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Singing up the tree of light

Keith Gallasch, Bruce Ramus, Light in Winter

Bruce Ramus, Light Hearts, Light in Winter Festival, 2011 Bruce Ramus, Light Hearts, Light in Winter Festival, 2011
photo Jason South
Canadian Bruce Ramus, a master of what he calls “integrated light art,” resides in Melbourne, his company’s base for the creation of large-scale public artworks. In 2011 he made Light Hearts for Federation Square’s The Light in Winter festival; he’s lit the Sydney Opera House for VIVID, illuminated Darling Harbour with Luminous, lit the Wintergarden facade in Brisbane and turned a sports park, AAMI, into a constantly morphing light sculpture.

Earlier in his career Ramus was responsible for the spectacular lighting designs for U2 and REM and their huge concert audiences. Today he is focused on the use of light to engender a sense of community in a different way, and sustainably so. I spoke with Ramus about the making of and the goals for a new, commissioned work for the 2013 Light in Winter, The Helix Tree.

You’ve had a long association with the relationship between light and music and of course the voice when you work with bands, but the brief for Light in Winter one looks pretty interesting in terms of its requiring a direct relationship between light and voice. Is it a relatively new thing for you?

We’ve been working on pieces that are interactive for about three years now. We installed a much larger one at Darling Harbour last year and that was very interactive, but not for voice, and the last piece we did in Fed Square, Light Hearts, had a very low-tech interactivity about it, encouraging children to make lanterns.

But we’ve been putting together a portfolio of ideas, software and code to enable us to make the most sense of these opportunities and make it mean something. It’s our way of trying to create spaces for community engagement with light.

How is this work specifically interactive?

It responds to two elements of voice, pitch and amplitude. The amplitude alters the brightness of the lights and the pitch changes the colour. The idea is that each evening at dusk a different choir comes to the piece and sings it to life. They will sing directly to it and make it change. The movement is pre-programmed but the actual volume of the voices allows the brightness and the movements to be revealed. The pitch changes the colour of the light as it’s moving.

Then, once the choir finishes, there’ll be a period of time when the public themselves can sing to it. After that it will go back to its own program and its own rhythm. That will be happening from 8.00 o’clock each evening until dawn the next day. Which gives the tree a chance to breathe at its own rhythm.

What kind of microphones and sensing devices are you using?

We’re experimenting with that now. I don’t know the specifics of the kind of microphone that we’re going to choose; that’s down to our sound designer. But it will be a centralised microphone. It’s not like a vocal microphone that you sing into. It’s directional, picking up the voice but it has a very narrow band of reception so it’s not picking up the wind and the traffic—just the voices that gather around it.

Your work is quite sculptural. How does this manifest in the Helix Tree?

I started to look at the helix as a shape and I was inspired by the way it depicts an infinite flow of energy; it just keeps twisting and turning in space. I also noticed that helixes don’t impose on other helixes in nature. They intertwine—they’re harmonious. You don’t find competing helixes. They co-exist and create this harmonious energy. You can see it in trees and in the DNA of all of us, in our ear canals. Because community engagement is such a huge mandate for Federation Square, I began to see how it might make sense as a shape for this project. I saw how it could symbolise healthy families and communities where you have individual strands of energy— people—and when they don’t impose on each other, there’s harmony.

And the idea for the tree itself?

I loved the notion of power without resistance, the adaptability and flexibility of a tree where it is in true harmony with its environment. It gets pushed and pulled and moved around by nature but it maintains its strength without resisting.

A very strong metaphor. What materials are you using to build the tree?

The tree itself is built from mild steel pipes made from largely recycled steel. The large helixes are 219 mm wide and the smaller ones are 169 mm. Each one of those is about 21 metres long, making the overall height of the tree about 13 metres.

Is it an abstract shape that evokes a tree?

Yes. There’s a trunk where all the helixes begin within about a metre and a half of each other. So it’s very compact down at the base, and by the time the branches are at their widest they’re about 17 metres apart. It’s abstracted but one can certainly get the reference that this is a tree.

What kind of lighting devices are you using?

It’s a type of neon, but not actual neon with gas—that’s a little bit impractical for such a short period of time. We’re using LED neon that looks very similar but is essentially an RGB LED encased in opal plastic. So there are four strands of that on the large helixes and one on the small. There are 21 of these 21-metre long helixes. The idea is that the tree feels luminous. It doesn’t have fixtures attached to it per se, so it will feel like the tree is emanating light.

Do you feel this work has extended your own practice in some ways?

It sure has! Doing sculptures of this size, starting from nothing and doing the engineering design and fabricating this amount of steel, it’s very complicated. Imagine you’re looking at three seven-metre long pipes that are 220mm wide. That’s a big pipe. We bend that pipe and then we cut the pipe into about five sections and then twist each section, say five degrees, and re-weld it. The next one gets twisted seven degrees and re-welded. The next one is twisted 10 degrees and re-welded. So you get a helix curve out of something that doesn’t look like it should curve. And then when we go to erect’s a mind-bender. And that’s only the tree, there are still the three ponds that it will stand in to build, and a very large viewing platform…all to give space for reflection.

It’s been a great learning process and a wonderful extension of my ability to see in three dimensions and to visualise. It’s too easy to grab the re-size tool on a CAD program and drag it till it says 13 metres. I’ve never tried to put so many very complicated curves into one very compact space.

So it’s turned into a major sculptural challenge?

Yes, it has. The site itself throws up challenges as well because, as you know, it is built over railway lines so there are significant weight-loading restrictions. The square is also covered by catenary wires that are about 14 metres tall, which make it difficult to get a crane in between all the wires…then there’s the high pedestrian traffic and the limited time…it’s not straightforward, but we love a challenge!

The great reward will be a sense of communality.

That’s the hope…that it will feel like a healing energy, some kind of communal harmony; that it brings some peace to the centre of a city—especially the one I live in. That’s a feeling that for me is rare. It’s not every day you get to put something like this in place. And we’re hoping that once it’s done it will be purchased for permanent installation.

The Light in Winter, director Robyn Archer, Federation Square, Melbourne, 1-30 June

RealTime issue #115 June-July 2013 pg. 21

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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