Art goes interactive: 14 stunning digital exhibitions

Digital artworks are engaging viewers like never before: Check out colossal works of light that use bridges or buildings as canvases, a social media-inspired avatar that follows you around, a robot that paints your sleep patterns and many more.

video of The Bay Lights

Worth 10,000 words

Since the earliest cave paintings, art has been a transforming experience for both the artist and the viewer. With the ability to make the artwork change over time or respond to viewers, today's digital art installations can make the experience even more personal and thought provoking.

They can also go big... really big. Leo Villareal's The Bay Lights, launched last week and due to shine for two years, uses 25,000 individually programmable LEDs mounted to the 300 vertical cables of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge to form moving, glittering patterns that sweep across the span for several hours each night.

This colossal light sculpture is only the latest of many projects using computer-controlled images, light or sound to wow the world. Here's a sampling.

video of In Order to Control

Word play

Adventurous art viewers can step inside an interplay between language and ethical beliefs with Nota Bene's In Order to Control. Participants walk among images of phrases projected on the floor while typographical silhouettes of their bodies are projected onto the back wall.

The words that make up an avatar emphasize the slipperiness of morality and ethics with phrases like "Everything that's fair is not always legal" and "Everything that's legal is not always fair."

Behind the scenes, the Nota Bene uses a Microsoft Xbox 360 Kinect, a pair of MacBook Pro computers and two projectors to create the effect.

QR code exhibition at 2012 Architecture Biennale
De Zeen

Art that scans

Scanning a QR code may be a great way to quickly get info into your smartphone or tablet, but is it art? Designer Sergei Tchoban thinks so.

His exhibition at Venice's 2012 Architecture Biennale covers the Russian Pavilion with oversized QR codes. Visitors pick up tablets on the way in and point them at the lighted codes on the walls, floors and ceilings to call up information about Skolkovo, the high-tech city that's being built outside Moscow.

Part art, part publicity stunt, the codes bring up maps of the planned city, project details and even the weather -- but their lighting and placement in the pavilion's 1913 architecture makes them strangely beautiful in their own right.

Sounding Dome Sauna
Jan-Erik Andersson

Art that makes you sweat

Looking like a giant yellow clove of garlic, the Sounding Dome Sauna at the Kupittaa Park pool in Turku, Finland, is a feast for many senses.

Designed by Jan-Erik Andersson with sound by Shawn Decker, the sauna measures the temperature and humidity inside, but doesn't show the results with traditional gauges. Instead, a computer mixes several dozen audio files on the fly to reflect the sauna's current conditions.

Inside the sauna, the sounds are quiet and relaxing. Outside, they're anything but. When people inside pour water on the heater, causing a surge in humidity, the garlic clove's top delivers a sudden burst of sounds including engines, bubbling teapots and foghorns to passersby.

video of Peg Mirror

Mirror image

Daniel Rozin's mechanical mirrors are a sight, literally. Rather than making reflections with shiny flat surfaces, his projects combine electronics with mechanical devices to suggest crude versions of the viewer's image and movements using non-reflective materials.

His Peg Mirror, shown here, twists and rotates 650 angle-cut wooden cylinders to create shadows that form the overall image. Another of his works, Circles Mirror, has 900 overlapping patterned circles that compose the images by selectively rotating. Each work is controlled by a video camera, a computer and hundreds of powered actuators for moving the individual parts.

Over the past 14 years, Rozin has made numerous pieces that form images with everything from rusty steel tiles to ball bearings to bits of trash.

robot painting

To sleep, perchance to paint

Last fall, Ibis hotels in Berlin, London and Paris hosted a unique interactive art event that gave new meaning to the phrase "beauty sleep."

Participants in the Sleep Art project entered the land of Nod on a mattress embedded with 80 sensors that measured the sleeper's temperature, sound and movements. Using a series of advanced algorithms, a computer translated every snore or change of sleep position into brush strokes for a small robotic arm to paint on a black canvas.

The in-hotel Sleep Art event is over, but you can download an iPhone app and create your own mini-Sleep Art at home.

video of Cell installation

Tag, you're it

A hit at the 2011 Alpha-Ville Art Festival, Keiichi Matsuda and James Alliban's Cell installation provides social commentary on the cyberspace personas we construct and become enmeshed in. Using Microsoft Xbox 360 Kinect hardware and open-source software, Cell detects whenever anyone enters the room and assigns each person a random identity and avatar.

