When the latest public art commission to appear in Madison Square Park is presented to expectant New Yorkers tonight, it will be unveiled with just a flip of a switch, illuminating a myriad of twinkling lights that make up San Francisco–based artist Jim Campbell’s new installations.
Strung from high-tension cables, thousands of LED lights gleam out of a multitude of hanging standard light bulb shells, giving the illusion of scattered ethereal incandescence floating in midair. The LEDs are timed to turn on and off across the 3D installation to evoke images of giant pedestrian shadows walking by on several different planes.
Last night, the magic effect of the shadows intended by Campbell — who graduated from M.I.T. with degrees in both electrical engineering and mathematics — was having an effect on people passing through Madison Square Park during a test run of the installation. Dog walkers and commuters admired the moving shadows and looked quizzically around to see where the projector — or, perhaps, the camera — was located.
The images, however, are not a result of a projection or a live recording, but an illumination of pixels — lit by LEDs — derived from footage of commuters moving through Grand Central Station at rush hour. Campbell broke down that video, getting rid of most of the pixels of the original image, and mapped the movement of the pixels across the hundreds of little lights.
Another work, “Broken Window” — Campbell’s largest color LED light piece yet — is also in the park and made up of translucent cubes arranged in a seven-by-seven-foot grid, measuring 10 inches deep, that emits colored flashes of pixels sampled from footage of the busy intersection of Broadway and 23rd Street, just across the street. Additional translucent cubes are spread around close by, lighting up in time with the “Window” to evoke a feeling of movement. The streak of a yellow image across the cubes, for example, is the blur of a passing taxicab, while moving abstract figures are New Yorkers walking busily past the Flatiron Building.
A third piece, “Voices in the Subway Station,” features similar translucent panels installed flush to the ground, which recall the movement of a subway train when they light up in a sequence. “This piece functions well with peripheral vision,” Campbell told ARTINFO. “A train goes by, out of the corner of your eye, but it is just lights and the viewer’s imagination.”
While all three works focus on the New York City experience, “Scattered Light” also serves as an homage to the light bulb, which has increasingly become a leading symbol of inefficiency, according to the artist. Although “Scattered Light” appears to be constructed with light bulbs, the LEDs nestled inside the standard-watt shells draw only about 5 amps for the entire installation, which is lit by electricity flowing from only one plug, “the same size as one you would plug a microwave into,” said Campbell.
Campbell admitted that he was unsure how the finished pieces would look once installed. “I mapped ‘Scattered Light’ on a six-by-six-foot model, but I was still worried you wouldn’t be able to tell what it was, that it would be too abstract,” he said. “Still, this is also what the work is about. When you get rid of all the details, is there anything left that is recognizable?”
The challenge of public art was also on the artist’s mind: “Public art, including my own, tends to be a little lighter weight because — unless you are a superstar — it has to be less risky,” he said. “People have to like it. It is challenging to make something you believe in and also something that people like, which is a very different challenge than what you face when creating art that shows in galleries.”