The Rise of Integrated New Media Installations: What It Means When Public Art & Architecture Go Digital

150 Media Stream - Courtesy of 150 N Riverside No new building in Chicago was as highly anticipated in recent times as the engineering marvel that is 150 N. Riverside Plaza. The 54-story glass office tower--noted for its sharply angled structure and almost unbelievably narrow footprint at the base--has been the object of both praise and derision since it and its winding, zen garden-esque plaza became publicly accessible last month. Receiving nearly as much attention as the building’s architecture itself is the wall-sized new media installation (NMI) that the building management refers to as 150 Media Stream, “an international platform and public arts program designed to showcase curated media artworks by world-renowned and emerging artists.” An exceedingly vague, if ambitious, description of what amounts to being a series of narrow vertical LED television screens installed along the lobby’s western wall. 150 MS  is, in fact, the largest new media installation of its kind in Chicago, and one of the first to be integrated in a building’s initial plan. There has been a significant uptick in the past two years of NMI’s being proposed--and in some cases executed--in both public and private settings throughout the city. The degree of impact this new movement will have on Chicago’s arts-architectural community, seems to lay, to a considerable extent, in the motivation for installing these works in lieu of more traditional public art. Emily Webster's untitled NMI at 1 N Dearborn - Courtesy of the artist's website In the instance of Emily Webster’s untitled commission embedded in the facade of 1 N. Dearborn Street, with its churning gridded light patterns, the impetus seems to have been an attempt at “updating” the structure at the street level. Given the building’s existing architectural pedigree--it was designed and built in 1905 by renowned Chicago School architecture firm Holabird & Roche--the addition of an NMI to a historic structure of this nature reads more like architectural vandalism than public art. Apart from architectural concerns, there is also the matter of atmosphere. I’ll confess a certain personal bias against this installation on these grounds: I have, for the past several years, made frequent use of the CTA bus stop just in front of 1 N. Dearborn, typically when heading back home to the far north side quite late at night. It was once easy to look sidelong down the intersection of Dearborn & Madison, and be returned to, in the darkness and dim sodium glow of the streetlights, the gritty, unrelenting place this city used to be; to witness--if only for an instant--say, Ben Hecht’s Chicago, and in that instant truly believe that the soul of this city has never really changed. Now, there is only the pulsating shriek of bright digital light--day and night--a non-stop assault to the senses that not only lacks subtlety, but lends the intersection all the ambience of a grocery store dairy aisle. Wabash Lights Rendering - courtesy of The Wabash Lights This type of manipulation of atmosphere seems to the the outright aim in the case of some new media installations. No team behind an NMI has been clearer about its desire to be responsible for the erasure of urban grit quite like The Wabash Lights. For those unfamiliar, the project is intended to consist of some 600 LED light tubes adhered to the underside of the Wabash Avenue el tracks, which may eventually be controlled by pedestrians via an app. According to a press release issued by the group, the project aims include creating “a safer, better-lit downtown,” “beautification of the ‘L’ tracks,” and ultimately “raising the profile of Wabash Avenue and the Loop.” These seem to be rather lofty goals, and are not necessarily in touch with the reality of the space. The measurable impact the project has will remain to be seen, however: to date, only 2% of the project has been installed. This constitutes a non-interactive “beta test,” the fruits of a $60,000 crowdfunding campaign. There does not appear to be a projected date of completion for the full installation at this time. Merchandise Mart rendering via 2014 ‘Lighting Framework Plan’ presentation - courtesy of Choose Chicago Perhaps the most dramatic NMI that promises to debut in Chicago in the near future is, surprisingly, not one that is physically integrated into the architecture or infrastructure of its site. Rather, it is a plan released by New York based architecture firm A+I and their creative partner Obscura Digital that aims to drown the 25-story facade of the Merchandise Mart in large-scale projections starting in 2018. This was determined after a preliminary study conducted by Choose Chicago back in 2014, referred to as the “Lighting Framework Plan (LFP) initiative.”  Beyond the Merchandise Mart, the study also looks at means of “creatively illuminating” other waterfront locales including bridges throughout the Loop, the Civic Opera House, and (of all places) Lower Wacker Drive. At the time these plans were released the Chicago Tribune reported that these initiatives would be funded privately, a notion that raises concerns about whether the NMI might eventually become less of a venue for public art, and more of a billboard. It would appear, then, that the rise in new media installations won’t be slowing down anytime soon, at least not in Chicago. Nevertheless, with their eagerness for new technologies, their faux-populist promises of interactivity and increased safety, and their flashy, ephemeral content aimed towards those with an attention span developed in the digital age, it’s hard to believe that NMI’s will ever claim a place in public art history alongside the great installations, murals, and sculptures. They do not invite the quiet contemplation of Miro’s Chicago, they are not in conversation with their adjacent architecture, the way the Picasso responds to the Civic Center (and vc/vsa), they never draw us in with the lure of respite from the city streets, the way Lippold’s Radiant I draws us into the pristine silence of the Inland Steel building. Quite the opposite, in fact. New media installations simply add to the visual white noise of the urban landscape. It seems that they will not--and by their very nature, that they cannot--endure.
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Bianca Bova

Bianca Bova is a Chicago-based curator. She has worked with national and international contemporary arts organizations including Gunder Exhibitions, SiTE:LAB, the Chicago Architecture Foundation, The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and EXPO Chicago.