Digital artworks & public space

MAP in Taipei by Aram Bartholl
"Map" by Aram Bartholl

This article comes from the 12th Digitalarti Mag. Read it online for free.

New commissioners, 1% for art, direct commissions… Media art projects are increasingly being coupled with funding schemes that emphasize their durability in public space. But such progress should not distract us from the real problems posed by the concept of augmented sustainability.

That media art has its place in public space is no longer subject to debate. Its various forms of integration, from the billboards of Thierry Fournier’s project A+ to the installations of Aram Bartholl (MAP - picture above) transposed from Google Maps geolocation markers, have demonstrated that the most diverse forms of digital art can exist in real and urban space.


A+ par thfo


Today, the main question is how these artworks can exist in public space in the long term. More and more artists are integrating this time-based concept into their work: UVA with their luminous arch Canopy (see video at the page bottom) in Toronto; the Lab[au] collective, following in the footsteps of their light show on the Rogier Tower in Brussels a few years ago; more recently the Anti VJ collective with Omicron (see video below), their first permanent video-mapping projection on the 65-meter dome of the Wrocław Centenary Hall in Poland; Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya’s Sea Cloud, Fog Installation #07015 (see video at the page bottom), which has been floating around the Lille Europe train station since the opening of Lille 3000 this autumn.

These projects, which are becoming increasingly common, often benefit from modes of funding and organization, in France and in Europe, that integrate or take into account the durability of media artworks in public space. 


1% for art

As they say, “when the building goes, everything goes”. The idea of allocating 1% of a public construction budget to the production of a work of art is therefore common sense and increasingly open to media artworks.

Already used to making pieces for exhibition in public space, such as their circular installation Signal To Noise (video at page bottom) in the Toronto airport, Brussels-based digital architects collective Lab[au] has recently initiated several different projects—as well as others more to come, particularly with AZF Factory in Toulouse—specifically for the allocated 1%.

They also made a strange mosaic entitled Moza1que (video at page bottom) for La Maison Mécatronique in Annecy-le-Vieux, a 3x6-meter wall of 390 individually motorized bricks. The computer-programmed movement of the bricks and colorful light projections created both varying three-dimensional geometric sequences and a light show that pulsed on and off along with the moving elements of the wall.

Another ambitious project, Siloscope, should see the light in Vitry-sur-Seine. It’s a 24-meter-high architectural structure of LEDs, assuming the role of a lighthouse or doors to the city.

As part of urban renewal projects led by the local government, respectively concerning La Maison Mécatronique in Annecy and Quai Jules Guesde in Vitry, these artworks were designed for the people and therefore made to last. Such is the case for Antoine Schmitt’s Bosuil Lights Quartet: Music for City Windows (video simulation) made in the context of a project to renovate the Belgian neighborhood of Bosuil, with similar financing.

It was commissioned by the district of Deurne, a suburb of Anvers, for a long-term artwork, says Schmitt. This project was a big inspiration for City Lights Orchestra [shown in December at the Ososphère festival in Strasbourg]. These two projects constitute an open visual symphony for the windows of the city, accessible to all on the Web and its devices (computers, smartphones), a visual score that self-replicates indefinitely from an initial strand of DNA, as Schmitt likes to describe it. In Bosuil, the installation will animate four artificial windows placed on the four tallest buildings of the district, which will pulsate differently but in unison, like a musical quartet.

In Belgium, this grant—which is not called 1% for art—seems less fixed than in France. I don’t even think that it’s mandatory to allocate a percentage of the budget for an artwork. Here it’s a choice by the city and the people through a representative committee, says Schmitt.

However, its impact in terms of durability is also significant. The artwork is durable, and the city agrees to maintain it for 15 years renewable, Schmitt continues. First, we’ll sign a maintenance contract with the provider, who will install it. Of course, this involves certain considerations: the simplest, most robust materials possible, accessibility, etc. But aside from slightly more complex maintenance procedures, totally manageable through traditional contracts, there is no qualitative difference between a media artwork and a traditional artwork in terms of durability.

