Solar Art / Interview with Stephen Fairfield
Ignacio Zamora (IZ)
You are one of the most active solar artists today, When and Why did you start to create solar powered, new media sculptures?
Stephen Fairfield (SF)
There was a convergence of factors in my artistic journey that brought me to a focus on solar powered, new media sculpture. My wife and I moved from New England to Southeast Arizona in 1997 to pursue art full time. We built a straw bale house and an art studio, so as to be as close as possible to net zero energy consumption with our available financial resources. For the first two years we lived off the grid, and depended totally on solar and wind power, with a small gas generator as emergency backup. At the time I was painting large canvases but not satisfied with the 2D aspect of painting, and as I went through a process of first building off the canvas’ surface, I evolved into a sculptor. In 2004 the Tucson Pima Arts Council issued a public art call for proposals for solar powered, new media sculpture that sounded interesting. I looked around and found a kindred spirit, Patrick Marcus – an electrical engineering graduate student at the time – who was willing to design and build the sculpture’s electronics and write the software to accomplish the LEDs visual effects I wanted the sculpture to display. Patrick was and continues to be deeply involved in solar energy promotion in the Tucson region, and it has been through partnering with him on various public art projects over the years that we have emerged as prime movers in the solar powered, public art world.
Please introduce us one of your representative solar powered sculptural installations.
The Revolutions of Brandon Park (http://www.solarsculptures.com/ home page) is a monumental, stainless steel, grid-tied solar powered, interactive, contemporary, new media, two piece sculptural installation in Lancaster, PA.Revolutions is a collaborative effort of some members of our New Media Public Art Collective. This particular installation was conceived of and executed by me, Emily Taylor – a Public Space Planner/Industrial Designer from Chicago, IL, and Patrick Marcus, now the President of his own engineering company – Marcus Engineering.
Our vision is to create public art that people of any age or background can interact with and appreciate. Our primary goal is to engage the public into the creative process itself, so that the boundaries between the “artist”, the “art”, and the “viewer” become blurred. We want to convert passive viewers, people who are just passing by, into active participants who want to pause, play with the sculpture to realize its ability to respond, and experience the range of responses its electronics are capable of. In this way observers become creative participants, and they use the sculpture to create their own unique expressions. A secondary but equally important goal is to demonstrate the role technology can play in the creation of beautiful, interesting, and fun public art that is beautiful both during the day and at night. Finally, our creations provide a public approach to learning about a unique use of solar power, and by so doing open up peoples’ minds to another aspect of solar energy usage.
On the practical side, to do this we employ on-board motion sensors, electronics with microprocessors and software that Patrick designs and writes, and use red/green/blue LEDs that, when appropriately programmed, can produce a staggering number – 16.4 million – of different colors! We integrate motion sensors into the electronics, so that as people approach, the sensors trigger subprograms in the software, sending the sculpture’s LEDs into ‘high activity mode’. If people move in and out of the sensor beams they learn to use the motion sensors to trigger the subprograms, and they can “play” with the sculpture, getting it to change colors, patterns and frequencies! Great fun! The sculptures’ light patterns progress through a range of different patterns and activities, such as pulsing, twinkling, throbbing, flashing, strobing, chasing, and blinking. Display rates of these patterns also vary, from rapid, to medium, to slow, creating a huge number of permutations. After people leave the area the software defaults to ‘low activity mode’, displaying a lower intensity, slower pattern of colors and effects to conserve energy.
How do you approach a public art project? What are the main elements you take into consideration for the final result of the work?
Once I have identified an interesting call to artists for a new public art project, I spend some time thinking about the context of the call, its expressed goals and objectives, its geographical region, history of the region, climatic conditions, population density in the area, type of location (urban, suburban, etc.), type of movement around the site, and ultimately what the calls sponsors hope the final installation will accomplish.
Main elements that I want to accomplish in the finished work include: strikingly beautiful by day and by night; a unique, “head-turning” effect that will make passersby want to stop, pause, and examine the installation from different angles and perspectives; something that is approachable by people of any age, from toddlers to senior citizens. This is not to say that it necessarily should be understandable, just that it should have some kind of appeal that draws people to it, regardless of their age, education, ethnicity, etc. Art for the people! Something that is robust and durable, can take public interaction (climbing, skateboarding, etc.) and hold up, with robust electronics that continue to function regardless of the climate or season. A timeless quality, so that decades from its installation it will still have a public appeal, be seen, be contemplated, and be appreciated. Depending on the call, the sculpture may be designed to make a universal statement as well by its presence.
Tell us about the purpose and function of Public Art in the present context. Public Art – erasing boundaries between artist, creation and observer-turned-participant
Public art needs to consciously provide a learning opportunity for both artists and passersby, to communicate essential aspects of awareness, consciousness and cultural mores, whether these learnings can be verbalized or not. I believe public art should engage people of all ages and walks of life and communicate wonder, joy, mystery, and beauty. It should be multi-dimensional, touching the youngest to the very elderly, not necessarily with the same message, but touching people across the age spectrum none the less. The art should be beautiful and appealing both during the daytime and at night. It should use form and color and provide surprises and the unexpected in its expression. The art should be emotionally approachable, yet not necessarily understandable. Whether contemporary/abstract or realistically figurative it should touch the hearts of the on-looker where they are, and impart a memorable experience of having been “part of the art”, where time and location fade, and one is unaware of oneself as being separate from the experience. It should be robust and able to endure physical interaction, climbing, and exploration, even attempts to modify, alter, or damage it. In its most complete sense it should provide an opportunity to interact with or be influenced by the observers, propelling them into a new awareness or level of consciousness, so that on leaving the interaction with the piece or installation their artistic consciousness is somehow more complete than prior to the encounter.
