Reinventing Public Art, Thousands of LEDs at a Time
At the Boston Harbor Islands pavilion on Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway, brightly lit screens beckon the late-night wanderer, long after the visitor center has closed. Take a closer look, and waves made by individual bar graphs appear, a bit like the sound readout on old stereo systems. The thick, undulating brush strokes are all based on thousands of pieces of data, collected over a season in the vast archipelago – the height of the tides, the speed of the winds, even the flights of bees.
The electronic portrait is part of the burgeoning phenomenon of digital art, where the canvas is an LED screen. The visual muscle of digital art all but announces a potential transformation in public art in the city. It could make graffiti bombing and innovative artists like JR, with his giant eyes on the facades of the favelas, seem quaint by comparison.
The pied piper for digital art is not a world traveling Frenchman but a friendly, full-bearded Bostonian, George Fifield, founder of Boston Cyberarts. Based in the burgeoning arts community in the Jamaica Plain section, Fifield identifies video art on urban screens as a worldwide phenomenon, from Times Square to Bucharest to Seoul, where a media mural as big as a football field lights up the urban environment.
"This is the new public art,” he says, about as far from “bronze statues of dead white guys, or static pop art” as he can imagine.
The project that was most inspiring for Fifield was an unlikely candidate – a sign in front of a convention center. The Boston Exhibition & Convention Center, a massive, gulf-winged building designed by Raphael Vinoly on former industrial land in Boston’s emerging Seaport district, sought to announce its presence with an 80-foot electronic billboard illuminated by 2.8 million LED lights. The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority didn’t want just headlines for bio-tech or computer conventions, however, so designers started to explore what some public art would look like on the soaring structure.
Some past exhibits, courtesy of Boston CyberArts
It looked really good, as it turned out. Some 14 artists contributed as many installations, creating a library of rotating art. In Jeff Warmouth's Fall, a figure seems to float in slow motion down the marquee. Others are:
- Dennis Miller – Marathon
- Ellen Wetmore - Blue Boy Jumping
- Nell Breyer - Falling Men
- Kawandeep Virdee - Urban Bloom
- Ellen Wetmore – Pacing
- John Slepian – Sigh
Tim Love, a principal at Utile and designer of the Harbor Islands Pavilion and the marquee at the Convention Center, saw the place-making potential of large media screens – a way to present iconic contemporary design that engages public audiences. He was introduced to Fifield by Nick Capasso, the chief curator at the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, and established an ambitious, curatorial approach.
Blue Boy Jumping and Urban Bloom, still images via Vimeo
“The success of the programming to date has created a rare moment to push the boundaries of this new technology in the public realm,” says Love, who sees digital art as a big opportunity for cities worldwide.
Boston may fancy itself a leader in digital arts in America. In addition to the convention center and Harbor Islands pavilion installations, there’s the big screen on the new WGBH building in Allston-Brighton, visible from the Massachusetts Turnpike, and a media façade on the Paramount theatre at Emerson College in the Theatre District, where the LED displays are arrayed in the windows of the building.
In the future, Fifield predicts, LED screens may be fully integrated into architecture and interior design, and extend to other cultural fronts, such as fashion, the galaxy dress designed by CuteCircuit being one example.