Tricks of the light
Art goes interactive with LED, writes Janice Leung
New media artist Teddy Lo Yeung-man thinks Hong Kong's evening skyline looks good, but something is lacking. 'None of the buildings project any information about the city,' says the 33-year-old, adding that they could do with some lighting design that goes beyond mere aesthetics.
His latest work, which marks his debut in Hong Kong, illustrates how 'informative lighting design' can be achieved. Phaeodaria is a geodesic dome, 8 metres in diameter, built with LED (light-emitting diode) panels as well as transmittable light and sound signals decoded from wireless frequencies.
Installed in front of the Hong Kong Museum of Art, the piece is part of the A-Glow-Glow Macro Interactive Media Arts Exhibition, which kicks off this Friday.
Organised by new media arts organisation Microwave and presented by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, the event combines audio and visual elements in large-scale media works.
While the term 'glow' suggests a theme of light, 'A-Glow-Glow' conveys a sense of a rhythmic dynamism that echoes the playful, participatory character of the two interactive pieces on show: Lo's Phaeodaria and acclaimed multimedia piece Volume, by London-based collective UnitedVisualArtists (UVA).
Inspired by Ernst Haeckel's illustrations of marine life forms, Lo created a geodesic dome and named it Phaeodaria - after one of the most primitive species of bacteria in the sea.
'I've been interested in organic structures, which to me are very intricate, even more so than many mechanical and engineering designs,' says Lo.
His is a technically sophisticated work making use of mobile telecommunications technologies such as GSM, 3G, Wi-fi and Bluetooth. It creates a kind of wireless information that the artist thinks is most representative of Hong Kong culture.
He recorded the signals these technologies use outside a large department store in Causeway Bay, one of Hong Kong's most wired locations, which he then used to control and manipulate the LED colours for the dome's exterior.
For the audio element, he designed a computer programme that generates minimal electronic sounds triggered by Bluetooth signals. More than 50 people with Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones can simultaneously take part in this exercise.
Lo believes that using these wireless data communication devices, digital lighting design should look good and be functional.
'I hope in the future, the environment itself can tell us information - it could be about pollution, the Hang Seng Index, or anything,' says Lo.
'This may take a very long time to achieve but I hope I'm one of the first to push it.'
Volume is more to do with sensing body or physical movements and is a 'sequel' to Body Movies by Mexican-Canadian artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, which featured an interactive video projected on the wall of the Museum of Art in 2006. UVA's work is made up of 46 LED light columns positioned on a 1,421 sq ft stage.
The luminous columns are sensitive to their surroundings so that the participating audience can change the colour and sound produced by each column by moving between them, generating sensational audiovisual experiences.
Microwave's director Winnie Fu Wai-yee says A-Glow-Glow is not a mere extension of Body Movies but a breakthrough in that an international work is being showcased alongside a newly commissioned work by a local media artist, showing that Hong Kong is not lagging behind on the global art scene.
'We're bringing out a local talent who's able to reach an international standard. I think that's A-Glow-Glow's greatest success,' she says.
To create a dialogue with UVA's work, Lo chose to build his interactive Phaeodaria with LED screens. 'I want to match up with Volume,' says Lo, who spent 16 years in the US until 2005. 'But I also want to [be a] step ahead of its design in grid form.'
Other than illustrating the advantages of information-based lighting designs, Lo tries to promote the use of LED through his piece.
'LED is a revolutionary technology,' he says. 'It's very environmentally friendly and has a huge impact on the world.'
Lo says the problems of energy shortage and global warming can be eased by using LED instead of incandescent light bulbs, which turn more than 80 per cent of electricity into heat.
'LED also responds quickly, lasts a long time and projects a full colour spectrum. So I want to make an installation that is engaging and powerful enough for people to realise LED lighting can do so much more than a light bulb.'
Trained in advertising design at the Art Centre College of Design in California, Lo says technology and information-based new media art is what he wants to pursue.
'Art changes according to its time,' he says. 'Digital media is getting more and more advanced. As a responsible artist, I should be up to date with the latest technology.'
'New media ... is everywhere. We're living with it, only we're not aware of its existence,' says Fu. 'New media art aims to arouse our awareness of our surroundings, and question how we're influenced by the technologies.'
A-Glow-Glow Macro Interactive
Media Arts Exhibition, Fri to Apr 20, Avenue of Stars, TST. Also features workshops and seminars held by the artists. For details, go to microwavefest.net/aglowglow