Hidden in plain sight: Interactive 3D sculptures tell the story of NYC food vendors

Artist Michelle Hessel is a multimedia creator born in Sao Paulo and based in New York City. She’s created incredible interactive 3D sculptures for her project ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’ to tell the often overlooked stories of food vendors in New York.

The series of portraits feature video and audio merged into 3D printed high-fidelity sculptures of food carts and the people behind them – Ana, Dany and Thiru. In her own words, “the piece offers a new approach to documentary, merging older media formats with newer technologies”.

I caught up with Michelle to find out more about the project and what inspired her to use this mixed method of storytelling.

This really is an innovative way of telling a story – what gave you the idea to make the 3D printed models? Can you explain in a bit more detail how someone can interact with it?

The reason I decided to create these small, physical, high fidelity sculptures is the fact that I wanted to change the context that we interact with food carts and the people behind them. I was asking myself why people are so fascinated with miniature objects. From replicas of cars to small models of superheroes, we love to play with the perspective of things. It feels good to able to fit an entire world into the palm of our hands. By playing with the perspective and scale, I am trying to make the audience pay attention things that are so mundane in our daily lives while encapsulating an entire world.

“It feels good to able to fit an entire world into the palm of our hands.”

The stories of the vendors who are part of the project are very personal and delicate. Because of that, I wanted the user to feel very close to them as they are sharing their lives and that’s when I decided to use the food cart as portals to the stories behind it. When you approach the piece, all you see is the 3D printed sculptures. They are very detailed and to explore them is a discovery itself. But then, when you decide to push the button in front of you, the food cart is transformed into the canvas for the hidden stories behind it. The voice of the vendor is triggered and as they talk, visuals representations of the narrative are projected on top of the physical model.

It feels like this approach could work with a number of different communities or subjects – why did you choose to focus on street food vendors?

For the past 2 years, every day, in front of Tisch School of the Arts, I would get a cup of coffee at the food cart that is parked by the building. Because I am such a regular customer, the vendor already knew my order and even prepared my coffee while I was still crossing the street. Throughout this time, we have always been nice to each other but it took me over a year to find out that his name is Adam.

One day I decided that I wanted to know more about him, so I asked Adam if I could create a portrait of him and that was when I created a project called Meet Adam. In the project, users enter a digital void where this man stands beside his truck. They can explore the scene and eventually go inside the digital version of his food cart, seeing the street from a perspective people don’t usually do.

“I became fascinated by this whole universe that I was not aware of.”

Making this project allowed me to see Adam as a human being who has an incredible story and a life beyond his cart. From there, I started to notice the vendors spread across the city and to think about all the stories behind the food carts that are not being told. So I decided to do some research on the topic and I found out that 90% of the street vending community in NYC is immigrant. I also learned that due to the limited number of legal permits, there is an entire black market to rent someone’s permit for 2 years. Bids can go as high as $25,000 for what would normally cost about $400. I became fascinated by this whole universe that I was not aware of. So I decided I needed to find a way to tell this stories for my thesis project.

Have you installed the work anywhere? How has the audience responded to it?

This project was shown at the ITP Spring Show in 2017, where the audience response was very positive. Most people were intrigued and curious at first by the 3D models themselves, but once they interacted with the stories, that’s when they became really engaged.

Hidden in Plain Sight from Michelle Hessel on Vimeo.

One of the vendors portrayed in the project, Thiru Kumar, is quite well known in the Greenwich Village neighborhood and many people recognized his figure in the project, but when they learned about his story, they were still surprised. People wanted to know where they could find the vendors and kept asking me about the black market. I was happy the project shed a light on the subject and frame a discussion around such important topics such as immigration and public policies.

Is there a plan to make an online version of the installation? 

The physical aspect of this work is very important to me, but at the same time, I want to give the broader public an opportunity to see the important and enriching cultural layers that exist beyond the food carts. Because of that, I have built a website where people can listen to the stories and see digital versions of the food carts and the people behind each of these. For the digital version of the project, the plan is to expand this website, creating a virtual map and a network of vendors from across the city that users can learn from.

Can you tell me more about your background, what got you into making interactive work?

I was born and raised in Sao Paulo, Brazil where I have studied Social Communications. Since I was 18 I have worked in the food industry. Until two years ago, technology had never been a big part of my life but somehow, in 2015,  I came to the NYC to pursue my master’s degree at ITP-NYU. Looking back, I think was trying to expand my horizons, challenge myself, but quite frankly I had no idea of what I was getting into.

These past 2 years have been truly transformative and that is reflected in my work. In my projects, I like to create experiences around non-fiction topics. The outcome could go from a Virtual Reality experience inside the Yellow Submarine to an installation about walls and borders between countries and an 8-bit game about Kanye West.

I try to think about technology as something that can enhance the power of a story and the user’s experience by bringing a set of interesting tools to the table. But as exciting as technology can be, I always keep in mind that a good story is the most powerful thing I have and that it should be the core of any project. It is funny that after 2 years of explorations around so many topics at ITP, my thesis ended up being framed around food. It’s like I made a full circle and came back to the start, except for the fact that this time, it feels like I am right where I am supposed to be.

Find out more about the project here and more about Michelle and her other work here