For years, the international art group Squidsoup has been trying to realize a fantastic (and somewhat oddly specific) vision: an immersive field of light and color, stretching from floor to ceiling, through which visitors could freely pass. The outfit’s inquiries into the concept began modestly, in 2008, when they collaborated with the engineering- and tech-centric university ETH Zürich to create two small cubes made from LED lights. But the idea of a greater experience lingered, so next came a pair of three-by-three-meter installations, created with the group’s propriety 3-D visualization system, Ocean of Light, in 2011; this time, the scale was there, but the hardware was still too delicate to accommodate people. With their latest piece, however, the group has finally made their initial dream a reality. In a sense a half-decade in the making, Submergence proves that even in the art world, perseverance pays off.
The installation makes use of nearly 400 ceiling-hung strands of LEDs—some 8,000 lights in all. As visitors navigate the vine-like maze, the lights gradually come to life, at first following the interlopers’ movements, or darting away to avoid them, and eventually building into a full-on audiovisual climax, "a kind of ecstatic crescendo, both sonically and visually," as Anthony Rowe, one of the Squidsoup’s founding members, puts it.
"The LED spaces has been a bit of an obsession . . . for the last five years," Rowe says. "The original idea was always to be within the experience, seeing it as an environment rather than an object." But as they’ve arrived at their vision, the artists and designers of Squidsoup have had to figure out what type of environment, exactly, they hoped to create. Ideally, they decided, it was something that would be experienced, not analyzed.
"Submergence is interactive—or at least responsive—but we have not advertised it as such," Rowe says. "It is a constant frustration of 'interactive’ works that people spend most of their time engaging with the work by trying to find out how it works—the mechanics, causes, and effects of interaction—rather than viewing it as a holistic experience . . . We don’t want people walking into Submergence and thinking 'Okay, so if I move here, or shake my leg, or whatever, then this might happen.'"
Of course, that doesn’t mean you’d be wrong to be interested in how it all works. The visualization (or "volumetric rendering," as the team calls it) comes courtesy of OpenFrameworks, and after five years of practice, says Rowe, they’ve pretty much got that aspect down. But with this latest project—and the introduction, finally, of actual people into the equation—the designers had to figure out a way to track bodies within the space.
The team tried thermal and infrared cameras, Rowe explains, but the LED strings screwed with the results. They considered outfitting the floors with trackpads, or attaching sensors to the LED strings, but ultimately the solution was something much simpler: a pair of Kinect cameras, aimed underneath the hanging strings at the visitors’ feet. And now that they’ve got the software and the hardware ironed out, one can only hope that future versions of the walk-through spectacle will be bigger and brighter.
[Hat tip: Creator’s Project]