Refractive Index is a visual media essay and compositional about the environmental and ecological impacts of large scale media.
Site-specific software creates a digital camera obscura, and in a series of late night screenings a programmed sequence of flashes, strobes and streaks, emit bursts of light and colour across the hue spectrum of large scale public displays. Outward facing CCTV cameras, part of each screen’s infrastructure, captures images throughout. Programmed algorithms examine the footage for slippages and incongruities of the screen-camera feedback system.
Every pixel we light up, in turn illuminates the environment surrounding it. The light energies that impact city and lived spaces, highlights the ways that media infrastructures effect nonhuman and human movement and behaviour in these spaces, as well as their luminous and aesthetic interactions with quotidian environments. Refractive Index inverts lines of synoptic-panoptic vision, showing us what our screens "see" when they peer out the night sky. The screens 'speak' with their own machine voices, in the language of technological, digital light.
The work is shown as a collection of research media (photographs, site-specific films, interactive software, printed renders, screen-based video and projection), and has featured test-patterns screened overnight 9 cities in the UK as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad leadup to the 2012 London Olympics.
Refractive Index was presented as part of Future Everything 2012 in Manchester, and as solo-exhibition at PH. Gallery, Newcastle, UK. The project was initiated through a commissioned by BBC Big Screens and the Olympic Cultural Foundation, UK.
Dynamic, visual digital moving imagery increasingly blankets our public space and architecture. Their history can be traced to the late 19th C adaptation of magic lanterns to project “advertisements and election results on public buildings” (Huhtamo 2001). We still think of this media, these dynamic rectangles-of-light, as vehicles for transmitting messages — as ways of telling stories, delivering messaging, engaging people in linear or interactive content-rich experiences. At their best, these are valuable, creative and communicative platforms, and occasions for communities to meet and celebrate.
The physicality, energetics, or thermodynamics, of these non-trivial systems is seldom discussed. Notable and inspiring exceptions include Blake Gordon's 2009 Cloud Projection project about uplightingfrom buildings casting light into overhead clouds, and Terraswarm's 2007 Color Shift project which took over a single large scale display in Brooklyn, bathing the burrough in coloured light. What is curiously elided from the critical picture of public digital screens is their massive architectural, ecological and infrastructural presence — the Olympic Big Screens used are at least 25 square metres in light-area, and necessitate a nearby server and control room the screens have significant, critical architectural impact.
Where once there was shadow, glaring reflections appear, interrupting movement and traffic patterns, exposing once hidden places. Cladding, materials and paints turn into multicolored surfaces, glowing, reflecting and flickering with the energy of outdoor screens, their potency multiplied into the 3-dimensions around them. Turning 180 degrees from these screens, we see that the architectures of a city are continuously reshaped and remolded by the presence of media, in direct and immediate way. As important as the content on the screen, these are the effects of the screen on content of the city, architecture, space, human and nonhuman beings.
Refractive Index was created with the grateful support of the wonderul Tom Schofield and David Gauthier, exhibited and supported by the Future Everything festival, Ph Space Gallery in Newcaslte, 2012 Cultural Olympiad in the UK, the BBC Big Screens engineers and programme, Culture Lab Newcastle University.