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The multi-media project: RPI’s Igor Vamos.

Odd Fellow

Though he initially gained notoriety from playing with little dolls, Igor Vamos was most recently recognized for his ingenuity and vision in the medium of film.

Vamos, an assistant professor in the art department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, was recently awarded a $35,000 Guggenheim fellowship for new-media arts to continue his work on an experimental “mobile” documentary, Grounded.

The film centers on the now-defunct U.S. military base in Wendover, Utah. The site was used to test and develop the atomic bomb. In August of 1945, B-29 bombers departed from Wendover to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.

“Wendover is a fascinating place,” Vamos said. “It is in an area of very heavy industrial and military land uses, not to mention the newer gambling industry. As a result it says a lot about our culture.”

During the 1940s, Wendover was one of the largest military bases in the world, sprawling nearly 86 miles long and 17 to 36 miles wide, and Vamos’ film takes advantage of that; Grounded will be a film to experience rather than merely view.

Viewers will experience the film by driving through the former military base in a 1983 Ford Crown Victoria fitted with a viewing screen, and a computer hooked up to a global positioning system. As viewers drive through certain points of the base, they will trigger a variety of media clips discussing the site’s historical and political significance.

For example, when a viewer drives past the base’s aircraft hangars, the viewing screen might produce images of the Enola Gay—the bomber used to drop the first atomic bomb—prepped for its bombing mission.

Though the script to the film will be written, Vamos explained that by driving the car, the documentary will act like a guided tour and viewers will be able to choose when and if certain parts of the film are accessed.

“Basically it allows the viewer to choose the path they want to take while experiencing the documentary,” Vamos said. “It is not really that fundamentally different from a printed tour guide, it just means that people don’t have to constrain to any prescribed route. You can’t zap through space to an entirely new location. If you are at one place, you may have to pass through several others to get to the destination you have in mind, but other than physical restraints, in theory, you can go anywhere you want.”

The film’s content is still being developed, Vamos explained, and there are currently about 60 trigger sites at Wendover that would generate different aspects of the documentary. Vamos, who has been working in collaboration with the Historic Wendover Restoration Project, hopes to unveil the project this summer.

“The real amazing thing about it, when you’re actually doing it, is that it does seem somewhat magical to be able to move around and have this voice follow you that refers to whatever, wherever you are,” Vamos said. “It’s always sort of surprising to know that it knows where you are.”

Another of Vamos’ projects, the Barbie Liberation Organization, garnered international media recognition in 1994 for switching the voice boxes in Barbie dolls and G.I. Joe action figures. Vamos and partners swapped parts so the Barbie dolls barked, “Dead men tell no lies,” while the GI Joe figures said, “Math is hard.”

“Because his work generates international attention and debate, Igor has opened doors for many others working in very advanced media and in very daring subject areas,” said John Harrington, dean of humanities and social sciences at RPI.

Vamos was one of 184 people to receive the Guggenheim Fellowship, out of more than 3,000 who applied. The John Guggenheim Memorial Foundation awarded grants and fellowships totaling $6.75 million dollars last year.

—Travis Durfee

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