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Solar Equation junio 4, 2010

Posted by christian saucedo in Exhibitions.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer presenta en “Light in Winter” Festival Federation Square de Melbourne la instalación de arte público ECUACIÓN SOLAR, una enorme burbuja blanca de 14 m de diámetro que, suspendida a 20 m de la tierra, se transformará con una cubierta intangible provocada por la luz de nueve videopoyectores que la circundan con el propósito de simular en ella la forma e imagen del sol. Un sol que paradojicamente puede ser visible sólo por la oscuridad de la noche que cobija al continente  oceánico.


A public art installation for the “Light in Winter” Festival Federation Square, Melbourne 2010 by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer

Major Commission Launch

4 June, Main Square, 6.00 pm



An animated three-dimensional maquette of the Sun, visible at night, hovers over Federation Square, creating an uncanny and spectacular urban landmark. A white captive balloon or cold-air aerostat is tethered over Federation Square and projected on from nine surrounding projectors. The projections are generated by computers in real time by Navier-Stokes, reaction diffusion and other equations that simulate the turbulence, flares and sunspots that can be seen on the surface of the Sun. The live animation of the sphere is physically and astronomically correct and is not a repeating video loop, but rather a constantly-changing visual output generated by custom-made software for fluid dynamic visualization. The balloon will be 14 meters in diameter and will be 20 metres from the ground, tethered from the surrounding building roofs between the Australian Centre for the Moving Image and the Australian Racing Museum.

The piece is an illustration of perspective and scale using our most symbolic astral reference. The maquette is exactly 100 million times smaller than the real sun and yet in the context of Federation Square it looks enourmous. The maquette is 7.5 billion times closer to us than the real sun, giving viewers a glimpse of the majestic phenomena that are observable at its surface and that only relatively recent advances in astronomy have discovered.

While pertinent environmental questions of global warming, drought, or UV radiation might arise from the contemplation of this piece, Solar Equation intends to likewise evoke romantic environments of ephemerality, mystery and paradox, such as those from Blake or Goethe. Every culture has a unique set of solar mythologies and this project seeks to be a platform for both the expression of traditional symbolism and the emergence of new stories. Just like the installation depends on the world’s brightest projectors to exist, conceptually the piece is open for the public to make their own symbolic projection and interpretation.

Some might experience the work as a traditional son-et-lumiere spectacle, other as a didactic visualization of natural forces, while others as a call to action to harness the sustainability of solar power. Coincidentally, the sun’s generates its own energy by nuclear fusion of hydrogen nuclei into helium, the inert gas that is used to fly the maquette.



The proposed site for the installation is between the Australian Centre for the Moving Image and the Australian Racing Museum. The balloon would be tethered so that it is 20 meters above the ground, which is already a higher location from the vantage point of the lower side of the slanted square, the busy Swanston Street. The piece will be seen from trains arriving into Flinders Street station, from the Southbank across the river, and from downtown Melbourne.

The tethering will happen from the surrounding rooftops of all the buildings in Federation Square. The metal wires will hold the balloon in place with only a couple of metres of sway, mostly vertical. It is possible that for safety a few of the existing lighting catenaries may need to be temporarily removed to eliminate the possibility of entanglement but also to avoid blocking some of the projection. Tethering will be done with a proper engineering study that will consider the wind drag, which should withstand the record 90 kph gusts.


The design specification of the installation itself is to have the minimum visual impact and encumbrance at ground level during the day or night. People will be completely free to promenade in the square and all normal functions will not be affected (shopping, concerts, pedestrian traffic, etc). The projectors, control computers, air pumps and tethers will all be located far from the reach of potential vandals and will be designed to withstand all weather conditions.

The solar maquette will illuminate the square with 510,000 ANSI lumens of reflected projection. While this brightness is in itself a projection achievement only possible with the latest and most powerful projectors in the world, the size of the aerostat, the loss of brightness from tracking (explained below) and the urban environment’s existing light levels all contribute to making the piece a calm, pleasant sight, as opposed to an aggressive assault on the senses.

