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portrait Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, photo Ana Cristina Enrique; installation shot People on People, Rafael Lozano Hemmer 2010, Recorders Manchester Galllery UK, photo Peter Mallet portrait Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, photo Ana Cristina Enrique; installation shot People on People, Rafael Lozano Hemmer 2010, Recorders Manchester Galllery UK, photo Peter Mallet

Can you begin by describing the new work?

Sure. Solar Equation is a 100,000,000: 1 scale maquette of the sun. We have floated a tethered aerostat—a static balloon—filled with helium and cold air over the Federation Square plaza. And what we’re doing is projecting, from five projectors, live mathematical simulations of the behaviour of the surface of the sun.

Since 1995, a new space observatory called SOHO has been sending imagery of the different types of solar flares and turbulence and dark spots—the actual weather patterns that can be seen at the sun. (The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory is an international collaboration between ESA and NASA; http://sohowww.nascom.nasa.go.) Another new observatory called SDO (Solar Dynamics Observatory, is now receiving imagery of the solar surface which almost matches the resolution of the earth’s surface that you can get with Google Earth. I think that the availability of all that imagery asks us to think about the sun in a different way. It used to be depicted in a very iconic way, and a symbolic way, and a mythical way. Today we’re beginning to see it more as a representation of non-linear processes. Solar Equation is a way to faithfully represent those phenomena in a scale that is more urban. Most importantly, it’s not a video that loops around, it’s actually imagery taken by SOHO and SDO overlaid with equations, which simulate those behaviours on the surface. It is mathematics playing back complex systems that will never be repeated.

Where did the idea for aerostat come from? And what are some of the practical issues about projecting the images onto that moving surface?

One of the issues with Federation Square is that it’s already a very complex space. It’s very much spoken for, every single surface is already expressing. It’s very baroque. So you either need to be strategic and do something very elegant and well placed, or something that’s going to speak to the scale of the square. And the only place I thought I could do that was the sky, because every other surface was already really predetermined. So early on I decided that it should be a piece for the sky. And I have never worked with inflatables, so I thought that would be an interesting direction to go in.

You like a challenge!

Yeah! When I first went around and I asked different companies to build this for us, literally all of them said that it’s impossible to do, because Melbourne has 90 kilometre per hour winds in a worst case scenario. So no company would agree to engineer something like that until we found Airstar ( And they were up for the challenge. So we custom-manufactured the balloon, which is 14 metres in diameter, four metres bigger than any similar balloon made previously. Most balloons are elliptical or pear shaped. This one is very spherical, and that’s actually quite a difficult thing to do in terms of engineering. But in terms of the effect, we want people to just not think about the engineering. They should just come in and see a sun floating about 18 metres off the ground, and it’s working!

In terms of the graphics, one of the main reasons why people don’t project onto balloons very successfully is because they bob and sway. In our system, we have a capability to track the balloon in three dimensions, so that as it bobs and sways, our graphics actually compensate for that.

Solar Equation by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer for The Light in Winter, Federation Square Solar Equation by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer for The Light in Winter, Federation Square
courtesy Federation Square
So the dynamic adjustment is part of the process of rendering on the fly?

That’s right. It’s just trying to have a perfect overlap between virtual and real. And that really matters to me, because what I’m trying to do with my work is to emphasise how virtual the material is and how material the virtual is. Having that exact registration is what allows people to have that moment of suspension of disbelief.

How do you get a seamless overlay of five projectors on a spherical surface?

The computing is being done by six media servers, which are interconnected but independent. So each of the media servers is actually rendering the segment of the balloon connected to a projector. The blending is happening through normal techniques, like alpha-blending and so on. So rather than a situation where you’re doing computer graphics or video, and you need to shift an enormous amount of data, to move from one projector to the next, here what we’re doing is we’re sending numbers from one computer to the next. So that as a particular singularity in the equation moves, it’s not the actual graphics that are being transmitted but the meta-qualities that prescribe that movement. This is how we managed to succeed with it. This is not a graphical environment, it’s a mathematical environment.

So you’re not so much making an image numerical, you’re visualising changes in number sequences?

