Giving a voice that traverses time to the Alviso Adobe House

The silhouette of a woman sitting in a small room with video projected onto the walls around her.

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Following years of redevelopment as part of a wider restoration project, the historic Alviso Adobe House in California reopened to the public in November 2022. To tell its remarkable story, Art Processors collaborated with a range of cultural and historical organizations—including the Cuciz family and the Muwekma Ohlone tribe—to conceptualize, design and deliver a projection-mapped audio-visual exhibition across three rooms of the house. The experience takes visitors on a journey from the pre-history of the house to the present day, bringing to life the personalities and lifestyles of those who lived in and around its walls.

What does it really mean to be “Californian”? This descriptor conjures up a range of evocative imagery, but settling on a definition feels somewhat elusive.

The Golden State has been a crossroads for indigenous cultures, colonizers, migrants, and all sorts of fortune-seekers across time. Every arrival adds another brushstroke to an enormous canvas, but to observe this painting as it takes place is beyond any human lifespan.

Since 1837, the Alviso Adobe House has sat on a parcel of land near present-day San Jose, where gentle suburbia gives way to rolling foothills. Its adobe bricks are formed directly from the surrounding earth—one of humankind’s most ancient construction methods—and it is this very earth that has witnessed the extraordinary evolution of California.

The walls of the house hold unique memories. Of how it was built, of comings and goings, of how life was lived. The City of Milpitas wanted the building to be the chronicler of its own tale, speaking directly to its visitors about the things it had seen. We welcomed the challenge of giving a voice to these memories.

A photo of a stately home and a sign stating it is 'Alviso Adobe House'

Taking the house back to pre-history

As it turns out, the laying of the first adobe brick is not even remotely close to the beginning of this narrative.

“The story is complex because the house has existed for quite a long time,” explains Christine Murray, Content Director at Art Processors, who developed the script for the project. “The history of the house encompasses a large history of California itself, and the Bay Area's development in particular.”

“But we really wanted to take it back to pre-history. Or rather, what we call ‘pre-history’ in the US,” continues Christine, recognising that European settlement on the west coast is, relatively speaking, a recent phenomenon in the passage of history.

“We wanted to honor that there were people living on the land long before this house ever was built, long before the Spanish ever arrived. There had been some, but not a lot of research done in that respect, so we really leaned into collaborating with the Muwekma Ohlone tribe, who are the indigenous people associated with that particular part of the Bay Area.”

Christine’s extensive groundwork with the Muwekma Ohlone tribe soon broadened the scope of the Alviso Adobe House story, further emphasising just how much California has changed throughout the centuries.

“It was a big part of what we brought to the table. Many museums now have land acknowledgements, but at Art Processors we have a real commitment to indigenous storytelling, and when I was writing the [voiceover narration] script I wanted to go further than a land acknowledgement,” she says.

Two people sit in a room, their silhouettes in view against the backdrop of a video being projected onto the walls around them.

This sentiment strongly reflects the comments of Jen Dolan, Group Director, Client Services, who attended the Western Museums Association conference in October 2022, held in Portland. She observed an increasing push for institutions to engage with indigenous communities beyond symbolic gestures. “We can all start by doing our own research to understand the histories and contemporary realities of local indigenous peoples, and starting to build meaningful and equitable relationships from that grounding,” Jen noted at the time.

“The Muwekma Ohlone people are revitalising their Chocahenyo language,” continues Christine, who collaborated with one of the tribe’s members involved in the revitalization project. “The very first thing you hear in this projection is a welcome from the Muwekma Ohlone themselves in that language. I really love the opening, it’s one of my favorite parts of the film.”

This partnership continued to influence other aspects of the project, including music.

“For me, one of the highlights in the reel is that we were able to obtain a recording of them singing a song that we could incorporate,” says Kyle Slagley, Senior Project Manager. “We worked with them to ensure that the story we were telling was accurate and done in a way that was respectful to the tribe.”

Jason Reinier, Sound Designer, explains the effort of ensuring the authenticity of this audio sample: “The Muwekma Ohlone have a number of different, specific tribes. We had to first confirm the recording was indeed the Ohlone people, and then identify the specific tribe, and then the actual sounds from that tribe. It was a very detailed, sensitive search.”

This extraordinary precision has also been applied to the use of sounds from the Bay Area’s natural environment, particularly its bird life. But this is not surprising, given Jason’s previous roles as Assistant Curator at the California Library of Natural Sounds and Chairman of The Nature Sounds Society. 

“There are two environments we’re really depicting here,” says Jason. “One is a riparian environment—the creeks come down from the mountains into open fields, and there are many species of Northern Californian birds specific to that area. And we're also depicting a coastal estuary, so there's a little bit of crossover between shore birds and riparian birds there.”

Jason mentions that there are many people, especially in the museum field, who pay “exquisite attention” to the authenticity of sounds from both a historical and biological perspective, but quickly adds that a small degree of creative licence was employed at times—”to make it fun for the fourth-graders!” 

Creating a visual story

One of the obvious challenges of presenting a historical but compelling visual story is the lack of images from days long past. After all, Louis Daguerre was still prototyping his eponymous photographic process at the time the Alviso Adobe House was being constructed.  

