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Let There Be Light

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Few artists paint from the perspective that "You're only as big as the canvas that's facing you." Sculpted by the father-and-son team of Gutzon and Lincoln Borglum, the Mount Rushmore National Memorial is one of the few exceptions to the rule. After receiving Congressional approval, the project (which would carve the faces of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt out of granite) took 14 years to complete.

While the Mount Rushmore National Memorial was originally conceived as a mammoth sculpture that could spur tourism to the Black Hills of South Dakota, it also became a massive patriotic and artistic inspiration to those who visited the memorial (especially when one considers that the sculpture was created long before computers were available to artists).

Throughout history, artists have left their mark on one civilization after another. Sometimes, those with the deepest appreciation of art may surprise you. Consider the following quotation from the Pirate King in Gilbert and Sullivan's 1879 comic opera, The Pirates of Penzance:

"PIRATE KING:
Although our dark career
Sometimes involves the crime of stealing,
We rather think that we're not altogether void of feeling.
Although we live by strife, we're always sorry to begin it,
For what, we ask, is life without a touch of Poetry in it?

ALL:
Hail, Poetry, thou heav'n-born maid!
Thou gildest e'en the pirate's trade.
Hail, flowing fount of sentiment!
All hail, all hail, divine emollient!"

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While the personal computer has changed the way most of us live our lives, it's often mind-boggling to think of the impact computer technology has had on creative types. Back in August 1966, when The Doors recorded "Light My Fire," they were hoping for a hit song. I'm sure they had no concept of what might happen if someone hooked a laptop computer up to a pyro board that was, in effect, a two-dimensional Rubens' tube. In the following video clip, Sune Nielsen gives new meaning to the phrase "Come on, baby, light my fire!"

Similarly, when Thomas Edison invented the first commercially practical incandescent lightbulb in 1879, his mind would have reeled at the thought of digitally mapping projected light onto the interior of a 367-foot tall gas tank in Oberhausen, Germany to create an artistic experience like Gasometer Oberhausen.

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Among the 168 entries that were screened at the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival, several were devoted to artists using digital technology to create art with light. Max Hattler's A Very Large Increase in the Size, Amount, or Importance of Something Over a Very Short Period of Time may last only two minutes, but it leaves a lasting impression.

In describing his two-minute short entitled Cosmic Flower Unfolding, Ben Ridgway writes:

"One day while meditating I tried to visualize in my mind's eye how I might be able to animate a flower unfolding made up of glowing, pulsating shapes. When I did this I spontaneously saw a face made up of intricate glowing shapes that glowed like neon. The face was inhaling and exhaling at the same time and seemed to represent the exchange of energy and life that we experience through human existence. Every time I thought about making a film, this experience would come back to me, beckoning me to translate it into a moving image.

At the time, I had been studying the illustrations of Ernest Haeckel and was planning on doing an homage to his work at some point. The marriage of oceanic motifs inspired by Haeckel mixed with the flower idea excited me and became the driving inspiration for the film. Ernest Haeckel is famous for his incredibly intricate renditions of animals and sea creatures. Many of his images exhibit noticeable symmetry both through individual forms and overall composition. To me, he uncovered the divine in his work through masterfully transforming mundane life forms into idealized artistic interpretations of those forms."

It's worth checking out Ridgway's blog to see more of his designs. In the meantime, here's the trailer for Cosmic Flower Unfolding.

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Suppose someone gets the funding to create a huge piece of public art that enhances the environment, engenders civic pride, entertains millions of delighted viewers and provides a new scenic vista to a city whose economy thrives on tourism. Once the installation is complete, the initial publicity cycle has run its course, and approval ratings are sky high, if a cost analysis shows that it only requires $30 a night to pay for the electricity to keep it running, would the project's funders consider raising a few million more to keep the display going for years to come? You'd better believe it!

Although the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge opened to the public six months prior to the Golden Gate Bridge, it has always remained in the shadow of the Bay area's most famous tourist attraction. Designed to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the opening of the Bay Bridge, the idea for The Bay Lights project is credited to Ben Davis who, along with Leo Villareal had enjoyed numerous trips to Burning Man.

The immense -- and intense -- challenges facing Davis, Villareal, and Executive Producer Amy Critchett are the subject of a thrilling (and often breathtaking) documentary by Jeremy Ambers entitled Impossible Light. While the narrative includes enough statistics to choke a horse (60,000 zip ties, 500 feet tall, 25,000 individual white LED lights strung over 1.8 miles of bridge cable, $8 million raised through donations and private sources), the behind-the-scenes drama that rests on the foundation of Kevin T. Doyle's elegant musical score anchors a great story that climaxes with the debut of The Bay Lights on the rainy night of March 5, 2013.

While plenty of attention is focused on Villareal's installation, Impossible Light derives even greater depth and strength from three of the film's key elements:

  • Natural Beauty: The San Francisco Bay area is noted for its scenic splendor. However, frequent aerial footage of the visual interplay between the Bay, the fog, and two landmark bridges provides a rich sense of scope and spectacle.
  • Man-made Beauty: The ability to get inside the project by accompanying Caltrans workers and the creative team as they climb the cables of the Bay Bridge and navigate their way through the installation process provides some awe-inspiring footage of the bridge itself.
  • Digitized Beauty: Leo Villareal's ability to work with algorithms as a means of crafting a light sculpture offers an astounding display of how computer technology has become a powerful tool for working artists.

As a documentary film, Impossible Light captures what can happen when a rare combination of civic involvement, digital and civil engineering, artistic vision, and cinematography unite to help the private sector and a government agency join forces on a creative project. As the old saying goes, "That thing's a real piece of work!" Here's the trailer:

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape