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A Synesthetic Timeline Monitors The Ebb And Flow At Frankfurt Airport

Artist James Clar creates a timeline that responds to sound to track the activity within Frankfurt Airport.

by Nathan Reese
10 July 2013, 8:15pm

While James Clar's light-based installations are almost always constructed with cutting-edge technology, his works often serve to represent deceptively simple concepts. In the past, Clar has used LEDs to capture human brainwaves during sleep (One minute dreamstate (1.40 am)), recreate natural beauty with 3D-printed orchids (Orchid), and bottle lightning with fluorescent tubes (Lightning Strikes (reduction)). His newest work, commissioned by airport management firm Fraport, is based on visualizing yet another natural phenomenon: sound. 

Three meters wide and twenty-six meters high, Synesthetic Timeline (above) translates the ambient noise of Fraport's headquarters within Frankfurt International Airport with a massive array of LEDs, microphones, computers, and cables, arranged in a crisscrossing latticework around a central elevator shaft. The project was commissioned both to decorate the company's new lobby, as well as to reinvigorate Fraport's art collection, which now includes pieces by Doug Aitken, Marc Quinn, Tobias Rehberger, and Darren Almond

In order to build the piece, Clar began designing the structure in his Brooklyn warehouse workshop. The idea was to have ambient noise from the room present itself in real time. As seconds pass, the digital representation of the noise works its way up the structure until it reaches the top, or as Clar puts it, "You can look at it and see, was it louder a couple of minutes ago? Is it quiet now? Or did a plane just pass by?"

We caught up with Clar to discuss the creation of the project, the inherent hiccups that come with language barriers, and the trans-global nature of the internet. Along the way, Clar also offered insight into two of his recent smaller-scale pieces. 

Synesthetic Timeline

The Creators Project: A lot of your work has visual representations of things that are intangible—dreams for instance, or in this case, sound. What do you find appealing about that dynamic? 
James Clar: A lot of the stuff is just information based, and I think that also has to do with the fact that I use technology. It goes hand in hand with thinking about information—processing information and data. A lot of times, it's taking one sort of data set and then visualizing it. You know, early on I went to NYU film school for animation. When I moved on to graduate school, I started getting more into interactive work. What I was doing there was seeing one data set and then using it to visually animate another data set. So instead of creating a linear animation I was inputting sound or video tracking and using that information to create the animation. 

Have you ever met a person who has real-life synesthesia? What drew you to the concept? 
No, I hadn't talked to anyone personally about it. But in the past I've definitely been interested in that idea of synesthesia, or even some sort of altered state where your senses are heightened. I think in some ways that's what the installation is going for or alluding to. 

Were there any challenges that arose when you were designing and constructing Synesthetic Timeline that you didn't anticipate? 
Ah, yeah... [laughs]. There was a lot of coordination going on... I'm here based in Brooklyn and the contractors are all in Germany, so there were a lot of communication issues, just because of the language. And then because the fabrication was being done here, it was hard for them to see what the fabrication was going to look like until we were actually on site. And even when we were on site, again, there were a lot of communication issues. We were talking on a really technical level, but their English isn't so good and I don't speak German. It was funny. A lot of times when we were there on site, I would use Google Translate. I would talk into my phone to try and describe what I needed them to do and then replay it off of the phone and they would understand what I was trying to say. There was this delayed reaction. 

Funny. That's weirdly similar to what your piece is doing with sound. How accurate was the translation? 
It wasn't too accurate, but they kind of understood in general what needed to be done. But technically, it's kind of difficult because it's 26 meters high, so even when we're angling [the segments] at a 90 degree angle, it was difficult because we were drilling into concrete. There's always leeway into how those holes are going to be drilled in. We constantly had to track every segment of how those holes were going into the wall and re-check to make sure they hadn't shifted over. 

Did you run into any issues trying to capture the audio? 
We had to do a lot of calibration. The lobby is very big. Glass ceilings. The sound echoes around a lot. When the planes fly over its very loud, and when there's nobody in the lobby it can be very quiet. We had to play around a lot with audio settingw to make sure it had a happy medium between the two. Fraport is a huge company and we had a lot of liability issues. We had to make sure that all the audio we were sampling wasn't being recorded for legal reasons. So they had to have me explain how the system works, which is basically just reading the voltage levels of the microphones. But I had to reassure them that nothing was being recorded—that nobody could go into the computer system later and pull those recordings. 

Is Anyone There?

Another recent piece of yours, Is Anyone There?, dealt with another sense, sight, but in a much different way. 
You know, when working in the arts, you're always trying to break down what you do in order to understand and contextualize [your art]. A lot of times in media arts, you're doing something technical, but there has to be some sort of understanding of what it conceptually means. I think the 'Media Arts' run the spectrum from more visual-ended works that are further into design, to more conceptually based works, which, I think, is where I am. The work I do is technical, but it's not hardcore engineering. I'm trying to push more toward conceptual meaning and how technology affects us. 

For that work, Is Anyone There?, it's almost like how you would send smoke signals into the air. It's a light switch and I'm just recreating it virtually, through light. The light switch, in itself, within the physical world that we live in, turns on your visual reality. So I'm recreating this tool for turning on reality and then creating a virtual version of it with a PICO projector. And then with that I'm switching it on and off so you can see it pop into our reality, but also as a means of communication, which is my name with morse code. I think as an artist that's what you're trying to do. Even if you work in painting, you're trying to bring that aesthetic way of viewing from your head into the real world. 

Folded Flag

Your piece, Folded Flag, used light on a grid to create the process of folding an American flag. How does that fit into recreating something in a virtual world? 
I graduated over ten years ago, and that's when I started doing light work. Within the last work I've definitely moved from design and pure aesthetic to more conceptual. Along that path, you start to analyze the role of technology in society and how, with globalism, our own perception of nationality and culture is being altered. As we live more and more on the internet things become trans-global. People nowadays see borders as this porous thing. It's weird that there's a physical boundary to our country even though our information can be traveling around that world. A lot of the stuff I've been doing deals with identities and how our relationships are strained and abstracted with the advancement of technology and rise of globalism. So I'm trying to figure out how to relate and visualize that using light and sculpture.

interactive art
Sound Art
Airport Art
James Clar