“Telling the 185-year history of the house, the land, and the City of Milpitas—in a format that would be digestible and engaging for all visitors, including school groups—that was challenging!” says Ray Chi, Senior Designer, who handled art direction for the project.

A video projected onto a wall depicts a small girl in a dress looking over the side of a ship.

The team leaned into what Christine describes as “the poetry of illustration,” researching and developing a fitting aesthetic, with Ray creating designs using Adobe Fresco on his iPad. The style is reminiscent of sketches from an old-world travel journal, backed with watercolor washes, silhouettes and shadows.

They worked alongside the City of Milpitas in this development process, presenting them with concepts and images to gather their input. For further authenticity, the final projections also include drawings from David Rickman, an ethnographer and historic illustrator specializing in the ranchero era of California, who the City had previously commissioned for other physical exhibition elements of the house.

Breathing life into the visuals with projection mapping

However, creating a documentary-style projection with stationary slides was never the goal of this project. To revive the spirit of the Alviso Adobe House, the story and its characters had to live and breathe. Animating these images became a task of choreographing history.

“It was a very careful blend of static illustration, some motion, and manipulating some other illustration to look like animation—all in a style called animatics that looks very stylized as opposed to like a finished cartoon,” says Kyle, explaining the approach. “But that stylized format fit within the setting in a way that I think is really compelling.”

Ray expands on this. “We went with a ‘spotlighting’ method, where we could choreograph the viewer's attention using smaller-scale, highlighted vignettes, punctuated by fully immersive moments as needed.” The immersion is used to full effect, placing the viewer in the centre of a multi-wall landscape of pre-settlement California, or within the heaving seas of the North Atlantic Ocean as immigrants journey from Europe to America in 1907.  

A video projected onto a wall depicts a cat walking across a chest and a small fireplace with red trim.

The true charm of the projections is not merely the fact that they are animated—the walls of the house function as more than just a canvas. “We were able to have some of the digital animated characters interact with architectural features in the physical environment, which is really the magic of projection mapping,” says Ray. Figures dance across the mantlepiece, a cat curiously snoops around, posters and portraits are hung in intuitive spaces.

Both Kyle and Ray highlight this project as another example of Art Processors’ ability to develop and implement projection mapping for a range of environments and themes.

“The Alviso Adobe House project at a room scale, the massive architecture-scale projections for the 50th birthday celebration of the Sydney Opera House, and the upcoming Melbourne Holocaust Museum interactives on a museum scale—these all firmly establish the skill and scalability of Art Processors’ projection-mapping capabilities, and hopefully points us in the direction of similarly interesting work in the future,” says Ray.

“It shows our ability to consider the scale of this technology both from a technological and a content perspective,” echoes Kyle. “And when you're going to do projection mapping effectively, those two things—technology and content—have to be considered in tandem. You can't consider them in isolation.”

A story about people

At its heart, the story of the Alviso Adobe House and its land is a story about people. The thread begins with the Muwekma Ohlone tribe, weaving its way through Spanish settlement, Mexican independence, and the Alviso family. The people connecting it to the modern era are the Cuciz family, Italian immigrants who acquired the property in 1922.

Much in the same way that collaboration with the Muwekma Ohlone people expanded the timeline of the project, so too did the involvement of the Cuciz family. As Kyle notes, “It's the ‘Alviso Adobe House.’ It was never the ‘Alviso Adobe House and the Cuciz Family House,’” hinting at the possibility the full Cuciz story may have been overlooked were it not for our team digging deeper into their research.

Two people sit in a room, their silhouettes in view against the backdrop of a video being projected onto the walls around them.

“I reached out to a member of the Cuciz family,” says Christine. “I found him with the help of the City of Milpitas. Because I’m local I was able to drive to his house, and it was probably my favorite experience of this entire project.”

Dennis Cuciz is the grandson of Giuseppe and Lucia Cuciz, and provided the team with photos, maps, birth certificates and other documents, many of which found their way into the story. Having spent his childhood among the orchards of the house, he even showed Christine how to expertly pit an apricot as his grandparents used to do for their farming business.

“He was very generous in sharing every memory he could come up with,” Christine recalls. “He went there every day. He lived just down the street and worked there from the time he was very young. His memories really made that film come to life in a way that I think is going to be very relatable for younger people.”

An eye to the future

In the past few decades, the Alviso Adobe House has perhaps seen more change than ever before. It now sits firmly within Silicon Valley, and Milpitas has the largest percentage of residents employed in tech and electronics than any other city in the entire country. They may be firmly oriented towards building the future, but hopefully also have an eye to the past. 

“I think it speaks well to our ability to create compelling narratives in a historic setting and deliver them in a way that engages a modern audience,” says Kyle, “and keeps them interested in the history that surrounds them on a daily basis.”

California continues to evolve, and together with it, so does the meaning of “Californian”. The Alviso Adobe House will see us, too, come and go, adding another chapter to its story of the lives within and around its walls. For as long as the house has a voice, no matter what the future brings to Milpitas, it will continue to remind its visitors of those who lived and worked on its land since a time beyond our own memory.  

Acknowledgement of Country

In the spirit of reconciliation, we acknowledge the many Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and honour Elders past, present and emerging. We respect their deep, enduring connection to their lands, waterways and surrounding clan groups since time immemorial. We cherish the richness of First Nations Peoples’ artistic and cultural expressions.