central walkway at CityCenterDC in Washington. And his latest work adorns the exterior and lobby of a refurbished office building at 1800 K Street NW.
At the K Street structure, a two-foot high, 230-feet long video display bends around the building’s corner onto 18th Street. Silhouettes of people, all in different colors, stroll across the screen. Inside a more abstract mix of images — dancers, raindrops, clouds, scrolling Latin text — appears on monoliths, all set to music.
He shot videos of actors at his studio in Jupiter, Fla., for the animations.
“It’s eye candy. It’s to give people an inner smile as they see it, to realize something, but it’s not to to yell at them and say you’ve got to watch this. It’s about a little bit of dream,” he said. “It’s a 20-second audience, people going from here to there. It’s just a combination of things that fit this canvas.”
Niles has been shooting in high definition video since the mid-1980s, but his career as artist in public, semipublic and private spaces is just now taking off.
What was your vision for the work on the exterior, with the crowds moving back and forth?
It’s trying to work as an element of the building rather than a sign. All that really happens is that we filmed 48 actors walking on treadmills, and put them constantly in motion. Their colors will change. Their backgrounds will change depending on time of day, day of week, season. And from time to time you will see a full-color person that will come running through here that will do little quirky things. There is a guy dressed up as Paul Revere that comes running through. There is a ballerina that comes through. There is a Kung Fu dancer. They appear and disappear. This is all constantly changing.
With your video art, you are targeting people for such a short period of time. You call it the 20-second audience. How is that different from other work that you’ve done.
It’s not television, it’s not music video, it’s not a feature film, it’s not concerts. I parallel it to the New Yorker, where you’ve got feature articles and you’ve got cartoons. These are the cartoons. It’s not trying to be a feature piece. It’s that little singular moment that makes you say, “Okay that’s cool.”
I first heard about your work when you opened your piece at the Comcast headquarters in Philadelphia. What did you learn from the reaction you received?
We did Comcast eight years ago, and the idea behind kinetic architecture was something we’d been playing with for a long time, but the technology wasn’t there to do it. Comcast was the first opportunity where we could say. “Okay here’s an environment where we’re going to take a beautifully designed lobby and turn it into kinetic architecture.” It’s a building lobby that becomes something else for a brief moment. It’s that 20-second audience from the front door to the elevator. It’s their private space and their private time. It’s not Times Square, it’s not billboards, it’s not branding. And 10,000 people go through that lobby every day.
How have improvements to technology enabled your work to evolve?
The one that’s in Comcast was this breakthrough of being photo-realistic. When you first walk into that lobby you absolutely believe that that’s a wood wall that you’re looking at. And when it begins to animate all of the characters on that wall are life-size and they look real — it looks like people are hanging from the ceiling. So creating that illusion was a new thing. CityCenter is another one like that, when it goes back to being stone arch. The scale is totally different, but [CityCenter] interacts much more with the audience.
Do you ever hear complaints from people who think covering buildings in video screens makes for too active or bright of a visual environment, that it’s too much for them?
If it looks like a TV screen, that’s doing what a TV does. People don’t like it, because it’s a TV screen. When we make the content and the canvas not like a TV screen, purposely not like a TV screen, not like TV, people like it.
TV is made to scream at you. Listen, I spent 40 years making TV ads. We do everything we can to scream at you, to get attention. And to send a message to sell a product. This is not trying to do that. This is as much as possible a gift to the viewer, to reward the viewer, rather than try to sell or push an idea or concept or scream at them.
What other projects have you lined up?
Oh my gosh, I think we have 20 projects in the works. We have one in Washington, another outside of Washington. We have two more in Los Angeles going up. At this moment, people come to me as a public artist, for public art. I generally don’t do commercial jobs very much anymore. I did years and years of them. It’s nice to be able to do this. It’s an honor and a privilege to be able to do this stuff because people are just asking for me, just be fun, just be yourself, just be creative. Not sell an idea or brand my building.