LED Art: Artistic LED Displays That Dazzle
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Four public art projects enable visitors to see things in a new light

By Robin Cherry

They’re so much more economical than traditional lights that the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the rapid adoption of LEDs could deliver billions of dollars in savings, lessen the need for dozens of new power plants and reduce the demand for lighting electricity by up to one-third.* But those aren’t the only reasons LEDs are on the minds of people living in San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and beyond. LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, are taking center stage in a quartet of public art projects in some of the country’s major metropolitan hubs. Like the fuel-savvy Chevrolet Spark, these highly efficient illuminators are proving that even the smallest creations can transport the imagination to new places.

Leo Villareal is world-renowned for creating dazzling site-specific displays using LEDs and his own custom-made computer software. For The Bay Lights, Villareal began covering San Francisco’s Bay Bridge at the end of 2012 with 25,000 outward-facing LEDs that would stretch across five miles if they were laid end to end. Taking inspiration from the waves, wind and traffic of the area, he then created algorithms to produce controlled light patterns that can run for two years without repeating. The project celebrates the 75th anniversary of the bridge, as well as the completion of the Eastern Span replacement, which has been under construction for the past decade.

In Massachusetts, the National Park Service and the Boston Harbor Island Alliance have teamed up with Boston Cyberarts to create a two-year program in which artists’ work will be shown on two low-resolution LED screens at the Harbor Island Pavilion. The current exhibit is Life: 44103 by digital artist and robotosist Alexander Reben. Reben’s work uses real-time data from Buoy Number 44013 to evaluate the water’s haziness (in this case caused by plankton) and temperature to see how quickly the environment around the buoy will encourage the marine community to grow. His data is reflected on the screen with colors changing from green to blue to red. When the marine community around the buoy reaches equilibrium with its environment, Reben’s program calculates a score that measures the success of the growth and flashes it on the screen.

Crown Fountain, the centerpiece of Chicago’s Millennium Park, is a public sculpture designed by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa. The work, which debuted in 2004, consists of a shallow black granite reflecting pool that sits between two 50-foot illuminated glass towers. Three sides of each of the two towers are lit from within by color-changing LED fixtures. The fourth side of each tower faces its opposite and has an LED display screen. These LED display screens project a video image of one of 1,000 Chicago citizens selected from across the city’s broad social spectrum. Each face, bearing different expressions, appears for five minutes at a time. At the end of the five minutes, the man or woman pretends to blow out a candle. Water flows through an outlet on the screen through the pursed lips, playfully transforming the subjects into modern gargoyles who appear to spit water onto fountain visitors.

Connecting Iowa’s 25-mile High Trestle Trail, the High Trestle Trail Bridge stands 13 stories high, spans half-a-mile across the Des Moines River and bursts into light each evening. David B. Dahlquist, a nationally known local artist and avid cyclist, designed the bridge that opened in 2011, lining it with steel railings that span and rotate along the walkway to produce the sensation of entering the shaft of a coal mine, an historically important local industry. The vertical elements of the bridge are also sculptural symbols meant to represent the cutting and slicing of the nature that forms this river valley. Blue LEDs illuminate the deck, mirror the water flowing below and create a beautiful work of contemporary art that’s made it a must-see destination.

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Robin Cherry is a Hudson Valley-based travel, food and pop culture writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, Afar, Islands and many other publications. She blogs at Garlic Escapes and is writing a book on the history of garlic that will be published in 2014. Follow her on Twitter @garlicescapes.

*“Learn About LEDs” at Energy Star, a U.S. Department of Energy website.