Good question -- and more on that later. But another question is how'd they get up there? In an era in which technological magic happens with the touch of a button, it's the kind of question that nobody seems to bother with anymore.
"Until recently, we've been working in the dark of night with very few people even having any idea what was going on," said Manning, speaking of the team of SAIC students, staff and faculty that he and Labb pulled together to bring Plensa's unique vision to life. "It's been kind of lonely."
These days, thank goodness, everyone is in love with the Crown Fountain. In winter, it has a quieter beauty, now that the water has been turned off (as a Chicago rule: The Buckingham Fountain has been off since Oct. 15 too). But this summer it was the hit of Millennium Park, especially when the faces closed their eyes, pursed their lips and sent a stream of water spilling 12 feet to the shallow reflecting pool below. Children -- and some adults -- jumped right in and splashed around. "I don't know if even the artist was fully aware of quite how it would be received -- how joyously embraced," Labb says.
But it hasn't been easy.
If the two towers are the body of the fountain, Plensa has said of his project, then the faces are the soul -- a notoriously tricky thing to pin down.
"There are pretty well known ways of getting buildings built," says Manning. "It was a little bit hazier as to how to produce a giant media project like this."
And he means giant in more way than one. At 50 feet, the towers are almost twice as tall as your typical movie screen -- a ridiculously tall (and relatively slender -- they're only 23 feet wide) canvas for a single face to fill. And the sheer amount of digital data they've had to wrangle, according to Manning, is "staggering."
"This is one of the largest media projects I've every heard of, even leaving out the art part." But Plensa's really, really big idea was making the fountain an archive of the people of Chicago -- using citizens where other monumental public fountains have used stone. "He had this idea that it would be a snapshot of the population at this point -- who was living here at the time," says Labb.
Creating a game plan for recruiting and shooting and keeping track of them all was a monumental job in itself. When the project is finished this spring, more than a thousand Chicagoans -- young and old, male and female, from many neighborhoods, nationalities and religions -- will have shown up at the SAIC studio to lend the Crown Fountain their faces.
Like rock stars
After answering the call, each person was seated in a dentist's chair(partly because it was easier to adjust the height of the chair than move the top-of-the-line high-definition camcorder); directed to stare, purse his or her lips, smile on cue; and -- after various transmogrifications from high-definition video to the high-quality computer-movie realm -- turned into the star of a five-minute movie, to be displayed with the same kind of technology used to project those hulking live images of rock stars during concerts.
As highly planned as the project was, the results are arbitrary, in a way.
"Part of Plensa's original idea, which he stuck with throughout the process, was that he wanted the faces to be chosen randomly rather than as a fixed sequence," says Manning. Right now, underneath the south tower, the completed movies are stored in a control room full of computers. Software running on one of those computers basically looks at the database and randomly chooses two people (one for each tower). "And it checks to make sure that person wasn't randomly chosen during the last 72 hours," says Manning.
It all began, in the year 2000, with Jaume Plensa's original presentation to win the fountain commission, which, both men recall, included a striking computer animation of three facial expressions, each dissolving serenely into the next, almost like a slide show.
"He had a very specific aesthetic . . . but he didn't know what technology would deliver what he wanted," says Labb. And since Labb and Manning are both artists, they were ideal collaborators in helping him achieve it.
"I blurted out `high definition video' when I saw it," says Labb. "I knew right away from the scale that it would need the highest resolution possible."