Technology may seem like it’s reaching its thrilling, future-is-now potential, but all it takes is someone figuring out how to let people literally paint the night sky, and suddenly, apps don’t sound so cool. Last month in Vancouver, Janet Echelman’s “Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks” installation turned the harbor into a glowing, gossamer web of light, one that passersby could change with just a swipe of their finger on a phone.
Created to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the TED Conference and only up from March 15-22, the web of netting suspended between the Fairmont Waterfront and the Vancouver Convention Center was a wonder. Echelman says her work is, in part inspired by the idea of “feeling sheltered, but connected to the limitless sky,” and the crowds that gathered and interacted seemed to feel similarly inspired. She also drew from history, pointing to the concept of the velarium, a canvas cover that was stretched over seating at the Colosseum in Rome. What would a velarium of today look like?
“I want to work within the untapped potential between buildings, to tap the airspace in between as a place for communal art,” said Echelman of her work, a poetic piece grounded in a series of extraordinary technical feats that required years of planning.
A net composed of 145 miles of twine, “Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks” utilizes Honeywell Spectra Fiber, which is 15 times stronger than stainless steel. To put that into perspective, the longest single strand, which spans 200 feet, has a break strength of 250,000 pounds. The entire piece is engineered to withstand 96 mile-per-hour winds, or a Category One Hurricane.
A sculpture that combined Wolverine-like strength, sophisticated technology and gorgeous execution was a massive technical challenge for Echelman and the team of more than 100 designers and engineers. After receiving an invitation to display a work at the TED conference three years ago, Echleman discovered she needed a custom software system to realize her vision. After attracting Autodesk as a sponsor and partner, whose modeling software let her test her designs, she recruited Aaron Koblin, Creative Director of the Data Arts Team in Google’s Creative Lab, to design the public interface, which literally allows pedestrians to walk by and “paint the sky.” Drag a finger across the interface—just a big, open Google Chrome window—to activate banks of colored, ground-based lights that illuminate the web floating 24 stories overhead.
The latest in her series of fiber sculptures, Echleman’s Vancouver piece also draws inspiration from a formative trip to India. She was living in Mahabalipuram on a Fulbright scholarship, teaching at the National Institute of Design, and focused on her painting. She was challenged when overseas shipping delayed the arrival of her painting equipment, and turned to bronze sculpting. During a swim one evening, she noticed local fisherman piling nets on the beach, and inspiration struck: here was a way to achieve volumetric form without the weight. She quickly took the mosquito nets to the local tailors, then had fisherman hand-knot nets for her, which she then dyed, and created her first piece. (It was a novel way to get Muslim tailors and Hindu fisherman to collaborate).
Since “Unnumbered Sparks” came down in Vancouver in March, Echelman has been working on a handful of new projects, including finding the next city to host the interactive piece (it was built to be moved and reassembled). In Philadelphia, she’s designing an installation in front of city hall that uses a colored curtain of mist to trace the path of the underground subway train, a “X-ray of the city’s circulatory system” that would literally let you see if you’ve missed a train from aboveground. As Echelman said of “Unnumbered Sparks,” it seems poised to create “shared moments between strangers” and “tie into the urban fabric.”