The sound component of the piece is a live channel of rumbles, crackles and bursts. The sound is generated by a computer and, like the visuals, is not a prerecorded loop but a software simulation of solar activity. The sounds come from very directional speakers and are heard faintly under the maquette, at a volume that is decided upon with the community and stakeholders.



Solar Equation uses a tethered aerostat custom-manufactured by Airstar Space Lighting, a french company whose balloons, airships and aerostats are available through a network of 120 distributors and 13 subsidiaries in more than 40 countries. While their typical large-scale balloons are tethered at 6 points, they will undertake a detailed feasibility study to design and engineer a specific solution for Solar Equation which will have all necessary civil engineer certifications and insurance. The final solution will likely involve having more tether points to reduce stress and placing winches on rooftops of the surrounding buildings. The guy wires will have different lengths to accomodate the irregular geometry of the square and be black and thin to be as inconspicuous as possible.

To give an idea of the existing technology, Airstar makes the 10m diameter Solarc 1000 48000W daylight balloon (this contains 12 HMI lamps to illuminate special events and which are not necessary for Solar Equation). The balloon requires 6 radial rigging points out of which 4 are 1,200 Kg winches and 2 are 1,000 Kg static rigging, like sandbags. In addition a “locker” central rigging point is used with 1,000 Kg pull. This fixture is routinely used for sports events, entertainment industry lighting and special events, and it is set-up and inflated in two days.

A priori the aerostat for Solar Equation will have a 1450 cubic metre volume, out of which around 600 cubic metres will be Helium (which needs to be topped-up daily through a small permanent hose, around 6% per day). The envelope of the aerostat will be waterproof and matte white to prepare it for projection.

Tracking system

The balloon will sway and bob a few metres, —this is one of the reasons balloons are not used as projection surfaces more often. However, Lozano- Hemmer’s engineering team at Antimodular will develop a 3D tracking system that will determine the position and orientation of the balloon 30 times a second; this information will then be fed into the media servers so that they can correct in real-time the misalignments created by the motion. The result will be a match between image and surface never before seen.

Graphics projection

The piece will use 5 high definition 1920×1080-pixel wide-angle 30,000 lumen projectors from Christie, Digital Projection or Barco. Four of these will be placed orthogonally along lines 2, 4, 6 and 8 in the diagram to the right at roof level. The fifth projector will be directly under the balloon in a custom- enclosure with a mirror. All projectors will overshoot the surface of the balloon to allow the 3D tracking software to compensate for motion. However, the overshoot will be digitally masked in real-time so that no animation is spilled onto the surrounding buildings. The 5 projectors will be connected to media servers which will be synchronized using a wireless network and provide a seamless 3D image using openGL deformations and alpha blending.

Robotic slide projection

The project will also use 4 powerful 7kW pigi or PANI large format projectors, likely placed along lines 1, 3, 5 and 7 at roof level. These projectors will add an animated texture to the balloon, colour it and give it layered depth. These projectors have robotic slide scrollers, which populated by duratrans film printed on a Lambda, can produce a large number of non-repetitive texture effects on the balloon. The four projectors will be controlled by a computer via RS485 and this in turn will be controlled by DMX or MIDI by the main Solar Equation computer controller.


The entire imagery will be generated by well-known equations that simulate fluid dynamic behaviour, such as Navier-stokes and reaction-diffusion. As these equations are quite processor-intensive very powerful computers will be clustered to generate the animations in real-time.


A live software will analyze the visuals generated by the mathematics and provide a changing soundtrack made out of synthesized and sampled rumbles, fire crackles, wind, flares, vents and bursts. The treble sound will be bounced off the balloon and into the ground, the bass will come from one subwoofer placed beside the ground projector. Except for opening night when the volume may be louder temporarily to have more public impact, the rest of the time the sound component is designed to be quiet and almost imperceptible, so that other square functions can proceed without interference.



