Janet Echelman begins installation of 745-foot aerial sculpture in Vancouver: A making-of gallery

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A rendering of Janet Echelman’s soon-to-be sculpture, sponsored by Autodesk, outside TED2014. She collaborated with Aaron Koblin on the interactive artwork, powered by Google. “From blocks away, you will see some mysterious form floating in the sky,” says Echelman. “In the day, it’s very subtle, blending in with clouds and sky. At night, it comes alive with illumination and some surprises.” Image: Janet Echelman rendering

Janet Echelman is installing her new sculpture as we speak. Not in a gallery or on a pedestal, but instead soaring over the middle of downtown Vancouver. The installation involves cranes, hard hats and anchor points engineered atop two buildings: a 24-story hotel and the Vancouver Convention Centre where TED2014 will be held.

“After three years of work, it’s hard to believe it’s finally becoming real,” says Echelman. “It’s the first test of my sculpture woven into the city at this scale.”

Janet Echelman: Taking imagination seriously Janet Echelman: Taking imagination seriously Echelman’s sculpture, titled Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks, is presented with an original interactive work created in collaboration with Aaron Koblin, who Echelman met when they both spoke at TED2011. The sculpture is an extension of the idea Echelman presented in her talk, “Taking imagination seriously.” In the talk, Echelman shares how she fell in love with a new material — fishing net — and began creating voluptuous forms that contrast with the hard edges generally found in cities. She revealed the challenge of making these sculptures both durable and permanent, but also able to react to the wind. She shared her dream of taking these sculptures to the next level by finding materials light enough to attach to existing buildings in a neighborhood rather than requiring a new supporting steel structure.

This sculpture does just that. When completed, it will span 745 feet, while her largest previous sculpture was less than half that.

“That’s half of the main span of the Brooklyn Bridge,” says Echelman. “It’s a huge jump, and it turns out that even for soft net sculpture when you increase the size, the wind forces grow exponentially. My engineer said to me, ‘You’ve doubled the length of your sculpture, but your wind forces are 10 times larger.’” In fact, the work is engineered right up to the available lateral loading force of the buildings involved, a limit the artist says she never expected to encounter with her work.

Echelman was able to think on this scale by finding an incredibly light material — Spectra, a fiber that is 15 times stronger by weight than steel. But the engineering still presented an incredible challenge, for which no good software design tools existed.

Echelman turned to Autodesk, a longtime TED partner and leader in 3D design and engineering software that seeks out interesting design problems. Autodesk worked with Echelman to create custom 3D software to model the piece and test its feasibility. “The challenge of modeling the stress and drape of my work under gravity and wind while being aware of the fabrication constraints of my craft was interesting to them, and they stepped in to collaborate,” says Echelman. Autodesk provided the missing link to make Echelman’s artistic dream a reality. They also sponsored the sculpture.

Above: A 3D rendering of what the sculpture will look like as you walk toward it. Video: Studio Echelman, TED Vancouver sculpture render

Echelman designed the sculpture specifically for its location, right outside TED2014 on the Vancouver waterfront. “It’s like custom-knitted sweater for the city,” she says. “We went building to building and asked them to be part of this, and to let me tap into their building structure to support art in the airspace between them …It is very much about taking space that is sort of invisible and turns it into a social space.” The Burrard Arts Foundation — a Vancouver-based non-profit — has started a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the installation of the work.

Even from blocks away, people in Vancouver will be able to see this gorgeous, flexing mesh as it mirrors the movement of the wind. “It’s a soft, delicate, yet monumental form,” Echelman explains. “In the day, it’s very subtle, blending in with clouds and sky. At night, it comes alive with illumination and some surprises.”

Aaron Koblin: Visualizing ourselves ... with crowd-sourced data Aaron Koblin: Visualizing ourselves ... with crowd-sourced data When she says “comes alive with illumination,” she means it. As the sun goes down, the sculpture becomes an enormous canvas which both the Vancouver public and TED attendees help color. Echelman worked with Koblin, a Creative Director at Google Creative Lab who gave the TED Talk “Artfully visualizing our humanity,” to create a colorful and interactive lighting experience using 160,000 lumens of light. As people view the sculpture overhead, they’ll be able to choreograph the lighting with their mobile device.

“We all carry devices in our pockets that have an enormous power to connect with other people around the world,” says Koblin. “But rarely do we get a chance to use it to connect and create with people standing next to us.”

Echelman has noticed a unique energy created by her sculptures, and she hopes that this will greatly amplify that. “I’ve discovered that there is a certain kind of social space created underneath my sculptures that is contemplative and calm. People begin to talk to strangers about what they’re seeing,” says Echelman. “It’s really exciting for me as an artist to see the work grow and unfold in ways beyond what I could imagine. That’s what the collaboration [with Aaron] brings, because we each bring a completely different set of skills to the table.”

As for how people will interact with the sculpture, Echelman doesn’t want to guess. “I look forward to finding out what people feel and think, and how it affects them,” she says.

The installation is in progress now, and the artwork will be displayed in Vancouver from March 15-23. From there, it is designed to travel from city to city. Below, some initial sketches of the sculpture-in-the-making.

One of Echelman’s early sketches of this piece, on a legal pad. Image: Janet Echelman pen sketch

One of Echelman’s early sketches of this piece, on a legal pad. Image: Janet Echelman pen sketch

Janet Echelman, watercolor sketch

A watercolor sketch. “Originally, the sculpture had multiple layers of saturated color, and when I began collaborating with Aaron, it became clear that the projected light at night would benefit from white. This is part of the evolution of a work of art,” says Echelman. Image: Janet Echelman, watercolor sketch


“Now it’s very much about a delicacy in the day, where it interacts with the sky and the clouds, and at night, it becomes a bold scrim for colored light painted by each person who interacts with it.” Image: Janet Echelman, watercolor sketch

See more of Janet Echelman’s work »

Find out more about Aaron Koblin’s work »

More about their collaboration »