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Patterns of the Wind

How do you make something that’s invisible visible? If you have walked through the Modern Wing’s Griffin Court lately you may have noticed an installation called Shade by London-based Dutch designer Simon Heijdens, which illustrates this idea. The piece, which is visible both from Griffin Court and inside the second floor galleries, translates the speed and direction of the wind outside the museum into a play of light in the space inside. (A rendering is above, but you can view a video of it from inside the gallery here and another video with a view from outside the exhibition here.) Heijdens describes Shade as “a responsive skin to the windows… that translates the ever-changing natural timeline of the outdoor to the static and perpetual indoor space.” Although a building’s internal environment can change with the outdoor light and climatic conditions (especially in mostly glass buildings like the Renzo Piano-designed Modern Wing), this installation makes subtle outdoor changes more apparent to those inside.

To understand how this complex artwork was installed in the museum, I spoke to Kevin Lint, Executive Director of Telecommunications & Network Services, who explained more about how the piece works. Shade is made from a new material developed by Heijdens that uses liquid crystal technology. A film made from this material is divided into triangle-shaped cells, embedded with electrical wiring, and applied to the window. Then an electric current is passed through the cells, changing them from opaque to transparent and back again based on information from a sensor that measures current wind patterns. The wind sensor is located on the roof of the Ferguson building (the museum’s administrative wing), and it sends data recorded outside to a laptop in the gallery through the Art Institute’s wireless network. The laptop is located out of view on a hidden shelf in the gallery, and runs a custom application created by the artist that interprets and reconfigures the data and sends signals to the individual panels on the window. The wiring embedded in the film carries electricity that can then energize individual panels, making them opaque. The result is an ever-changing array of flickering shapes projected onto the floor, walls, and ceiling of the gallery. There is only a very short delay, so the piece basically reflects real-time information coming from outside. The installation of this piece involved many staff members in the museum including the departments of architecture and design, museum technology, information services, and physical plant.

Museum visitors I’ve spoken to have been fascinated by the piece, which Heijdens was inspired to make based on Chicago’s reputation as the “windy city.” Many are mesmerized by the patterns of light even if they’re not sure what is causing them. People have told me that it reminds them of triangular pieces of a quilt, or the movement of waves across a beach, or pixels on a computer screen. One high school student told me that he could almost hear the song “Colors of the Wind” from the Disney movie Pocahontas as he looked at it. Another visitor wondered what the installation might have looked like during the recent blizzard, with winds gusting up to 60 miles per hour. (Kevin says that it wouldn’t have been moving at all because the sensor was likely covered by snow).

Click here to read more about the Hyperlinks exhibition (on view until July 20) and to find out more about Simon Heijdens and his work, visit his website. I especially like the images of two of his previous installations, Tree of 2005 and Lightweeds of 2006, which—like Shade—consist of moving and changing light projections on buildings. What I find inspiring about Heijden’s installation in the Modern Wing is that it draws people into the museum, activating the space both inside and outside the galleries and generating conversation, while also connecting the art inside to the natural environment beyond.