Keyword tags culled from online profiles are initially projected in a cloud on the wall but soon begin to attach themselves to your avatar. The tags range from "golf buddies" to "cynical" to "love kids" to "hipster," and the longer you stay, the more tags you accumulate, to the point where the only representation of you is your tags.

Shakespeare Machine

Words, words words

Ben Rubin's Shakespeare Machine in the lobby of New York City's recently renovated Public Theater may look like a ceiling fan, but it's really a mashup of the Bard's plays.

The work's 37 four-foot-long rotating vanes match the number of plays by the author; each has 3,072 LEDs that spell out phrases and speech fragments from its assigned play in endlessly new combinations. Based on advanced language software that searches an 811,705-word database of the plays for recurring speech patterns, the constantly changing displays emphasize Shakespeare's puns and wordplay.

Recently, while getting a coffee during a play's intermission, I was so hypnotized by the machine that I nearly missed the start of the second act.

video of Open Circuit

Hear me

Open Circuit (Offener Schaltkreis in German) mixes old and new tech by covering a gallery's floors and walls with a labyrinth of flat copper tracks that convey multi-channel audio.

Participants explore the space between silence and noise by using small wireless receivers to listen in on what's transmitted over the otherwise silent tracks. The audio, which sounds like a cross between industrial noise and Jimi Hendrix tuning up, intensifies as more participants join in.

Open Circuit has been set up in Montreal, Rio de Janeiro and various cities in Europe.

Lighting the Sails on Sydney Opera House

The whole world's a screen

Urbanscreen is a group of artists who use architectural and public spaces as screens for their projected digital artwork. My favorite is Lighting the Sails from last summer's Vivid Sydney festival, where the group projected images across the harbor onto the iconic Sydney Opera House.

At various times, the projections make the Opera House's wing-like roofs appear to crumble into dust or serve as the canvas for a variety of geometric effects and images of Brobdingnagian people. The best is a rippling effect that makes the concrete and tile building look like it's made out of fabric fans.


E-trash art

What happens to all those computers, cell phones and monitors we throw out? Some get recycled and too many end up in landfills, but a small amount of e-waste becomes art in the hands of Susan Stockwell.

Her Flood installation, for instance, is a collection of yesterday's cast-off technology arranged like a horn of plenty flowing out of the ceiling of the York St. Mary Castlegate Church in York, England. Set up in 2010, Flood contrasts the 13th-century cathedral with 4 tons of old motherboards, power supplies, circuits and wires, creating a telling commentary on our throwaway culture.

Public Face II

Feeling all right ... or not

Richard Wilhelmer's Public Face II, a.k.a. the Fühlometer ("feel-o-meter"), displays the public's mood in real time with a huge smiley face. Originally housed on top of a clock tower in the town of Lindau, Germany, it's now mounted on top of the Malzfabrik Gallery Space in Berlin.

This simple but engaging work uses software developed at the Fraunhofer Institute to analyze digital scans of faces on the street and ascertain whether the city's mood is upbeat, unhappy or indifferent. Depending on what the camera picks up, the giant face shows a smile, a frown or a straight-line mouth.

The cool part? Rather than having separate neon elements for the different faces, the mouth and eye pieces rotate among their possible positions.

Nervous Structure 3

Stringing the viewer along

Annica Cuppetelli and Cristobal Mendoza's Nervous Structure 3 projected sculpture melds the viewer into the art. Enter the room to see a series of parallel lines. Approach the work and the lines react to your presence by vibrating and creating complex moire patterns.

Move closer, jump, wave your hands to see the response -- your body is the interface for this sculpture made of projected light on strings. Created with a security camera, a projector and a Mac computer, it uses fluid dynamics and Chipmunk Physics simulation software to process the motion data and render the string images.

video of Which Is Your Brass Voice

Blow hards

Aether & Hemera's Which Is Your Brass Voice? sound sculpture can make you and four friends into a brass quintet. The audio artwork uses five hanging microphones hooked up to frequency analyzers that measure tone, pitch and intonation.

Artificial intelligence software transforms the audio data into a composition featuring brass instruments. Your voice may become a French horn, trombone, trumpet, muted trumpet or tuba, depending on which microphone you're using.

Using an Arduino microcontroller, the audio is synchronized with colored LED lights on the wall. Depending on your input, the resulting sound and light show can be an exhilarating romp or sound like a cross between a traffic jam and high school band practice.

Brian Nadel is a frequent Computerworld contributor.