Screencity Journal n.1 | Roberta De Monte
SHAPES OF LIGHTS
Roberta De Monte
KEYWORDS: light, led technology, installation
The new installation ‘Shapes of light’, placed at the entrance of the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, is an opportunity to reflect on the evolution and development of lighting technologies. A journey through light and its meaning in art and architecture, from the words of Scheerbart, written in the early twentieth century, to new systems with low energy consumption. These new technologies, combined with motion sensors, are the protagonists of the art work, commissioned to Schréder and realised by Just Light, an Italian company. This installation represents, with harmonious colours and lights, the cultural and social union of the European Union.
“The whole problem of life, then, is this: how to break out of one’s own loneliness, how to communicate with others.” (Cesare Pavese – This business of living).
Communication, as a form of information exchange between humans and the environment surrounding them, has evolved exponentially, changing our life style and, above all, our perception.
In his book ‘Modernità debole e diffusa’ (Weak and diffuse modernity), Andrea Branzi defines it as a ‘sensory revolution’ : the second term indicates, therefore, the historical and social importance of the creation and development of new communication systems, which have completely changed the way we receive stimuli and sensations.
Compared to the past, humans are now immersed in a world where their sensitivity is no longer “analytical, mechanical”, but it is “synthetic, electronic, auditive”. Everything that we receive must be perceived through a new sensitivity, based on a succession of sounds, images, lights and colours.
The sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman maintains that we can even associate the passing of our civilization through the contemporary and constant media bombardment with a ceaseless fluid passing through us in a continuous movement.
The metamorphosis of the human perceptual system is therefore due to the constantly changing surrounding environment: the spaces of modern life are characterized by the ephemeral, the transient and by surfaces “[...] evolving, constantly changing, absorbing signals where they are immersed and send them in the form of images and sounds. “
We are also in the midst of what Alvin Toffler defines as the ‘the third wave’, the third process of media transformation, in which the technological and IT tools are connected to each other and combined to form increasingly complex elements.
In fact Toffler maintains that while in the ‘second wave’ the media interwined the film visual impact with the sound, the ‘third wave’ was born out of the convergence of simultaneous information received by multiple sensory channels.
The new media tools, on which this information revolution is based, have invaded our cities and are reflected through architecture and art works.
Nowadays, we often come across large media installations or media architecture projects, realized using various technological components: from complex systems consisting of screens projecting images, videos and writings to simpler systems created only by positioning light sources aimed at transmitting emotions and impressions.
This latter type of media tool has perceptual capabilities with a significantly reduced visual impact, yet affecting sensory and emotional sphere to a greater extent. In fact, it consists of ‘soft’, intangible systems, often invisible because concealed from the human eye, and, above all, of constantly developing devices, for example the development and success of LED technology.
“When we speak of light, we are generally thinking of the glaring light of gas and electricity. In the past fifty years light has progressed quite surprisingly. It is all happening so quickly that one can hardly keep up.”
Scheerbart Paul wrote these words in his book “Glass Architecture”, which was published as a short essay on architecture in 1914. Nearly one hundred years have passed and, as it was predicted, the development of lighting systems has been fast and it is constantly evolving.
One of the crucial phases of this evolution was the emergence and success of LED technology, which has become one of the essential features of contemporary art and architecture. It allows lighting systems to be addressed in a different and completely innovative way, creating flexible, reliable and durable systems.
Compared to traditional incandescent, halogen or fluorescent lamps, LED technology guarantees higher performances and a longer life, while providing a clean and clear light with low energy consumption.
It is therefore obvious how this technology has become an essential tool: architectural projects and art installations are becoming increasingly complex and articulated, requiring flexible and user-friendly lighting systems.
LED does not only mean energy-saving and environmentally friendly light sources, yet also elements capable of characterizing the space, creating light and colour plays. The palette of colours provided by this technology can transform and radically change the perception of any environment, also affecting users’ emotions and impressions.
In recent years, a new fundamental feature of LED systems, i.e. the possibility of connecting them to other devices to create light interactive systems, has been improved.
They can be combined with software allowing several factors, for example light power or colour change of the light source, to be managed by designers or users, manually or by using devices such as smartphones, tablets and computers.
