Already in the Global Spotlight, Vancouver’s Skies Deliver Additional Delight

BY Ray Suarez  February 17, 2010 at 2:42 PM EDT

A week before the torch arrived in the Olympic city, Vancouver’s skies were already illuminated, ready to greet the world with a warm welcome. Light artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and his team had installed 10 searchlights on both sides of English Bay for an interactive work he calls “Vectorial Elevation.”

The lights in this large-scale installation are visible within a 10-mile radius — each light shines at 10,000 watts — and anyone with access to the Internet can try his or her hand at changing the projected patterns.

Participants can create a light display on the project’s Web site, VectorialVancouver.net, where they will also find a virtual model of Vancouver. Users create instructions for a new night-time display by setting the angles and power of the searchlights. The information is then queued in a server that operates the robotically maneuvered lights. The searchlights quietly project a new image every 12 seconds. For those who can’t see it in person, the entire show is captured live via four Web cameras set up around Vancouver.

“We care very much that people find out that those lights are not just doing a pre-programmed light show,” said Lozano-Hemmer, “but if in fact they’re moving, it’s because someone somewhere in the planet is moving them.”

Indeed, the most rewarding part for Lozano-Hemmer has been the individual postings he’s read on participants’ pages. “You can use the piece almost as a kind of electronic postcard,” he said. People have used their light shows for marriage proposals, obituaries, welcome messages, shout-outs to athletes, political platforms and even poetry.

Vancouver is the fifth stop for Lozano-Hemmer’s massive illumination installation. Over the past 10 years, “Vectorial Elevation” has travelled to Mexico City, Dublin, Lyon and Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain. Vancouver, however, has posed some interesting challenges.

Not only is the current iteration the largest version so far, but the extra 2 million athletes, delegates and tourists have Lozano-Hemmer worried about competition over bandwidth. “Because there’s so much going on in Vancouver, there’s a lot of wireless traffic. So it’s been interesting to try and avoid any conflicts when you’re controlling your lights.”

“Vectorial Elevation” also has its environmental critics, who worry about the project’s energy consumption. Lozano-Hemmer counters that the lights are powered by British Columbia’s hydro-electric grid, a renewable energy source. While the display consumes 200,000 watts of energy, Lozano-Hemmer point outs, “It’s a tenth of what a typical hockey game uses.”

Ten days into the project, the Web site has received nearly 100,000 visitors from 134 countries and more than 10,000 signatures have painted the sky.

“Vectorial Elevation” will illuminate Vancouver from dusk until dawn throughout the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, which conclude Feb. 28.

(Photos courtesy of Duncan Rawlinson, Jon Rawlinson, Etienne Rheaume, Doug Farmer, Gary Warren Hubbs and