Animating theMart with Video Art
Art on theMart—soon to be the largest permanent projection to date.
One summer night a couple of years ago, a gigantic shark made of light swam across the Empire State Building. A mantis climbed up the building; a tiger stared down at the rapt crowd. The images of these animals and others were part of a live video projection event meant to draw attention to endangered species, a collaboration between the Oceanic Preservation Society and creative studio Obscura Digital. This temporary spectacle in New York became the inspiration for the possibility of something more permanent in Chicago.
The Vornado Realty Trust began to explore the possibility of video art on theMart—Chicago’s historic Merchandise Mart—with its nearly three-acre façade facing the Chicago River. They contacted Obscura to develop a feasibility study for projecting art on theMart, not just for a one-night event, but to create a permanent installation that could host a changing array of artists.
When Obscura first presented conceptual plans to Vornado, however, it was immediately clear that this would not be an easy task. To date, creating a permanent projection of this size has never been done before, which made solving the many challenges trickier. A series of operational and site-related complications meant that everything would have to operate with the precision of a Swiss watch. Having served as the Architect of Record for theMart for years, we were soon brought on to help make this endeavor a reality.
How hard can it be to set up a few projectors? Well, a typical conference room projector emits about seven lumens of light. Each of the projectors for theMart is the size of a suitcase, emits 30,000 lumens, and can project images measuring an estimated 80 feet by 80 feet.
Obscura has developed advanced mapping techniques so they can control where light is projected and where it is omitted. Early on in the project, Obscura digitally mapped theMart’s entire façade so that the projectors can be programmed to shine light only on the building, not into the windows.
A projector was flown in from Obscura’s San Francisco headquarters and mounted on top of a U-Haul truck on upper Wacker Drive for testing. The team calculated that in order to cover the entire south façade of theMart, 34 projectors would need to be installed in a safe place that was completely free of obstructions. The projectors will overlap their images enough so that if one projector malfunctions, it won’t be noticeable.
The next challenge was how to store such heavy and complex equipment. Adjacent to Wacker Drive, we designed an enclosure to fit into a small nook above the Chicago Riverwalk, nestling into an existing limestone balustrade, across the river from theMart. With minimal space to work with, the design team had to be extremely precise and make every inch count. The enclosure’s first floor holds the servers and other associated equipment. On the second floor, the 32 projectors will be stacked on moveable steel frames, leaving just enough space for maintenance personnel to get inside a few times a year.
Instead of adding large refrigeration units to regulate temperature, we attached the projectors to individual ducts that blow air out of the space. Since the room won’t be occupied, and projectors don’t overheat and shut down the way computers do, the ambient operating temperatures on that floor can safely reach 90 degrees without failing. For the enclosure’s glazed front, the team tested various types of glass with low iron, to ensure that it wouldn’t affect the color of the artwork. By using insulated double layers, we could prevent condensation from forming on the glass. The steel structure is thick enough to support the projectors, each of which weighs 300 pounds, and also eliminate any potential for vibration. We clad the enclosure in zinc, which will develop a patina over time, transforming from a silvery color to a nickel gray.
Since nothing like this has ever been built, the team had to run through every scenario where things could go wrong. That meant holding meetings with various city departments as well as the Coast Guard, to make sure that imagery wouldn’t distract drivers or affect boats navigating the Chicago River.
Vornado has struck a 30-year-long agreement with the city of Chicago to allow the projections, which will begin after dusk and feature a curated, regularly changing series of installations. “Art on theMart,” as it had been dubbed, will be dedicated only to digital art, both static and moving imagery, with no branding, sponsorship credits, or messaging of any kind. The first projections are scheduled for fall 2018.
It’s been exciting to collaborate with Obscura on this project—we always love working with really creative people and being exposed to new things. And because of the intensity and size of these projections, they give us an opportunity to communicate with the public on a whole new level, creating buildings that aren’t static objects, but have the power to bring people excitement or put them in a contemplative mood. We’re looking forward to exploring this new potential. In the future, who knows what images may end up swimming across a building near you?