Home » Please Touch the Art: Jen Lewin at TEDxMileHigh (Full Transcript)

Please Touch the Art: Jen Lewin at TEDxMileHigh (Full Transcript)


I thought I would start at the beginning, or at least at my beginning I grew up in Maui, in up-country Ko’olau. This is a view of a place that was pretty close to my house. I could be found here running around barefoot, climbing trees; I was a tomboy. I was also trained as a classical ballerina. My mom was a dancer. But most of the time, I was basically daydreaming and looking out over this expansive view of moving lights and moving clouds.

In third grade, in 1983, my public school took on a program called Logo, and the implementation of Logo in schools was the brainchild of Hal Abelson. It was this great program where, as a kid, you could learn to program to draw. You would program and move this small cursor, or turtle, around a screen, and draw pictures. For me, this was profound. I could use a computer to make art; I could program to make art.

Later in my life, I studied a lot of different things. I studied architecture, I studied form, I studied dance, I studied music, I studied film. But I also studied mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science, and I rather stubbornly insisted on doing all of these things always at the same time. This is an example of some of my early work. What you’re looking at is an up-close view of a form that I created.

I painted this; it’s painted silk; I wove electronics through it. I created my own circuit boards, and I created a giant, robotic butterfly that you could dance with. You could walk up to each of the wings, and they would move away from you at the same rate you move towards them, and you’d have this wonderful experience with this huge robotic creature. I learned very quickly that light is really, really important. You can use light to bring people into a piece, and you can take them from being not just a viewer, but a participant, and maybe even an actor.

This is a piece that I also built a few years after the butterfly, and you’re looking at some giant robotic moths. In this piece, there’s an orb that you touch. If you touch it, it senses capacitance and starts to strobe, and then it wirelessly talks to the moth up in the air, and sets it into flight. Now, obviously, it’s not a coincidence in this piece that I’m using light, and this is a sculpture about moths. But for me, there was something really beautiful and ethereal about this, and I loved that I really could bring people to the piece.

The piece only happened if you were there, and if you were part of it. This is a piece that also explores some similar ideas. You’re looking at hundreds of old vintage glass bulbs. I’ve embedded LED lights in the bulbs and created a huge chandelier you can dance in front of. When you move back and forth, you see yourself in this ethereal shadow.

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If you’re not dancing in front of it, you can actually sit underneath it and watch this cloudscape that goes by, not too dissimilar to some of the cloudscapes I watched as a child in Hawaii. I thought if I can make a piece that can bring one person in, what about making a piece than could bring ten people in? How about 30 people? How about 100 people? I started making laser harps 20 years ago, and there are other people that make laser harps, but I’m probably the only person in the world that makes giant laser harps Giant laser harps with the intent of really activating people in this experience together. This is an example of one of my early laser harps that was actually created as a grant for Burning Man, and we’ll listen a little bit to what a harp sounds like. This is a harp that went to Korea in 2008.

(Laser harp sounds)

By moving your hand through each of the 60 light beams, you mix different sounds. For example, each beam can trigger up to 12 different sounds based on how you’re moving. Slow movements create rhythmic pulses and whispering echoes. Fast movements create sharp notes and more jagged sounds. (Laser harp sounds) A person passing through the long harp will often initially be surprised by its sound.

This surprise leads them to turn back and then play on their own for a bit. This activity draws others and soon a large group forms. (Laser harp sounds) We’re making a lot of harps this year. We actually just opened a really amazing harp in Palo Alto. It’s part of a program, a park, called the Magic Bridge.

This park is probably the most accessible park in the world right now. This is a harp that works day and night. It’s permanent, and it’s really a sculpture that’s about bringing people together. If you look at this video, you’ll see people dancing in it, people moving through it, and having this wonderful, collaborative, fabulous experience together. (Video) Carmen Contreras: I think it’s pretty cool. It made me want to dance, I mean, you know.

So this is public art, but it’s public art that a baby, a toddler, grandma and grandpa, a hipster, everyone can actually participate in together, and this picture really tells that story. Here’s this young girl, and this whole crowd standing around her, watching, and they’re all having this experience in this laser harp together.

