Listen to Article
Visitors to the 30th anniversary of the Technology, Entertainment & Design (TED) Conference in Vancouver, Canada, encountered an unusual sight - A giant public art display suspended between the 24-story Fairmont Waterfront Hotel tower and the West Building of the Vancouver Convention Centre, where the conference was being held. Called 'Skies Painted With Unnumbered Sparks' it was a delicately flowing 'jelly-fish' like piece of art that sported subtle colors, almost blending in, with the city's beautiful blue skies - at least during the day!
While that was gorgeous, the installation's true beauty emerged at night when it transformed into a constantly morphing canvas of magical designs and colors. What made it even more special is that these designs and colors were not pre-programmed by the artist, but ones created by visitors, with the help of a special website and some finger painting skills.
While it appeared magical, the installation was a combination of the artistic genius of Massachusetts-based Janet Echelman who specializes in soft sculptures and the technological prowess of the world's largest search company, Google Inc. Echelman says the inspiration for this installation came from a giant textile covering that was once suspended over the Colosseum in Rome. Called 'the Velarium', it was designed to provide shade, but instead, ended up becoming a social gathering place for residents. She wanted to try invoke the same social interaction among the people that came to view the massive 'Unnumbered Sparks' installation.
It was not easy. For while the artist is well-known for her soft sculptures, this one was at least twice the size of anything she had attempted before. In addition to the challenges of crafting something this massive, there were external factors like the forces of wind, that had to be taken into account. This was especially important given that the exhibit was going to be hung in the middle of a busy city street. The issue was exacerbated by the fact that it was a temporary installation. It therefore had to be portable, and easy to install and uninstall. If that wasn't enough, it was also the artist's first interactive exhibit, which meant that Echelman had to factor the technology into her design.
It took Echelman three years to craft the installation that may resemble a fishermen's net, but is a complex matrix that encompasses 860,000 hand and machine-made knots and incorporates 145 miles of a flexible braided fiber that is 15 times stronger than steel.
Hanging the installation that spans 745 feet or almost half the size of the main section of New York City's Brooklyn Bridge and weighs a whopping 3,500 pounds, brought about its own set of challenges. That's because in order to ensure that it was stable, the designer had to ask permission to drill into the roofs of the buildings, not an easy request given that the exhibition was so temporary.
In order to make it interactive, Echelman worked with Google Inc.'s creative lab artist Aaron Koblin, whose team made it all possible, by combining some complex programming with a giant Chrome browser window that was stretched across the sculpture with the help of five high-definition projectors.
To showcase their artistic talent, visitors were asked to log into a special website that allowed them to select a color and then finger paint their artwork, which would reflect instantaneously, on the giant 'canvas' above. What was even more amazing is that hundreds of people could 'paint' at the same time, resulting in a mesmerizing array of colors and designs.
The best part is that the giant canvas which adorned the skies of Vancouver during the TED conference from March 17th - 21st, 2014, and then remained open to the public for two more weekends, is now making its way to other 'major' cities around the globe - Unfortunately, the artist will not reveal which ones, so the next time you see the skies in your city light up, be sure to check and see if 'Skies Painted With Unnumbered Sparks', is making an appearance.
While this is the largest and first interactive sculpture created by the urban airspace artist, it is not the only one. Echelman's fluid creations can be found all over the world, from Porto, Portugal to Sydney, Australia and even inside San Francisco's International Airport Terminal 2, where 'Every BeatingSecond' is helping the most stressed traveler, relax.