University of Guelph Lighting up Toronto with Tech-driven Art Installation

A forest of clustered light poles, with bright orbs that slowly change colours, will soon light up one of Toronto’s darker neighbourhoods.

The installation, called Nyctophilia, involves retrofitting standard streetlights with new LED systems, which change colour at such a rate that each day brings a new shade.

“For every day of the week that goes by, this surreal gathering of public infrastructure is creating a different colour and tone and sensibility on this particular locale,” says Christian Giroux, a professor at the University of Guelph.

This is one of Giroux’s latest side projects with his artistic collaborator Daniel Young, who is based in Berlin. The project, chosen by the City of Toronto through an open competition, is slated to be installed on Weston Road in the Mt. Dennis neighbourhood next month.

We can expect to see more of this type of art installation, thanks to a new partnership between Christie Digital’s Hyphen division and the University of Guelph.

“We used a 3D scanner and the water jet cutter to enable us to retrofit some standard street lights with contemporary LEDs,” Giroux says, explaining how Hyphen equipment helped in his side project, which he and Young undertook before the partnership with U of G.

The partnership is a tremendous service to the community and the university, said Giroux, adding, “We’re very thankful to Mark Barfoot and to Hyphen for the collaborative spirit.”

The spirit of creative collaboration seems to run through the veins of Christie, especially as it relates to art, and why this is important for a tech company (more in last week’s View from the ‘Loo).

But where’s the connection between Hyphen’s services—rapid prototyping, 3D printing and product testing—and art installations like the one Giroux is completing in May? Hyphen’s managing director, Mark Barfoot, makes the link.

“Artistry is a good [application], because it’s usually a one-off, so you’re not going to go make an injection mold for just one,” Barfoot says, “so 3D printing is perfect for it.”

Aside from the obvious benefits for people producing small numbers of parts, the technology opens up a whole toolbox of options for artists like Giroux.

“It expands the range of what’s possible,” Giroux says, to “transform [real-world objects] in ways that might make people think about form, or think about technology, a little bit differently.”

However, art, like other components of culture, has a way repeating itself.

“Working with rapid prototyping and industrial materials…has been a part of modern art from the very beginning of the 20th century,” Giroux says. “In some ways, as innovative as it might seem, it is part of longer history.”

Artists have a reputation for adapting the technology of the day as a medium for new styles. Just like the introduction of paint tubes in the 19th century, it gave painters freedom.

“In small part, it gave us impressionism, like Monet; their ability to work outside was very much influenced by the technology of the day,” Giroux says.

Fast-forward to now, and the application is more than just a portrait on the wall.

For Giroux, it means large, public artworks that “are often mounted in a big public building, or public streets, or other locations in the city, and in these instances they need to perform up to real-world standards for longevity,” he says.

The transfer of knowledge isn’t a one-way street. Similar to the partnership between Hyphen and the University of Waterloo, the Guelph arrangement means students and faculty have access to Hyphen’s 3D printing, rapid prototyping and testing facilities.

What’s unique is that the partnership is not solely for the engineering students, but will also include applications within the arts, agriculture, veterinary and health care faculties. Hyphen benefits from having access to the University’s Digital Haptic Lab, the design and prototyping facility led by Giroux.

“Instead of modelling with CAD geometry like you normally would, they have devices that let you hand-carve parts,” Barfoot says.

The device gives a more tactile feel over the traditional mouse.

“Pretend you’re carving a pumpkin. You would actually feel when you went into the pumpkin, or come out of the pumpkin,” he says, adding, “you would be able to trace your hand around the actual pumpkin.”

Just like technology opens up new media for artists like Giroux, artistry opens up new applications for the tech industry. And the fit between innovation and creating a masterpiece is seamless.

“Artists often work with technologies that have been outmoded, or cast aside, or after they have become cheap and readily available,” Giroux says. “In this instance, we are trying to work with industry-standard technology, so that we can be part of what is happening with them as they come into being.”

This article was originally published on Communitech’s blog.