As an artist with a degree in science, Lozano-Hemmer wants to recontextualize the majesty and unpredictability of natural phenomena. The concept of feedback in the theory of cybernetics, first postulated at the Mexican Institute of Cardiology by Norbert Weiner, opened the door to a new set of recursive algorithms to describe self-regulation. Complexity theory, fractals, chaos, genetic algorithms, cellular automata and non-linear dynamics in general represent entirely fresh approaches to understand nature in its indeterminate state. This revolution in contemporary mathematics can have enormous implications to the visual arts, perhaps akin to the importance that euclidean space had for Brunelleschi’s linear perspective. Today kinetic sculptures may not need to be preprogramed according to a particular repeatable animatronic score (like for example a Paul McCarthy installation) nor do they depend on randomness (like a Calder mobile); instead the new mathematics allow for emergent behaviours to arise, given particular initial conditions, constraints and perturbations. Artists that use these techniques (Knowbotic Research, Christa Sommerer, Ulrike Gabriel, Golan Levin, for example) generate ever-changing environments that can seem life-like.

In Lozano-Hemmer’s opinion the sun’s turbulent surface, as seen from a variety of contemporary solar observatories (NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory in particular, launched 1995), is the defining image of our time: a stellar nuclear fusion that synthesizes most elements of our universe, —as demonstrated in a seminal paper published in 1957 by Margaret Burbidge. Clearly every civilization has a sophisticated set of solar mythologies, from the Yolngu “Walu” or Sun-woman, to the Aztec sun-god “Huitzilopochtli”. A large number of structures and artworks react to the sun, marking solstices or equinoxes: megaliths in Egypt and Stonehenge, the prehistoric human-built mount of Newgrange in Ireland, and the pyramid of El Castillo at Chichén Itzá in Mexico. Representations of the sun itself are numerous, even within a single historical category such as hermeticism.

Contemporary visual artists that have worked with solar imagery, perhaps most notably Olafur Eliasson’s beautiful installation at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, owe much to the pioneers of “sky art”, in particular Otto Piene, who in a 1961 article in ZERO, wrote “Why is there no art in space, why do we have no exhibitions in the sky? … Up to now we have left it up to war to light up the sky …”. His inflatable works, light sculptures, fire and smoke pictures are an inspiration to anyone seeking to work with space and the intersection of nature and performance.

Contemporary visual artists working with flotation and flight, such as Tomás Saraceno, Takashi Murakami, Kazuhiko Hachiya, Peter Coffin and Usman Haque to name a few, likewise build on the work of 70s pioneers like Ant Farm, Mark Fisher and José María Yturralde. Perhaps Nietzsche was best in describing the inspiration of flight beyond the spiritual flight described in most religions: “He who one day teaches man to fly will have shifted all landmarks. To him will all the landmarks themselves fly into the air. The earth will be christened anew as a light body.”

One final practice that inspires this work is Sky Writing, invented in 1922 by Captain Cyril Turner of the Royal Air Force in England. Many artists have used pilots to draw in the sky, notably a large-scale experiment “En el cielo” commissioned by Trans>projects for Venice in 2001 and with designs by Valie EXPORT, Paul McCarthy, Gabriel Orozco, Jeff Wall and others. Recently Bruce Nauman used skywriting over Pasadena, leaving the message “Leave the land alone”.

Within Lozano-Hemmer’s own practice questions of scale and perspective have been addressed frequently, in particular his embrace of technologies of amplification to create alternate, temporary, “alien” readings of urban spaces. His Relational Architecture series of public art projects have often used powerful searchlights (Vectorial Elevation, Pulse Front, Voz Alta), the brightest projected imagery (Displaced Emperors, 1000 Platitudes, Make-out) and huge shadow plays (Re:Positioning Fear, Body Movies, Frequency and Volume) to create platforms for participation. He has extensively used non-linear algorithms to create complex emergent behaviours, like in his kinetic sculpture Synaptic Caguamas which uses cellular automata to create unpredictable but not-random robotic motion, or his interactive chandelier “Pulse Spiral” inspired by Vladimir Shukov’s distribution of surfaces in three dimensions.



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