SOLAR FLARE: an interactive light sculpture

In December, we finished installing our latest light installation and our first foray into coloured light –  SOLAR FLARE. Publicly viewable above Stephen Avenue in downtown Calgary, the sculpture will be on display until February 1, 2014.

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You can find a separate blog about the trials and tribulations of creating and installing SOLAR FLARE here. For those interested in the bite-sized story, keep reading.

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We installed SOLAR FLARE over several freezing days (and nights) in early December. The sculpture came with gargantuan learning curves involving public space, contextual scale, and environmental conditions. Installing a giant dangling work of art over a busy pedestrian walkway in the dead of winter wasn’t exactly a walk in the park.

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But we earned permits and approvals through the City, and then we bundled up, drank gallons of coffee, and got to it. Surprisingly, while our fingers and toes were chilled to the bone, the most lasting effect of the cold was caused by direct exposure to the road salt sprinkled by the City of Calgary to curb ice build-up – that stuff is caustic. Otherwise we were psychologically warmed by the bright golden glow of the sculpture.

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Perhaps the biggest conceptual challenges of creating SOLAR FLARE was deciding how to make the sculpture interactive. Because Stephen Avenue is so busy, public, and frequented by a polarized assortment of people that flips between elite business crowds, pub patrons, and homeless communities, we wanted to create an accessible piece that can be passively triggered, sometimes without viewers even realizing it.

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After fiddling with animated LEDs, arduino units, and other fancy gagetry, we decided on a rough and analogue approach, utilizing only one large light bulb inside the belly of the sun. The bulb is surrounded by a rotating tin cylinder with holes cut out of it, geared to a small electric motor that is activated by motion sensors placed on either side of Stephen Avenue walkway. When tripped, either one of the motion sensors switches the motor to 3-volt rotational speed, creating a slow glimmer of light on the surface of the sculpture for a matter of seconds. If you haven’t already watched the SOLAR FLARE video, you can see it at the top of this post.

In a flash of brilliance, Wayne wired the transformers in series, meaning that when both motion detectors are simultaneously tripped, the motor switches to a 9-volt setting, and the sculpture shimmers rapidly – a reflection of the surrounding action.

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As a final method of interaction, we sent out an open invitation to our friends and the public to participate in a community light performance called A Stab in the Dark. Viewers participated in a playful solstice ritual, igniting over 500 2-ft sparklers in an attempt to summon the sun.

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Collaborative, beautiful, and ultimately futile, the performance hoped to explore the social magnetism of light, its mysterious ability to draw strangers together, if only for a moment, in the darkness of winter.

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SOLAR FLARE community light performance. Photo by Tom Fitz

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Almost exactly one month later, we’re in Lexington, Kentucky building SOLAR FLARE’s secret sister piece for the Lexington Art League to be revealed this coming Saturday (one week from today!!) at Luminosity Art Ball. More to come about that very soon. In the mean time, we leave you with an image of SOLAR FLARE, captured by my Mom on a snowy evening in 2013.

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SOLAR FLARE photo by Marina Skulsky

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