I believe public art should be created to respond to observers and provide the opportunity for them to be participants in the installation’s artistic expression. In this way, the boundaries are blurred between the artist, the creation, and the observer-turned-participant, so that the overall artistic expression becomes collaboration between all three. By encouraging this interaction the participant has a role in the ultimate expression of the piece.
I believe public art should engage the technology of the present and the future to provide opportunities for people to realize that, as time goes by, new, contemporary expressions continue to touch peoples’ souls in both rational-expressible and irrational ways. Along these lines I strive to find funding for new, state-of-the-art public art sculptures that use smartphone and tablet applications for observers to participate with the electronic expression of the installation.
Finally, I believe public art should provide avenues to be a vehicle to showcase other artists’ work. One avenue for this is architectural digital projection on which we are working, to provide opportunities for regional artists to learn how to use computer software to modify their work and have it be projected outside – through the public art installation – for others to see and respond to.
What is the percent of art and what of science in your work? How you manage this in terms of Artist’s signature of the final work?
The percentages of art and science in our work are probably about 50/50%. We don’t spend much time worrying about artists attribution. As we collaborate we promote each other’s work, and we believe that people who appreciate our will eventually learn what role the individual artists played who created the work. As a collective we value our creations as joint collaborations – projects that none of us could have achieved alone, and projects that are infinitely better for collaboration.
What is the practicality of solar powered public art sculptures?
If one is committed to sustainable new media artistic practices then the use of solar energy is a key resource that needs to be integrated into the installation. Forward thinking municipalities like Lancaster, PA, understand that the initial investment in the solar panels and associated electrical equipment will be recovered in a relatively short time period, reducing their overall energy costs in the future. Grid tied new media installations can have solar power generated from panels located on ‘real estate’ (e.g. on building roof tops, open lots, etc.) nearby. This power is fed into the grid to offset power usage by the sculpture. In higher latitude areas grid tied installations are advisable, so that during dark, colder winter months, the electronics continue to function flawlessly. In these cases design of the solar collection system needs to compensate for fewer sunny days to provide for 100% offset of power consumption. Another benefit of grid tied installations is not having storage batteries, which require maintenance and periodic replacement.
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About the New Media Public Art Collective
The New Media Public Art Collective’s unique artistic niche is at the nexus of Art and Technology. We have used this merging of disciplines to create public art across the US and internationally. Through placemaking, our mission is to evolve locations into interactive, compelling destinations that artistically engage passers-by through their senses. We target public art calls to artists that provide an opportunity for us to accomplish what our art/engineering/architecture team does best. Our team includes a Ph.D. public art sculptor (Stephen Fairfield) , two artist/architects (Chris Lasch, Benjamin Aranda), a Ph.D. artist/electrical engineer (Patrick Marcus), a public space planner/industrial designer (Emily Taylor), an animation/special effects/video artist (Ellery Connell), and a concrete sculptor (T.J. Dreier). Our team shares a common goal – to advance placemaking public art into a synergy between the original artists/creators, the art, and passers-by of all socio-economic backgrounds.
The New Media Public Art Collective’s goal is to develop beautiful interactive public art that relates to the existing physical and social aspects of the site where it is located. Our installations are more than just static physical forms; they are active and they engage viewer participation. By viewing and interacting with them one participates in a dynamic experience that blends opportunities for artistic curiosity, participant engagement, as well as exploration of the local environment with a potential outcome for social interaction as well.
We create both monumental interactive new media sculptural installations and static sculptures. Our new media installations combine beautiful organic forms with technology through the incorporation of computer-driven light shows. Our robust electronic technology, both grid powered and solar powered, has been proven and tested in multiple installations to endure the test of time and climatic conditions for up to 10 years. The installations are beautiful by day through the use of form in gleaming stainless steel, contrasting oxidized steel, colorful acrylics and other media, and at night through the display of colorful light shows. Motion sensors trigger the electronics’ open source software in response to passers-by. Active viewers become empowered participants as they create their own dynamic, moving, changing light patterns, colors and frequencies through directly influencing the sculpture’s electronics. This sends the large number of RGB light emitting diodes (LEDs) into high activity mode displaying a myriad of colors, patterns and frequencies. Holographic diffraction materials on sculpture surfaces may be used to create beautiful spectral color shifts.
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Public Art’s potential impact on solar farms
One of our future goals is to create monumental, aesthetically pleasing solar powered installations that use solar farms as their substrate – their skeletal structure – if you will. I, along with probably most people, see solar farms as an essential but ugly blight upon the landscape. They are necessary to generate power, but currently they are so aesthetically unappealing they should be hidden away for the common good! There is little or nothing visually or aesthetically beautiful about an enormous expanse of land covered in solar panels. Those of us who appreciate the beauty of exquisitely executed technology are in the vast minority. The New Media Public Art Collective has a host of ideas that would take these large unattractive, industrial power generation sites, and using creative design concepts and new media technology convert them into beautiful, dynamic fantasy areas of public space that would actually draw people to experience the associated beautiful light shows. Ultimately what is needed to accomplish this are visionary financial institutions, and public artists who understand technology and art, and have the ability to express them in a synergistic approach to public art. We believe The New Media Public Art Collective has this capability.
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Stephen Fairfield is a full-time artist with some 30 years experience. For the past 7 years he has been focused on creating new media and steel public art sculptures. . His goal is sculpture that makes participants from observers and creates dynamic tension and motion. Materials used include electronic technology, light emitting diodes, plastics/resins, polycarbonate diffraction gratings, aluminum, stainless and carbon steel, and cement. In general with his sculptures he seeks to make a statement about the natural environment, the impact of humans on the world, or directions culture has taken or is moving towards.
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