Art in a digital world

How Jen Lewin uses technology to inspire connectivity

Jen Lewin, right, with The Pool art installation.

Technology in public space often comes as bombardment — advertisements — and can be overwhelming. But media artist Jen Lewin, whose work is intended to inspire experimentation and group collaboration, has charted a different relationship between society and technology.

She creates large-scale interactive sound and light sculptures to draw disparate groups of people together, to play. Her aim is to activate otherwise under-used community spaces like parks and plazas.

The CU Art Museum at the University of Colorado Boulder is currently presenting It’s Electric, an exhibition featuring six interactive light and sound sculptures by Lewin. Lewin earned her B.A. in environmental design and is returning years later after achieving recognition for her conceptions of new media works in Wired magazine, the The New York Times and National Geographic, and as a featured artist at Burning Man and South by Southwest.

Her digital art installations are so successful, in fact, that Google has commissioned Lewin and co-collaborator LumiGeek, a newly formed company with the mission to bring technological savvy to the world of design, to create an Android app for tracking feedback between her innovations and the groups of people interacting with them.

At the opening night of the CU Art Museum installation, Lewin watched the ceaseless activity of kids jumping across “The Pool” — a platform meant for collaborative games. In a dimly lit museum room, or at night in a park, the structure appears to be floating like lily pads that light up when touched. The lily pads are actually glowing light platforms that, when stood upon, interact with one another. With the help of LumiGeek, the platforms are growing increasingly complex in their ability to respond to various inputs and, eventually, to an entirely separate platform located somewhere else.

“The purpose of ‘The Pool’ is to engage public community space,” Lewin says. “We put ‘The Pool’ in a park at South by Southwest, and it activated the park across all ages and all communities. The kids play until 9 p.m. and end up exhausted, and then the party crowd comes through. The point of the piece is to go in an outdoor space and bring people in.”

Lewin comes from a gene pool of artists, inventors and engineers. She realized in her early 20s while studying at CU that it was possible to combine it all. After growing up in a communal environment in Maui, she says, it was her natural inclination and desire to create pieces to return people to a sense of community. And her visions are not limited to engaging groups in a single space, or even country.

Patrons explore Lewin’s installation. | Photo by John Papaioannou

“My hope is to put them on the same time zone and put them in two different communities that don’t normally have public art. We can do infinite things with the data, like, you can create a situation where if someone is playing on one pool it’s represented in the other pool. You’re playing in this great, big interactive sculpture and you’re also playing with someone in a different place.”

LumiGeek says this is more than possible.

“Maybe when it goes a violet color as you are watching from the grass … that’s someone across the country,” says John Taylor, one of three founders of LumiGeek. “‘Teleplay,’ I call it. You can be sitting there and you run across it, and it leaves a trail. And then you’re sitting there and you see that same trail appears in a different color. … That’s someone in Singapore. That’s pretty heady.”

Not to mention the thousands of man-hours that go into scrupulous construction. But the exercise of tinkering and making is part of the importance.

“I want to build real objects, touch them, feel them. The tactile quality of building things helps them to unfold,” Lewin says. “The installations are homemade, and required such a level of meticulous craft in juxtaposition to this insanely high-tech, complicated system controlling it. There is something interesting to me about the high-tech with this hand-made quality.”

Whether at a festival or in a traditional museum, her playful sculptures leave many participants mesmerized.

“To see lights move and interact with your body is otherworldly,” says Victoria Olsen, an art patron attending the opening. “We are so used to reacting to technology and controlling it, so to see it as part of an artistic movement is unique. I have a reaction I don’t get with other visual art because when I’m in a position of interacting it feels like I am the artist.”

Lewin’s current exhibit, It’s Electric, will run until July 27 at the CU Art Museum.



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