That’s exactly right. The total piece that you’re seeing is the sum of individual sets of equations. For instance, some of the equations that we’re using are reaction diffusions, so you have these initial conditions which then generate a larger environment. And the initial conditions for each of the media servers are actually independent. So you don’t have to think of it in terms of the entire thing. You have to think of it in terms of the local effects of each of the equations. We have three layers of equations making the simulation and, in a way, the complexity helps make this possible.

What inspired the work?

As an artist who works a lot with light, I’m fascinated by the fact that pretty much every single culture has a sophisticated relationship with the sun. I think that, as an artist, it’s a way to represent the majesty of the source of all the forces that create life. Also, there’s a darker side to it. As Goethe said, the brighter the light, the darker the shadow. There’s a sense of real uncanny terror that I hope this piece will evoke. It’s not going to simply be a very pretty picture, there’s something really demonic and brutal, there’s a sheer force and violence associated with these explosions that I hope comes through the piece. I’m not sure if I’ll succeed with that, we’ll see in a few days.

But I like it that this light comes out of enormous destruction, and that destruction is also creation because of the creation of matter. So many of the very important narratives of art in general can be played off the sun. Personally, what I’m most attracted to about the sun is understanding the maths. The maths for me is a really interesting thing, because most of the ways in which these maths get played back are disembodied. To be able to present them in an urban embodiment really matters to me.

You once said “Today we can and should make dynamic mathematics our media.” Is that what’s going on here?

Absolutely. I agreed to this, I didn’t coin it. One could say that there was a fundamental shift in visual art with the introduction of perspective, with the kind of mathematical overlay into the pictorial plane introduced by Brunelleschi and others, changing the way visual art was experienced, altering its role in society, and so on. Today we’re seeing something similar. I think that non-linear dynamics, chaos, fractals, emergence, A-life—all of these different approaches, which are finally mature enough that you’re being able to generate these environments—I think that they genuinely contribute to a new understanding of art. And there’s a certain sense of it contributing to the aesthetics of post-humanism. It’s humbling, as an author, to let your work go out of control. In fact, if you can control it, you’re kind of failing! It’s not random, and it’s not pre-programmed, it’s something that is a collaboration with the maths. So the system has things to say, and we are just now beginning to be able to listen, and to present what those maths are producing in an attractive way.

What’s it going to be like for an audience?

It’s going to be disappointing to those who are expecting a cathartic spectacle. Often with a big urban piece, one thinks of a fireworks display, of a son et lumiere show, and with these there are very well established, associated narratives of catharsis. I think that the people who will enjoy it more are the ones who, all of a sudden on a Tuesday night, you know, find themselves in Fed Square after seeing a movie or something. They’re just walking by and they sit back and watch the math unfold. I’ve often said, and this piece is really a good example, that these works are closer to water fountains than to shows. There’s no beginning, there’s no end; it’s just a constant stream of imagery.

There is an interactive element to the project, though I’m not underlining it too much. We’re developing a piece of software which allows people using an iPod or an iPhone or an iPad to actually preview the equations and change some of the variables. For instance, there’s one moment where you can actually use the multi-touch surface of the device to pass your fingers over it, and you literally see all of the turbulence of the surface of the sun react to that touch. So it’s a little moment of intimacy, where you get the sense of agency in relationship to it. But I’m not promoting it too much because, unlike other interactive pieces of mine where it’s all about people self-representing, this is more just like an extension of the project.

In the future, I think this project’s going to continue, we’re going to take it to other cities, and as we get more time we’re going to add some more equations like Navier-Stokes and fractal flames. So it’s going to be like a platform for math, and I’m hoping that mathematicians will come to us and say ‘hey, have you tried this kind of approach?’, because we’re all interested in growing the platform.

This is the kind of work that could equally sit in an art institution but also a science museum.

Yeah, and that’s really good. If people call it art, that’s great. If they see it as sort of a didactic piece, that’s great too. I’m really happy to learn how people will see it; I have no idea actually. There’s already a lot of Twitter images, with people imagining what it’s going to be. I’m excited about what they’ll end up saying.

For more information about The Light in Winter and the work of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer visit: and

The Light in Winter, Federation Square, Melbourne, June 4-July 4

RealTime issue #97 June-July 2010 pg. 23

© Scott McQuire; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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