Motion sensors are the next step of the evolution of the interaction among art, architecture and users: placed in strategic points, they detect the presence of people moving across the space and activate lighting systems according to people’s movement and position, thus creating a live and dynamic environment.
Through these elements, users become an integral part of the entire system by triggering a series of changes concerning colours, intensity and perception.
Light installation for the European Union
The European Union has always been very attentive to the enhancement of energy-saving systems and the development of new innovative technologies. To accelerate their deployment and use, it decided to promote, through the European Commission, a competition for the realization of a light installation to be placed at the entrance of the Brussels headquarters.
The competition, which involved several sponsors, was won by Schréder, a leading company in the lighting system sector.
On December 19 2012, André Papoular, CEO of Schréder, Neelie Kroes, European Commission Vice-President and Head of the Digital Agenda, and Maros Sefcovic, Vice-President of the European Commission and Commissioner for Inter-Institutional Relations and Administration, inaugurated ‘Shapes of Light’, the work realized by Just Light, an Italian company, based in Caselette, belonging to the Belgian Schréder.
The installation is based upon the idea of combining together the different cultures of the European Union and it consists of a series of shapes covered by a single curved surface. The shapes are inactive in their initial state until a visitor passes next to the work, activating a series of motion sensors and, subsequently, the spotlights: ‘Shape of Light’ comes to life. The LED system (BaroLED) turns on and gradually modifies the colour of the installation, with constantly changing shades and intensity.
Harmonious colours and lights resembling the cultural and social union of our continent and the understanding achieved through the work of the European bodies.
The realization of this installation has been possible thanks to LED technology, which allowed the creation of different visual effects, controlled by sensors, with a 70% energy saving. Traditional lighting systems would have not allowed the attainment of similar results.
In purely technical terms, the installation has been built with polystyrene, covered with fabric and then painted with two coats with a rough orange peel effect.
Polystyrene was chosen as the main component of the art work due to its low cost as well as to the fact that it can be moulded and transported easily. The entire sculpture was then reinforced with fabric to allow a safer and easier transportation from Italy, where the art work was manufactured, to Brussels.
The external layer of the installation is coated with a white paint improving the luminous effect: the LED lighting system creates a soft and diffused effect by reflecting on the white surface.
There are five sensors that activate the LED lamps, located at the structure base. Upon detecting the presence of one or several persons, they send a signal to an electronic board capable of synthesizing the signal and converting it into DMX signal (a kind of communications protocol mainly used in theaters and in the entertainment industry).
By calculating the density and the number of people in front of the installation, the detection system modifies the light source, increasing or decreasing the intensity and saturation. The LEDs illuminating the sculpture are placed in the centre, between the two symmetrical parts reproducing human shapes, as well as at the installation base.
According to the initial idea, the installation was to be seen only from one side. In fact, it had to be placed, for a limited period, in a corridor of the European Union headquarters. After selecting the winning project, a new position was chosen and the installation was placed at the entrance. The installation was subsequently duplicated to make it symmetrical and visible from both sides. Inaugurated in December, it will be exhibited in Brussels for 12 months.
1. C. Pavese, Il mestiere di vivere, Einaudi, Torino, 2006
2. A. Branzi, Modernità debole e diffusa. Il mondo del progetto all’inizio del XXI secolo, Skira, Milano, 2006, p. 106
3. A. Branzi, Modernità debole e diffusa. Il mondo del progetto all’inizio del XXI secolo, Skira, Milano, 2006, p. 106
4. Z. Bauman, Modernità Liquida, Laterza, Roma-Bari, 2010
5. K. Gasparini, Design in superficie, FrancoAngeli, Milano, 2009, p.15
6. A. Toffler, La terza ondata, Sperling & Kupfer, Milano, 1987
7. P. Scheerbart, Architettura di vetro, Adelphi, Milano, 1994, p.73
Fig. 1 Inauguration day of ‘Shapes of light’
Fig.3 The LED system turns on and modifies the colour of the installation
Born in 1988 in Valdobbiadene (Treviso). She graduated in 2012 at the University IUAV of Venice, Master in Building Technology, with a thesis on new media façades. Trainee at the studio TAMassociati (Venice) in 2010, she participated in two study-tours to New York, Holland and Germany. She is now attending the Second Level Master Degree in Digital Architecture at the University IUAV of Venice.