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Aboreal Lightning, The Roundhouse, Camden, London, UK

Issue 81 October / November 2014 : Architectural : Installation

Lighting Design: ATMOS

Architect Alex Haw has created a groundbreaking interactive lighting installation housed in the Roundhouse in London for Imogen Heap’s Reverb music and technology festival.

Arboreal Lightning is a large-scale interactive lighting installation by atmos that transforms sound and gesture into an immersive, fluctuating, luminous environment - specifically designed for the Camden Roundhouse, one of the top live venues in London. Its activity is generated by both amateurs and professionals - artist performers and a wider audience - creating a performative stage beacon that activates programmed performances, and also serves as an interactive public installation outside concert times.

The project was commissioned by both the Roundhouse venue and Grammy Award-winning, singer-songwriter Imogen Heap as the centrepiece for the Camden Roundhouse’s Reverb 2014 Festival of Contemporary Classical Music. The installation has grown to be the resident centrepiece for the Roundhouse’s August 2014 Summer Sessions and is set to go with Heap on her year-long world tour, which started on the last night of the Roundhouse Festival.

The project mirrors the Roundhouse’s clock-like plan of 24 columns by bundling 24 strands of LED light into a giant heavy-rooted trunk that grows from the stage to arc over the colonnade and arches above. The strands soar upwards and weave through columns and rafters to follow the building’s dramatic structure, seeking hidden recesses and unexplored corners, before exploding outwards above both the performers and audience.

Some branches yearn upwards, towards the light of the lantern; a few strands bow down to reach and mingle with the audience, who can then trigger their own luminous ripples and join in the spatial symphony. This light canopy of visual music creates a unifying lattice that embraces the people beneath it within a giant, pulsating, Gaian network - umbilical cords connecting people to building, sound to light.

1,500 metres of LED string (iColor Flex MX gen2 by Philips Color Kinetics) have been meticulously tamed to shadow the contours of the building’s giant skeleton - yet each of the 4,800-pixel nodes glimmer individually in response to life. They coalesce to form a sinuous elastic mesh of sculptural video; a fluid, spatial cinema, worming through the building.

Architainment Lighting was called upon by atmos to supply a flexible, adaptable and lightweight solution. The strands boast flexible threads of high intensity, full colour LED nodes specifically designed for extraordinary effects and expansive installations without the constraints of fixture size, shape or space. Each iColor Flex MX gen2 strand consists of 50 individually addressable LED nodes, featuring dynamic integration of power, communication and control.  The flexible form factor accommodates two and three-dimensional configurations, while high light output affords superior long-distance viewing for video displays.

Architainment supplied a total of 96 lengths with 12” spacing and an sPDS-480ca 7.5V Philips Color Kinetics power and data supply. The sPDS-480ca 7.5V delivers 480 watts of output via sixteen 30-watt ports and automatically accommodates input voltages ranging from 100 VAC to 240 VAC.

Arboreal Lightning unleashes the hidden power of a place - and people. It explores inaccessible spaces and ineffable sensations - the physical manifestation of music, and the convergence of sensations. In an age of emancipated connectivity and collaboration, it seeks to reinvent and re-imagine the relationship between performer and audience, sound and light.


Talking to… Alex Haw

Where did the inspiration for this project come from?

Human Nature. Our tussle with being organic, yet kings of artifice. Our own vulnerable fleshy wetness, yet our fiercely intellectual cerebrum. Basically, Imogen Heap and my mutual love and admiration for so many things both human and natural.

Can you describe your creative process?

Think; draw; discard; redraw, redraw, redraw, redraw, redraw, redraw, redraw, redraw, redraw; present; redraw, redraw, redraw, redraw, redraw, redraw, redraw, redraw, redraw; make.
What were your expectations of the project, how did you hope the audience would perceive the installation?

We were worried about time, but excited by the team and moment and venue. We weren’t sure how various things would behave, not how we would even build it or hang it, nor how responsive the LED product would be at the potentially-­laggy end of 100s of metres of Ethernet and XLR cable. We hoped the audience would lose their inhibitions, let down their guard and just sink into it like an old sofa, enwrapped by light; and I think they did.

Did the reaction meet your expectations?

Partially (I have elevated expectations). An incredible and hugely unexpected number of people were ecstatically effusive and wildly enthusiastic, while some occasional figures were (perhaps surprisingly silent). I loved getting a hug from the roundhouse’s head of music -­ and loved seeing him whoop up the tree -­ and loved the kind words I got from Imogen Heap, our commissioning muse, once we’d opened.

Do you work with light regularly? What are your thoughts to working with light?

As architects, we always work with light in some way, though often in a more modest fashion and almost never as interactively. If you look through our portfolio, you’ll find a range of slightly older works that were all solidly interactive, or at least responsive. It all began with my solo exhibition at the architectural association -­ lighthive -­ where I wired up 160 rooms of the entire university with sensors that fed a large-­scale model of the school, flickering in response to movement. It caused a stir and brought us into contact with art commissioners, through whom we developed several large-­scale interactive or data-­fed projects. We won the commission to illuminate the Cutty Sark station with lighting that responded to passenger movement, which sadly never happened. The art commissioning market seemed to crash and die just as we were starting out, so we haven’t done much since apart from a few installations using camera vision and projection. We’d dearly love to do more lighting installations, but just don’t get asked. It’s not overall more challenging; though the risks of technical failure are probably much higher, so are the rewards - everyone loves a good bit of lighting, which is still as close to magic as we get in everyday life.

What prep work was done to ensure the production ran smoothly?

As much as possible. testing and testing. Putting as many good people onto each detail and area as possible and having backup plans!
What was the biggest challenged faced with the project?
Lack of time and money. We got news of the arts council grant at the end of June and had to be installed by mid august. With 4,800 individually woven LED nodes and 3 kilometres of lighting we didn’t know much about til then.
Did the final installation change much from the original brief/concept? What were the reasons for this?

Its shape bent to accommodate the restrictions of the existing building and was forced to find new routes due to the late emergence of the fact that some parts were simply inaccessible. We trimmed the original 8km of lighting way back due to lack of budget (we had hoped to find a sponsor who’d pay for more LED). We moved away from coils of tubular enclosure towards a track-based system because of the product we’d specified. We moved away from the original plan for CNC-milling plywood substrates because of fire rating and fragility and away from milling plastic because of cost. We made all inputs sonic for simplicity, and to poetically make audience and performer equal in their weaponry.

What was the most rewarding element to the project?

The gasps and tears of joyfulness.

How would you categorise your own design style?

Complex, meaningful sensuality.

Any parting words, warnings or advice to all the individuals wanting to undertake an interactive lighting installation?

Get as much time as you can. Work with brilliant people. Get everyone on board, inspired towards a common goal. Simplify wherever possible and focus your firepower.



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