New Commissioners

While there may not necessarily be a qualitative difference in time, media artworks involve specific problems: cost, of course (especially its technological components), but also its design. Its production requires a formal application process and even a dialogue between the person who commissions the work and the artist, which can be long and complicated, especially when the client is not a public institution or a collective, but an individual.

Intended to encourage direct commissions of artworks—and not just media artworks—from an artist by a person, the New Commissioners program introduces the mediation of a certified professional, who largely facilitates a constructive exchange over time. But this process also has its consequences on the durability of the resulting work.

a distances - artist samuel bianchini
Samuel Bianchini - A Distances

Samuel Bianchini’s piece A Distances, which was effectively produced through this program, occupies La Maison du Geste et de l’Image (MGI) in Paris. It’s a black monolith installed in the main window that lights up whenever someone passes by. As long as people are at a distance, it displays an image, that of a portrait seen from behind, but as the passerby approaches, she replaces the representation, which progressively becomes light.

As the mediator of the project, Mari Linnman—and her dedicated organization 3-CA—is one of eight individual and organizational mediators certified by Fondation de France to accompany the program (250 study phases have taken place since it was introduced in 1995).

The New Commissioners program allows a citizen, without any selection criteria, to take the reins and initiate the commission of an artwork that appeals to general interest in relation to social issues, land development, Linnman explains. For A Distances, the MGI team came to see us. We worked together on drafting specifications that allowed us to lay the foundation of the project, after a fairly long production stage. During these few months, we speak very little of art, we talk more about the need we might have for the artwork. Basically, we identify a problem. With MGI, the problem to identify was: How can we address others? How can we make MGI more visible?

It isn’t until afterward that the artist is chosen. I was familiar with Samuel Bianchini’s work, of course, his way of building pieces that also related gesture and image. It was obvious to me that he was the most relevant choice. I introduced them and drafted an artist’s study contract. This is mainly where the infrastructure of Fondation de France comes in. The project’s specifications determine whether or not Fondation de France will invest in the study. This is very important, because we still don’t know if the final project will see the light. This is a heavy responsibility for an individual to bear.

It was the first time that Samuel Bianchini had worked within such a program, but he was rather pleased with the experience. It involves a particular process, because you don’t develop the piece alone, he admits. The positive aspect is that beyond the commission itself is the need. The art project has a true utility, in terms of politics, communication, even design (…). The work has a form of utility without necessarily being converted into a useful work.

Nonetheless, the project took quite a while to develop. There was a long period of immersion. I had to learn to know the place, its activity, its specific audience. The idea was that the creative process should be more important than the result, so it was quite long. What’s more, I tried to push the project toward research that involved developing a technology, but this didn’t work out for economic reasons. New Commissioners projects are always very long anyway. Most take about two or three years; A Distances took four years.

Finally, the installation was contracted for three years renewable, but for all involved in the project, the prospect of its duration depends first and foremost on budgetary concerns, especially concerning maintenance. It’s difficult to defend pieces that would endure without taking the time to consider or renegotiate their maintenance, says Linnman.

Bianchini believes that we should always plan a complete maintenance budget, because considering the durability of a project also means considering its guaranteed economic and technological viability. It’s complicated, because our budgets are tight, and up to now we’ve been backing the entire project up front. (…) Even the artists aren’t always aware of this problem.


Direct commissions

Considering the crucial budgetary issue and costs of technology or maintenance, not to mention mediation, directly commissioning works from artists is an important option when aiming for durability. Here, an organization such as Digitalarti often acts as the project’s instigator and artistic coproducer, as was the case for the latest Parisian installations: Scenocosme’s Lumifolia at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport and Stéfane Perraud’s Flux at Gare de l’Est (video at page bottom).

FLUX - artist Stefane Perraud - produced by Digitalarti
FLUX by Stefane Perraud

As a direct commission in response to a tender offer by Aéroports de Paris to be installed at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle, Lumifolia (video at page bottom) follows the project Phonofolia, a permanent work financed by the 1% for art at Maison de l'intercommunalité, school of music and dance in Albertville since October 2012. Lumifolia is an interactive sound garden, offering a space for leisurely walks, encounters and sensory experiences, incorporating a supplementary concept of luminosity.

