Illumination of imagination

An array of bright ideas from faculty and students at MIT’s FAST Light

“Dis(Course)4’’ expands and contracts to fit in a stairwell in Building 3. “Dis(Course)4’’ expands and contracts to fit in a stairwell in Building 3. (Andy Ryan)
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / May 3, 2011

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The shores of the Charles River and the grounds at Massachusetts Institute of Technology will blink and glow with luminous art installations this weekend. FAST Light, which welcomes the public to MIT and the riverfront on Saturday and Sunday from 7 to 10 p.m., is the culmination of the Festival of Art + Science + Technology, a series of events and exhibits celebrating MIT’s 150th anniversary. Since February, FAST has spotlighted art created by members of the MIT community, from students up through legendary emeritus faculty.

“The arts and the way they connect with things on campus are one of the best kept secrets at MIT,’’ says Tod Machover, the composer and professor of music and media at MIT who chairs the FAST steering committee. “These installations are a laboratory for experiments in reimagining the campus.’’

FAST Light takes on luminous art, but the theme goes beyond illumination, says FAST’s curator of installations, J. Meejin Yoon, an associate professor of architecture at MIT. “The projects consider light, and issues of power and lightness, agility and ephemerality,’’ Yoon says.

FAST Light kicks off Saturday evening with the launch of Otto Piene’s “Sky Event,’’ a hallmark work for the environmental artist, a professor emeritus at MIT. Piene is known for his giant inflatables, which use the sky as a canvas. This one features two glowing, blow-up stars flying over MIT’s Killian Court, the green across from the riverfront. That portion of Memorial Drive will be closed both evenings.

Other highlights include Yoon’s “Light Drift,’’ which features 18 illuminated seats along the river, with similar forms floating in the water. “When you walk by, they flicker and invite you to sit, and when you sit on them, they will transform from green to blue, and trigger the lights on the water,’’ Yoon says. “The real goal is to draw the public . . . to make it a transformational public space for those two evenings.’’

Meanwhile, an LED array will be activated by pedestrians on the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge for “LightBridge,’’ by MIT Media Lab post-doctoral associate Susanne Seitinger. Architecture faculty members Nader Tehrani and Gediminas Urbonas’s “Liquid Archive @ MIT,’’ a giant inflatable screen shaped like the letters “MIT’’ written as a starburst, will float on the Charles sporting projections of plans for the waterfront proposed in years past by MIT faculty. Across Memorial Drive on the edge of Killian Court, Sheila Kennedy, another architecture professor, and a crew of helpers have created “SOFT Rockers,’’ lounge chairs that loop over your head, and catch the sun’s rays to power a USB port, so loungers can plug in and recharge.

Since FAST began, art installations — some featuring light, others not — have been popping up around campus, catalyzing otherwise humdrum spaces such as stairwells and hallways. For instance, “Dis(Course)4,’’ a cylindrical web of aluminum and plastic, expands and contracts to fit three levels in a stairwell in Building 3. Architecture grad students Craig Boney, James Coleman, and Andrew Manto designed and built it.

The art projects may seem to pop up anywhere, but there is a plan.

“MIT’s campus is not like any other. There’s no central yard. It’s a distributed campus,’’ says Yoon. “We wanted to activate two axes.’’ One is the riverfront and Memorial Drive. The other is MIT’s legendary Infinite Corridor, which Yoon calls “a meandering spine’’ that stretches the length of the campus. Visitors can wander around and experience more than a dozen art installations along and just off the corridor axis.

Javier Hernandez Rivera and M. Ehsan Hoque, grad students in the media arts and sciences department of the architecture school, studied artificial intelligence and rigged up their “MIT Mood Meter,’’ cameras and attendant monitors in four places on campus, including the student center and along the Infinite Corridor. Using software that reads faces, the “Mood Meter’’ takes the emotional pulse of anyone in camera range. Passersby will spot themselves on the monitor. If you’re smiling, a simple drawing of a happy face appears over your face. If you’re not, the drawing shows a neutral face. The interactivity prompts smiles. Rivera and Hoque are collecting data about the relative level of happiness around campus.

Meanwhile, hundreds of butterflies hover in the Hayden Library Corridor. There, grad students in media arts and sciences Elena Jessop and Peter Torpey have installed “Bibliodoptera,’’ butterflies cut out of vellum, which has been printed with musical notation (songs, says Jessop, celebrating technology), and text culled from MIT theses. People moving through the hallway set LED lights flickering in some of the butterflies.

This is FAST’s first year, but Machover says he hopes it will continue. The festival speaks to the lively collaborative spirit on campus.

“Meejin and I went around campus, finding people, coaxing people to do these projects,’’ Machover says. “Now people come and say, ‘I’m in chemistry’ or ‘I’m in neuroscience and I’d love to work with architects and designers.’’’

“MIT is the quickest place for change and ideas. Departments change. Disciplines come together,’’ Machover says. “One reason the arts are so lively here is that disciplinary boundaries are so weak. People are encouraged to take their ideas wherever they go.’’

Cate McQuaid can be reached at


At: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, along the Charles River. May 7 and 8, 7-10 p.m. Free.