LUTS - Living Under The Stars

This is an essay that I wrote for an assessment task for media arts. The assesment was supposed to be writing about the materiality of an artwork on Cockatoo Island for the 18th Sydney Biennale, but instead I wrote it on the materiality of LUTS - The planetarium I was working on with Keg de Sousa. This is the essay turned into a blog post so you can click on things :)

What exactly is LUTS? Well, it is a planetarium. A mini, Buckminster Fuller inspired, inflatable planetarium. If you have seen Keg’s (Schm/G)Igloo, then you have a basic idea of the shape. An inflatable dome that from the outside is around 3 or 4 meters tall and 7 or 8 meters across. There is a small entrance way on the side of the dome that you can crawl through. Opposite the entrance (on the outside of the dome) is a small fan attached to a tube connected to the planetarium, constantly pumping air into the walls of the dome. The dome is a double skinned, so when you are inside it is similar to a jumping castle, rather that being inside a big balloon. When you are inside the dome, hundreds of twinkling stars meet you, placed all throughout the inner dome. They lightly twinkle all around you, then after a while they all fade to black and different constellations all across the ‘sky’ light up one by one. After a few constellations light up, all the stars go back to their regular twinkling.

Thinking about the different ‘objects’ used in LUTS is an interesting experience both as an audience member and also someone who work on it and has had quite a bit of behind the scenes time with the work. The work has two main parts to it, the LED stars, and the dome itself.

The dome is made out of a black plastic material that Keg described to me as “similar to the material that they make sails out of’. The material is quite light, but doesn’t let any air through. It is flexible enough to fold the whole planetarium into a box, but once air is being pumped into it, it can hold itself up. The design of the dome is probably more important than the material that was used. A hemisphere broken into 12 sections (longitude lines). The sections are sewn together and air is allowed to pass from one section to another. To get into the planetarium, you have to squeeze through a small hole in one of the sections. The entrance was is a certain height and of a certain size that lets people know that they can go inside, and the slight glow from the lights draws people in too.

 

The location of the entrance is also important, if it were placed on the floor (seen to the left), the dome would struggle to maintain its shape and would probably collapse. The right picture shows the position of the entry.

The lights were the part of the project that I worked on the most. Most of my time during the project actually involved me soldering the LED’s prongs to wires that went down the inside of the planetarium that were going to be connected to Arduino chips (small computers) to control the flashing of the lights. The first wire we were using was some craft wire that Keg had brought back from a recent trip to America. Rolls of red and blue wires were quickly soldered together and ended up creating a massive tangled dread lock of wires. Keg’s original plan was to group all the wires together and make them go down together in one thick tube down one of the 12 seams. Keg was worried about the weight of the wires pulling on the dome might be too heavy. A problem we encountered early on was forgetting to mark which blue positive wire went with which red negative wire.  We spent an afternoon following the 3m+ stretch of wire from LED down to its end point, trying to untangle and match the positive and negative wires together.  A few trips to Jaycar later and Keg had a new, lightweight wire that was used for telephones. This wire came as two wires connected to each other (for positive and negative) which sold both the problem of the heavy wires and sorting through the matching wires. These lightweight wires now flow directly from the LED down the inside of the planetarium to the base, where they make their way to one of 3 Arduino computers.

This was a really interesting experience as it was one of the first times that I had really thought about exactly what was going on behind the scenes of an artwork. The wires are just as much a part of the work as the dome itself, without them there would be no lights. But the audience does’t see or think about the wires. The choice of wire that was used played a key part in the artwork. It is really interesting how this is an aspect of the work that is hidden (as are the computers that drive the lights).

 

There were 2 different types of LEDs used for the planetarium, ones with large bulbs that focused the light, and slightly smaller dimmer LEDs that spread the light at a wider angle. All of the LEDs were white, but some of them varied in temperature, so there are some that are a more yellow hue, some with a cooler blue hue.

The LEDs were programed to twinkle and fade between 7 different shades of brightness. When we inflated the planetarium and turned on the lights, something odd happened. The lights would twinkle normally, but when they were supposed to go completely off, some would stay just the tiniest bit lit, no lighter than a glow in the dark toy. But they weren’t completely off. This wasn’t something programmed in. The computer was sending the message to the light to turn off, but somehow a small amount of power was still going through and it managed to make them glow ever so slightly. Rather than worrying or try to fix this ‘bug’, Keg decided to embrace the seemingly innate ability of the LEDs to represent far away stars.  The final effect is amazing. Bright constellations flow across the sky, while tiny stars glow in the distance.

The bulbs of the LEDs are visible, while the prongs and wires are hidden behind the material as mentioned above. The LEDs are held in place by poking the prongs through the material and letting the material of the dome hold them in place (see the diagram to the left). The materiality of the dome allowed the led prongs to be pushed through, but was strong enough to hold the weight of the LED and the weight of the wires attached. Fun fact: over one kilometer of wire in inside the planetarium.

 

The first time we inflated the dome , uploaded the ‘twinkle’ code to the Arduinos and turned on the lights was an amazing moment. The lights all flicked on and started twinkling. “Wow” I said. “Yay!” said Keg. It was beautiful. Twinkling lights were all that could be seen. The dome is covered in them. It is large enough to stand in, but small enough to take up your entire view. All your vision is taken up by the black material and (more importantly) the twinkling stars. Keg called Lucas [Abela] in to have a look. “Beautiful, well done Keg!” he said as he leaned over to give her a kiss. “Rory and Danae helped too!” said Keg. Lucas leaned over and gave me a peck on the cheek. “Danae can get hers next time”. When Danae came over later that night, Lucas continued with his celebratory kissing spree.

It is hard to comment on the audience reaction to LUTS for two reasons:

  1. Everyone that I saw look at it was involved in making it
  2. It hasn’t been publicly shown! (Opens in Brisbane on the 24th of August) [At the time that I wrote this, It hadn't opened. You can see it now!! More info here.]

But from my own experience I know that it is a totally surrounding experience. You are not looking at a painting or a picture on a wall, you are inside the art.

Once it was working I spent a long time just sitting in it, watching the stars and the constellations move. It is really beautiful, peaceful and very reminiscent of looking at the real stars in the night sky. The only other person who has seen the work was Dodo the Husky. He didn’t seem to be amazed as the rest of us.

 

 

Working with Keg on the planetarium was a wonderful experience that I learned a lot from. Coming from a computer science back ground, everything I have generated has been digital. Everything has had a file format attached to part of it (are file formats a digital medium?). Seeing Keg’s process drawings revealed to me how much thought and effort needs to go into creating something for the physical world. Working out if the black material and air pressure could support the weight of all the wires, what was the best way to position the wires so they were invisible to the audience? Where should the entrance be placed? Size and location were also key in creating and perfecting the audience’s experience. All the materials used served a purposes, and the nuances of the materials provided something that couldn’t be generated if other materials were used.