Normally the light in Petra Bachmaier and Sean Gallero's spare Humboldt Park apartment is plain, not funky at all.
"We have these crystals over there where we catch the sun," Gallero said, pointing to a window, "and we just have this prismatic rainbow effect throughout the apartment. That's our funky lighting."
But at that moment, the floor of what would be the married couple's dining room if it contained furniture was ablaze with ever-changing light patterns. One minute lines were intersecting on a grid, rotating and flipping in three dimensions like outtakes from Saul Bass' opening titles to Alfred Hitchcock's "North By Northwest." The next minute the floor was overrun with multicolored, elongated rectangles simulating pedestrian crosswalks. Patterns influenced by mosaics and M.C. Escher drawings followed.
The effect of these undulating lines and shifting shapes and colors — all synced to percussive music driven by marimba, vibraphone and glockenspiel — was mesmerizing, yet this demonstration was a mere warmup for what will begin playing out on a much larger scale Friday night in Millennium Park.
"Luminous Field" is the name of the interactive video/sound installation that Luftwerk, Bachmaier and Gallero's ongoing art collaboration, will mount on AT&T Plaza Feb. 10-20 just east and west of — and underneath — Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate. Ten projectors mounted on four towers looming 15 to 21 feet above the plaza will beam five minute-long loops onto an 80-feet-by-30-feet rectangle on the east side, while more patterns, including one that resembles a disco dance floor and another that suggests an animated Slinky, are projected to the west of and beneath the shiny sculpture.
As the lights reflect off the sculpture's curves and the ground, Chicagoans and visitors should see this popular attraction and the public space surrounding it in a new light.
"That's our M.O., to take a space, a situation in architecture, and transform it … and then bring it back to where it was before," Gallero said, noting that someone standing underneath Cloud Gate will be in for a "trippy" experience. "They will be looking up into this vortex of Cloud Gate, and they would be basically immersed in this flashing light, geometry undulating."
"We really perceive it as something that people can interact with," Bachmaier said. "We really want people to go in and play with it. Like the whole concept of the video, we built it for people to move with the light."
Bachmeier and Gallero, who met while attending the School of the Art Institute and are both 38, have worked together for more than 10 years. Originally Bachmeier performed in installations in which she interacted with Super 8 film projections, but eventually she removed herself from the equation.
Instead, Gallero said, "the viewer became the performer. The viewer became immersed, and for us that's the more magical element with our art."
Luftwerk takes its name from the German words for "air" and "work," which befits such an ephemeral brand of art. One generally doesn't buy such works in a gallery, and the exhibitions leave no traces behind, yet this is a medium engaging more and more artists and audiences.
"We were in Europe, and we've seen projections on facades like crazy," Gallero said. "People are putting up these major shows where they want to just illuminate architecture."
"There's this whole movement of light art festivals, where an entire city becomes a canvas for light projection and artists to engage with the urban environment," Bachmeier said.
Luftwerk had its most prominent commission last September as it illuminated Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater house in southwestern Pennsylvania in honor of its 75th anniversary. Flashing in sync with music by Owen Clayton Condon of Chicago's Third Coast Percussion, the lights suggested new shapes and images on a landmark piece of architecture.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture was seeking a Millennium Park installation to boost the hospitality industry during the slow winter months, and footage of the Fallingwater installation, which remains viewable on YouTube, triggered the office to contact Luftwerk.
"We've wanted to use video and sound in Millennium Park but hadn't really found the right fit," said the tourism/culture office's executive director, Dorothy Coyle. "During the winter it's the perfect time do to something like this because the light is so compelling. It's just kind of a quiet period in the city, so it can have even a more dramatic impact."
Bachmeier and Gallero focused their attention on Cloud Gate, which Gallero called "the new icon of Chicago" that would lend itself to "this lineal play of geometry against this really organic, smooth structure."
Said Coyle: "This is really the first time we've done something like this. The park really lends itself to experimentation and to ways that you can draw attention to the incredible work that is already there."
AV Chicago is providing and setting up the equipment while Liviu Pasare, who also worked on Fallingwater, has been the consulting technician/programmer/computer-mapper. "Since we're coming at an angle with these projectors, everything's going to be all distorted, and so every pixel needs to line up perfectly," said Pasare, 31.
For the soundtrack Luftwerk returned to Condon, who this time wrote original music to sync up with the projection loops.
"I tried to think about ways to use percussion instruments that are all made of natural materials, much like the city is made of wood and metal, and trying to draw as many sounds as possible from those instruments," said Condon, 33.
"It's extremely important," Gallero said of the music. "It gives it a character. It gives it a soul, a voice."
In another occasional element, members of the local theater troupe Collaboraction will dance and otherwise interact with the projections at 7, 8 and 9 p.m. on the exhibition's two Friday nights. In a recent practice run, a Collaboraction performer wore all white, becoming a kind of curvy, kinetic video screen.
Such activity is intended to encourage onlookers to jump right in, as a family did a couple of weeks ago when Luftwerk projected some test patterns around Cloud Gate.
"These kids, they must have been 7 or 10 years old, they saw the light coming into the plaza, and it was like a magnet," Coyle said. "They just came and started jumping and chasing the light. At that moment we had a vision of what this could be like."
Gallero and Bachmaier are eager to see "that first pixel appear onto the ground" and expressed confidence in the results. Still, when it comes to artwork in public spaces, there are always variables. For instance, the plaza could get socked with a foot of snow.
"I actually would like that," Bachmaier said. "Everything would be even brighter."
Of course, Millennium Park workers would be plowing the pavement, but still, if it snows at night, the snowflakes would be illuminated as they fluttered to the ground.
"Which will be beautiful," Bachmaier said.
“Luminous Field” runs Feb. 10-20 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Free family programming will take place in a heated tent to the north of Cloud Gate.
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