Once a pillar of Americana and the pinnacle of suburban leisure, shopping malls are now a ghost of their former selves. Many still exist on US soil, but none have been built since 2006, and hundreds have shuttered their doors. The demise of the mall fascinates artist Claire Hentschker, however, and these abandoned hubs of consumerism inspired her new immersive video series Catacombs.
Sourcing found footage of abandoned shopping malls from YouTube, Hentschker transforms flat video files into 360° experiential films through the use of photogrammetry, a technique that takes measurements from 2D images and computes their points into a spatially accurate three-dimensional plane.
“I deconstructed the YouTube clips I collected into small frames, pulling something like every eighth frame in a video, and used those frames for photogrammetric reconstruction,” she tells The Creators Project. “I made the final piece by running a 360° camera through the resulting models along the original camera path.”
Catacombs is more than a guided virtual tour of abandoned shopping complexes. Due to the nature of photogrammetry and the limitations of the found footage, Hentschker’s video is abstract and fragmented, showing heavy traces of the digitization used to create them. Arcade machines turn into unrecognizable, jumbled geometry. A Kay Jewelers franchise becomes an elongated tubular structure with perforated holes, reminiscent of a spaceship from a cheesy 80s sci-fi flick.
Hentschker’s primary impetus to make Catacombs is both sociological and scientific. She aims to preserve a fading culture for future generations to study and learn from. “I’ve recently become fascinated with the idea of making ‘digital formaldehyde,’ as a lot of my work is an attempt to use emerging technology to preserve abstract spaces,” the artist explains. “The same way a dead frog in a jar can teach us something about the life of the frog, I think manufactured spaces captured digitally can teach us something about the living culture they were designed to house.”
“Now, as shopping malls near extinction, I am not sorry to see them go, but I do feel they represent some essential quality in our culture that is worth documenting, especially as we push forward with widespread curation of digitally-created spaces,” Hentschker says.