Lumifolia, by Scenocosme

As in many of Scenocosme’s works, sound is created through the interaction between people present and the foliage of the plants. The plant makes a sound when the visitor approaches, and an even more vivid sound if the visitor touches a leaf. The intensity of this interaction is then transcribed into colored notes, as the four trees of the installation are connected to four “sun” lamps in a staged space… The piece opened on December 15, for a period of two years, and is located in Terminal 2C of Roissy airport, between the border control and baggage claim areas, thus introducing a bit of “life” in an otherwise bland transit zone.

We use plants as natural and living sensors, which are sensitive to various energy flows, Grégory Lasserre explains. By interpreting this sensitivity through various interactions, we call attention to the fact that our environment is made of living, reactive things. Each part of the plant (leaves or stem) is reactive. When a physical person touches it, this variation in light becomes stronger, warmer and more intense. And when several people caress the plant together, its luminous intensity is all the more amplified.

Working inside an airport terminal presents an additional challenge. Making a piece within the protected area of an airport is more complicated, says Lasserre. You have to respect very strict administrative and security regulations. Each element must be verified and validated by various organizations according to protocol. The logistical support of Julie Miguirditchian and the Digitalarti team was crucial to the feasibility of this project. But the artist is overly worried about the inevitable conditions of degradation and technical maintenance.

These issues also come up when our works are exhibited in museums for long periods, sometimes for more than six months. We are extremely meticulous and rigorous about the material that we make, test and use. We also always plan systems of remote technical assistance and maintenance. These days it’s easy to control computers on the other side of the world through the Internet.

Stéfane Perraud’s project Flux, which will transcend the rosette of Gare de l’Est for four months, was a direct commission (without tender offers). Flux is on exhibit from December 17 through March 23, with a possible renewal for a longer period. The installation interprets the flow of travelers (100,000 per day) to create a fluctuating illumination on the rosette of the train station facing Boulevard de Strasbourg. Its prime location makes it visible both day and night, made up of LEDs attached to a magnetized bar that is directly in contact with the inside metal structure of the window.

The light show plays hour by hour as the travelers arrive. It is triggered not by sensors, not by physical interaction, but by a database simulating little dots of light, drawing a flower and its petals, representing a traveler coming in. The dots vary according to the schedule (off hours, rush hour, etc): warm and blue colors correspond to low traffic, white to high traffic. As a result, the RGB-coded system reveals different scenes of varying luminosity and colors (Christmas, New Year’s Day, St. Valentine’s Day, etc).

Despite the project’s technical constraints—such as its rigorously controlled installation, given that the rosette is classified as a historical monument—its exhibition in a high-traffic public space met Perraud’s desire to reconsider the relationship between the user-viewer and the urban environment. I’m very interested in data related to human activity, he says. For this light installation at Gare de l’Est, I was attracted to the intense traffic flow of the travelers. By showing them a mapped interpretation of these flows, I’m trying to relate the passengers to each other, to make them collectively aware of their movement and lend a poetic aspect to the map with a very simple symbol: one spot of light equals one man, one woman.

Beyond the artwork’s potential renewal, Perraud has already anticipated the issue of durability. I often use programmed lights so that I can more or less manage the lifetime of a sculpture, he reveals. An LED isn’t like an ordinary lightbulb; its average lifespan is 10 years. Here it’s directly welded to a group of components, which doesn’t make maintenance or renewal any easier, especially when each one of my projects is site-specific and often handmade. I design them with a specific program that “preserves” them as long as possible, but not for eternity!

As such, and without going as far as eternity, the sustainability of media artworks in public space cannot be reduced to a mere question of maintenance. Also to consider are their relevance, in relation to the rapid obsolescence of their technological components, but also their own artistic development. The main difficulty with durability is related to maintenance, but also to the dimension of works, which can vary, Bianchini says of his piece A Distances. My works often have the advantage of evolving, and the commissioners and I integrated this concept into the project. So I’ll probably do more workshops to change the images that react to the public.

Laurent Catala


This article comes from the 12th Digitalarti Mag. 
Read it online for free.