It’s also art that can really transform a public space. This a permanent piece in Vail, Colarado; some of you may have seen it. I built this in collaboration with an extremely talented artist, Lawrence Argent, and this is the piece the video sped up, but this is a giant sculpture that changes color and really changes the entire plaza, it turns red, it turns purple, and completely dynamically changes the public experience there. My most prolific work, however, is a project called, “The Pool,” and this is a zoomed-in picture of The Pool in a museum. The Pool is a sculpture that consists of hundreds of platforms you stand on, and when you stand on one, it lights up, and then you can move in different directions and create light ripples, and basically, play in this huge pool of light.

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This is a video we just shot a couple of days ago in West Palm Beach. The Pool is there. It just opened at Bonnaroo. This piece travels worldwide. I have a team, and most of what we do is we manage this sculpture and take it to as many places as we possibly can.

It’s a complicated sculpture, but you don’t really see the complexity when you play in it. There are hundreds and hundreds of computers, each one of the pucks has a computer in it. There’s no computer that talks to the whole system. They all talk to each other like a giant mesh network. Almost like a lot of organisms.

There’s over 40,000 LEDs in it. A lot of complexity, but really the point of it is when it goes in to a public space, you step on these platforms, you enter into this pool of light, and you have this really wonderful experience. What I love about this video is that it really captures that, because what you see is the light on people’s faces. You them taking pictures of themselves, you see them laughing, playing with their friends, and you see them connecting. This is in a park that would be a lovely park, but now there’s this incredible, dynamic, wonderful community experience.

We’ll watch a little bit of it. We often say, “Have sculpture, will travel,” and we really, really mean that. These are the crates that ship one of our small versions of The Pool. We have another version that’s twice as many crates. We’re really good at building crates and we take projects all over the world. Some of our projects are temporary.

I think temporary art’s really interesting because you can go into a place that might not be set up for permanent work, and you can change it and put a giant sculpture in. The Pool installs in a few hours. We can install in anything, any kind of landscape. Goes out even quicker. And it can survive just about anything.

Trust me, we know this. This is me standing on it under snow. It’s been in environments that are extremely cold, extremely hot, it’s skateboarded on, it’s been tagged, it was actually driven over by a car once. We really learned and worked hard to build work like this that can really be interacted with, and really be in the public space. This is my team, part of my team.

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Here we’re looking a little more serious; we’re in a museum. This is what we can sometimes look like as well. And we’ve been all over the world. This work has just traveled all over the world, but in doing so, not only are we taking these pieces into these communities and having this great experience, but we get to communicate, we get to connect with the communities. In fact, I met my fiancé- he volunteered to work on The Pool.

He built this amazing tablet application so you could draw in real time on mobile. His name’s Bill Magnuson. It was an incredible experience, and together we’re reaching out to other developers to create more things, and to really look at how we can make this more connected and more interactive. Because for me, it’s actually still not enough just to have this giant sculpture go into a park, and have hundreds of people play on it, and touch it, and interact with it. I want us to be able to reach out and actually touch the code as well.

What if the sculpture could be purposely hackable? What if schools could play with it and actually change the code on it? What if the software developers could play with it? What if a kid like me, when I was in third grade, could program in a piece of public art, in a park, and be turned on by art and science? I’m going to leave with two slides from a project that I think really brings all of this together. These are two Carl’s Junior stars, and I found them in a thrift store while I was camping with my two boys, and I took them, I cleaned them up, put LEDs in them, put them on arms so you could rotate them, you could face them in so they were talking to each other, or face them out.

And this is what happened. What I love about this moment is these two women have gone up and they’re touching the art, which is what I want them to do, they’re touching it and playing with it. But the most important thing about this picture is less they’re touching the art – that’s great – but they’re reaching out and touching each other, and they’re having this incredible experience in the artwork together.

So, whether it’s dancing with my moths, touching a giant robotic butterfly, maybe composing music in a huge laser harp with your friends, diving in and playing in a huge pool of light, or hacking a piece of art that’s actually in your park, as we say at my studio, “Please touch the art.” Thank you.