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Jim Campbell's 'Scattered Light', a Colossal Sculpture of Luminous Pixels

jim campbell
"Most of these works -- if you pause them -- you can't tell what you're looking at," says artist Jim Campbell, as his newest installation flickers in the background. 'Scattered Light' is a 50-foot-long array on an 80-foot wide, 16-foot-high and 16-foot-deep structure supporting over 1,600 lightbulbs fitted with LEDs, which are programmed to display a low-resolution, moving image as individual pixels. Campbell has been playing with low resolution for several years now, experimenting with perception and the amount of information required to make an image recognizable in the human mind.

We had a chance to meet with Campbell at Madison Square Park in Manhattan, where three of his works recently opened to public view. 'Scattered Light' is the pièce de résistance, gently undulating in light from the center of the park. In our video interview after the break, we had a chance to walk inside the installation (which park patrons will not be able to do) as Campbell explained his concept, the execution and the tech behind this marvelous, three-dimensional field of light.

Using footage shot at Grand Central Station, 'Scattered Light' displays shadowy, edgeless figures walking through space. "I believe from what I've seen and the little bit that I've read that there are parts of our brain that only deal with movement, only deal with motion, and they kind of decode that," Campbell says. He asked himself, "What can I represent in really low resolution that has any kind of poetics to it?" and decided that moving figures are recognized by "a more primal part of the brain" that relates to peripheral vision. Up close, the image displayed on 'Scattered Light' looks like nothing more than a series of oscillating bulbs, but the image comes into focus as the viewer moves further back.

A self-acknowledged "nerd," Campbell graduated from M.I.T. with degrees in electrical engineering and mathematics. He spent 20 years working as a Silicon Valley engineer, designing television chips that would convert "what's now called 'legacy' TV definition to high definition." He was intrigued by Leon Harmon's pixelated image of Abraham Lincoln in 1973 (which Salvador Dalí used as the basis for his 'Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea'), and thought about applying the same principles of low resolution to moving images. "The most interesting aspect of these works is the movement," he says. "It's the movement that's giving you the information."

For 'Scattered Light', Campbell's studio sawed the tops off of 1,800 lightbulbs and replaced the coils with LEDs in a process that took weeks. "What is the symbol of inefficiency right now?" Campbell asks, pointing to one of his modified bulbs. The LEDs allow the array to run at a fraction of the power that standard tungsten lightbulbs would draw, running off of half a circuit. He designed all of the electronics himself -- comprised of two panels on either structure holding a controller chip and a one-gigabyte memory chip for the image -- and said he feels lucky "compared to a lot of electronic artists, because I'm an engineer and can do the nerd side, too." Each of the bulbs receives the information from the control panel serially, as dozens of microcontrollers at the top of the structure feed down the data.
scattered light
Two other works in the exhibition deal with the line between representation and abstraction. 'Broken Window' is a façade of glass cubes, behind which a series of LEDs that display footage of pedestrians walking through the city as cabs and cars drive past. Seven cubes scattered around the main panel act as pixels that have fallen out of the main display, giving abstract glimpses of the visual information coming through the façade.

'Voices in the Subway Station', on the other side of the park, features 20 glass panels embedded in the lawn. Each lights up in synchrony with audio recorded inside the New York City subway system; they flicker in accordance with people's conversations, sometimes turning into a running stream of light as a train passes. No sound is played with the piece -- it synaesthetically represents the voices as light, which Campbell calls "informationally minimal." Although Campbell says he's unsure if he wants to keep working in the Z-dimension, as it were, of 'Scattered Light,' he's even more intrigued by 'Voices' and the possibility of representing information as minimally as possible.

'Scattered Light' is on view at Madison Square Park from now until February 2011.

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