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Light In Winter

Issue 74 Aug/Sep 2013

Melbourne’s own response to the waning daylight hours was to take on the dark with Light in Winter, a series of illuminated events, hosted by the city’s Federation Square cultural centre.


When lighting designers Electrolight were invited to create a concept for Melbourne’s seventh Light in Winter festival, they turned to the city’s streets for inspiration, specifically, the graffiti-emblazoned backstreets and laneways that form an essential part of Melbourne’s creative character.
Once seen as a sign of social disintegration, graffiti art is now firmly embraced by the cultural mainstream as a powerful form of grassroots political and artistic expression and, with ‘community voices’ a major central theme of this year’s festival, Electrolight saw an opportunity to translate this street-level talent into a series of projected light works.
In underground circles, Melbourne has established a reputation as a world capital for stencil art, a fact that formed the starting point for Electrolight’s Yo Gobo concept. The team put out an online call for circular stencil designs that could be converted into custom gobos and so be used to ‘spray’ light onto the walls of Federation Square.
Just three weeks after launching the concept, the team had received entries from all over the world - from France, the UK, Germany and the US, as well as across Australia. From the 50 submissions, a selection were used to adorn the Fed Square façades over four nights around the Winter Solstice.
“This has been one of our all time best community events in terms of public engagement and international participation,” says Electrolight director Paul Beale. “The feedback has been terrific. We have received several calls to make it an annual event and being as photogenic as it was, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter were alive with images of the work.”
Kate Brennan, CEO of Fed Square, concurs. “It was great working with our friends at Electrolight again,” she says. “Yo Gobo took us back to the essence of light work and light play. It was fantastic to see the quality local and international response to the call for gobo designs and the public response was really favourable with many people asking for the works to be displayed longer.”


In addition to one-off events, the organising team at Federation Square wanted to include a focal point for the Light in Winter festival, a centrepiece that would act not only as the event’s visual signature but also key into their ongoing commitment to community engagement. Artistic director Robin Archer approached Ramus Illumination and embarked on a collaborative process, playing with the idea of ‘voice and power’ and what that meant within different communities. They began exploring the Helix shape and how it could be used as a large scale, interactive installation.
“I liked the way the individual strands of energy never imposed on one another but always remained in harmony,” says the lighting design practice’s principal, Bruce Ramus. “That connected to my image of a healthy community, and when we shaped them into a tree, a symbol of power without resistance, the piece began to resonate with Robins’ vision for the festival.”
The final piece stood 13m high with a 17m span. Each of its 21 steel branches were illuminated by a strand of LED neon which light up in response to the volume and pitch of the human voice.
Each night local community choirs would perform beneath the tree, causing it to swirl with colours that were in turn caught by the three reflective pools around its base.
The audio-to-light process made use of several software components, primarily Max from Cycling 74, a visual programming environment more often used by artists for procedural generation of both audio and vision. The Ramus studio wrote several other pieces of software to work with Max for both the creation of particle systems as well as translation from Max’s internal format to the DMX standard used by the RGB LEDs.
The core process for translation of pitch to lights was based on studies into synaesthesia and the way the brain can associate specific colours with certain musical pitches. Much work went into the selection of an appropriate colour palette to marry up with the twelve notes of the chromatic scale. These colours formed the basis for a variety of effects that added motion and life to the tree.
“The Helix tree became a gathering space for people, much like around a campfire,” notes Ramus. “What was truly beautiful was the gentle feeling it created of a playful, non-imposing space in the heart of a busy city.”


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