Daniel Popper is a multi disciplinary artist who’s unafraid of a challenge or the seemingly impossible. Proudly hailing from Cape Town, Daniel’s made a name for himself as the go-to person for larger-than-life spectacular public art installations. In 2010 he was commissioned by MTN to make 14 giant Pop Puppets, which went on to bounce and bob their way into the hearts and photos of thousands of fans at the official Fifa Fan Parks. Off the back of that he has created interactive art activations for brands as diverse as Siemens, Baby Soft and G-Star Raw. But it’s his artworks and stage fabrications at outdoor music festivals which really convey the spirit of Daniel’s work, which as he says are intended “to create a kind of portal for people to access deeper parts of themselves and their psyche.”
For Daniel, how people experience an installation or sculpture is paramount and his gauge for how successful or not a work is. This, combined with the scale and sheer ambition of his projects has led him to collaborate with numerous other artists and tech gurus, often incorporating electronic music, LED and projection mapping as key components. So what originally began as a creative passion project at the first Afrikaburn has morphed and developed into a full-time career (if you can call travelling around the world to different festivals making interactive sculptures a ‘job’). We caught up with Daniel briefly before Afrikaburn this year to find out a little more about his people-centric art.
When and how did you first get into making large-scale interactive public artworks?
It started in 2007 at the first Afrikaburn. I’d never made sculpture before and had no idea what I was doing. My sculptures got bigger and more ambitious every year. It’s been an exciting trajectory.
‘2Infinity’ at Afrikaburn 2009
How did it evolve into your fulltime career (is it)?
The festival and event industry, both locally and around the world, have realised that the headlining musicians and DJs are not the only thing people remember about the event. You can see this by looking at the Burning Man model where the artwork is more important than the DJ. This has helped create a bigger market for artwork/décor/stage design as well as brand activations in the corporate world.
What appeals to you about making art for public spaces?
It’s fun to play around with spaces and environments. It’s important to be conscious of the impact on a person’s experience of that space.
‘Rainbow Phoenix’ at Rainbow Serpent Festival 2014
What does your creative process typically look like?
Start with sketching, then maybe go into 3D software or actually sculpt a scale model. Find the right crew to help execute the concept. Then manage fabrication, production, budgets, logistics, then build onsite, breathe, dance.
Collaboration seems to be an important part of your work – can you tell us a little about this?
The large-scale works are way too big or complex to build alone. I will often work with skilled artisans and engineers to make sure the idea is executed as close to my vision as possible. I love working with other artists who bring another dimension to the work. I approached Carin Dickson a few years ago to collaborate on one of my puppets. Our skills have developed over the years and we are still both shocked by the outcomes of our work together. Our first large-scale collaboration at Boom 2012 when we made those giant serpents blew both of our minds.
I love working with other artists of different mediums. It might sound clichéd but we feed each other’s energy and inspire each other. Over the last year I have been really excited about adding extra layers and textures to a work, enhancing experiences both in the day and the night. I have started including interactive LED light simulations, projection mapping and music. We never know the outcome until the end. I have learnt that when someone brings their art to have sex with your art the results are often out of this world.
What is 3D mapping and what does it add to a work?
I have been working a lot with Wayne Ellis from Afterlife. He maps out the shapes of the sculpture, he then creates content and works with programs like Reslume and Mad Mapper to bring these individual elements to life in the most extraordinary ways. It’s so wild. I love it and I also love Wayne a lot.
‘Boom Venus Portals’ at Boom Festival 2014 with projection mapping by Wayne Ellis
Almost all of your work incorporates some element of tech, lighting and (sometimes) music. What is it about a multi-media approach that stimulates you?
As I said above, it’s about playing with textures and transforming the work into something else at night. The tech element has become a great way to play with interactivity. I have also enjoyed working with the cyborg freaks that actually make this stuff work.
Please tell us about working with brands and the potential between art and experiential marketing.
The relationship between art and advertising has become a contentious issue lately especially in Cape Town with some public art/adverts causing a stir.
I have realised the potential to offer an interactive experience to a brand that is something different to a billboard, especially at events, something that can add to the environment and market the brand in inoffensive ways. Often the brands are the ones who have the capital to push ideas further. However, one must be conscious of where these activations are being placed and for how long. The lines between a brand commissioning an artwork, or creating something that is an interesting form of advertisement can get blurry and it’s important to remain conscious of this.
‘Nelson Mandela Tree of Wisom’ 2014
What have been some of your favourite projects thus far and why?
My Afrikaburn project Reflections was very special. The team who where involved and the responses by the festival goers was awesome. Burning it was also a highlight.
My work at Boom festival has a special place in my heart as the organisers of the event give me full freedom and trust to create whatever I want. As far as brands go, my work with Siemens has also been amazing as they are a forward thinking company who put a lot of trust in me as an artist. The Tree of Wisdom for the Nelson Mandela School of Science and Technology was a huge honour.
‘Reflections’ at Afrikaburn 2013/14
What happens to your artworks/installations after the event they’re created for?
It depends, sometimes they get stored to be used again, sometimes they are dismantled and the materials repurposed, sometimes they are burnt.
What are some of the things that influence and inspire your work?
Anything I create I always like to think about my friends. They are my “viewer”. I ask myself “what will my friends enjoy?” So really, I do it to make them happy. As long as they like it, I know my work is a success. So it’s my awesome weirdo friends that influence me a lot. In addition I owe a lot of gratitude to my experiences with certain Entheogens that have influenced my path tremendously. I am also inspired on my travels; every city and festival I visit leaves me with inspiration.
What impact do you hope your work has for people who encounter it?
It depends what the work is for and what the intention is. For my work at festivals like Afrikaburn and Boom I put a strong intention into the sculptures to create a kind of portal for people to access deeper parts of themselves and their psyche.
This year I have an exciting line up, with another large installation for Afrikaburn collaborating with a whole bunch of amazing artists. I’m most excited about a collaboration with local musical legend Markus Wormstorm. We have something very special planned and looking forward to seeing how it grows and develops. I will also be doing installations at Lightning in a Bottle in LA, Electric Forrest in Michigan, and Monegros in Barcelona.
Resident Advisor robots at The Assembly
‘Dragon’ at Afrikaburn 2012
‘The Hand of God’ at Afrikaburn 2011
‘Boom Serpents’ at Boom 2012
All images from Daniel’s website.