Andrew O’Malley’s “Community Channel” for the Bronson Centre 31/1/13

In 2013, on top of the Bronson Centre, Andrew O’Malley will be planting a light art installation to highlight both the diversity, and harmony of the Centretown community. But for this artist-engineer, planning an art installation with political implications was not a harmonious experience.

O’Malley is building his piece with the grace of the City of Ottawa’s Public Art Program, which was seeking public submissions to “mark the (Bronson) Centre in the minds of the public and signal its role in the community,” said the city notice for the project. The project’s funding will come from the one per cent of funding the city earmarks for art, whenever it pays for new city developments – in this case, the reconstruction of Bronson Avenue.

The installation, named Community Channel, will be perched on top of the entrance to the Bronson Centre, and will consist of big, transparent, and semi-transparent silhouettes that will be lit up colourfully by LED lights. The plan currently has a seemingly male figure at the front, flanked by figures of men, women, and children.

Each figure will be lit with a colour, but that colour will slowly evolve over time. These figures will shift in colour thorughout  the day, though occasionally, all the figures will migrate to the same hues, until they all briefly shine united.

O’Malley wanted to show both the diversity, and harmony in the community, he said.

The installation, however, doesn’t necessarily harmonize with the pieces he usually makes. For O’Malley, the political messages of the project disturbed his usual artistic process.

O’Malley often makes abstract art, so they’re hard to explain, but they are unified by their use of light, and colour. Generally, he takes streams of data from the environment – for example, the outside temperature – modifies those streams of data through algorithms, and then uses the modified data to control light levels.

Algorithms are step-by-step processes that change data; it doesn’t matter what those steps are, it can be called an algorithm.

(So take the outside temperature of 12 degrees Celcius, add one, then divide by two, and you have an algorithm.)

By taking input from the environment, and transfiguring it through multiple algorithms, O’Malley can constantly change the light levels.

“So the idea of using algorithms, that are randomly modulated, is that you might look at a piece and say: ‘I see the idea. I see what it does’. But it’s always going to be a little different”, he said. “I think it makes the work more engaging for the viewer, to ideally have some element of surprise.”

It’s like an attempt to breathe the surprise, and variety of life into technology.

But with this City of Ottawa project, O’Malley was challenged to create something that wasn’t just abstract light, and colours. He was going to be sending political messages with his piece – whether he liked it or not – and it didn’t prove to be all kumbaya.

For O’Malley, the simple use of images caused problems.

“Just the fact that I’m using icons politicizes it a bit,” he said. “Light is so abstract, but based on the images you put in your work, you can convey very powerful statements, and you can get very political.”

The fact that these images were people, made it even worse.

“Even with the maquette, I had people coming and saying, ‘Oh, there’s a big guy in the middle, that’s patriarchical!’. But you know, the people on there are chosen for the aesthetics of the model. And how do you know what the guy on the model isn’t gay? How do you even know what I’m representing?” he said.

With the shapes chosen, O’Malley could grapple with, and negotiate the political implications of his art bid, but he hadn’t even gotten to the lights, and colours – the mainstay of his work.

The lights would also sow some political discord.

Early on, O’Malley said he considered using the environment to control the lights: “one of our early sensor ideas was, what if you were measuring the average colour of the people going in? And just saying that people were like: ‘What do you talking about’. And I was like: ‘I mean the colour of their clothes’. ” But it quickly got attached to the ideas of surveillance,” said O’Malley.

There were practical considerations as well, with maintaining sensors, and ensuring that they worked full-time.

“For me, to abandon the idea of any type of sensor, and direct connection to the environment, I was hesitant to do that, but playing with the figures, and the colours, well, I thought, we can do something with the random fading.”

And so the piece stands, at least, according to O’Malley. The pieces will morph  colours over time, then come together in a moment of unity. What colour will shine at unity has yet to be determined, but O’Malley said it may end up tied to the time of year.

“In the winter, I’ll probably go with blues, and greens, then yellow will come out the spring, then reds, and purples in the summer – you know cause we have some of those brilliant sunsets – then back unto oranges in tho fall. When they’re out of phase, you’ll get a nice rainbow of colours, but then when they squeeze together that’s what’s gonna change over the years,” he said.

O’Malley is testing other ideas as well. He has yet to fabricate the full-sized silhouettes, but he may try to further harmonize them with the community.

“What we’re probably going to do is tie it to the sight, so base one silhouette on someone maybe with historical significance, and base one of the silhouettes on someone who is currently tied to the site, and then the other three will just be generic of the community at large, so you’re representing all the people who are already there now, and those who will be there,” said O’Malley.

“I want to have those things as subtle ties that can be a trivia for people who become familiar with the work, like: ‘That one on the second left, you know who that references?’. Then people share that,and they feel a connection, and ownership in the work.”

Those connections will come once the instillation is completed, right after the Bronson Avenue reconstruction is set to finish, in October 2013. And they may yet change.

O’Malley still has a lot to play with when it comes to choosing the exact materials for the piece, and figuring the practicalities of maintaining, year-round, an installation with lights, he said.

Despite the challenges, artistic, political, and practical, O’Malley said he was excited to have won the bid for the installation; and Ottawa may see more of him yet.

Though O’Malley is not venturing into political art work, he said he will not shy away from it if he is struck with inspiration, he said.

In the mean time, you can often find his work at Cube Gallery, in Ottawa.

Andrew O'Malley
Andrew O’Malley

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