The making of Quasar 2.0: Star Incubator

Quasar 2.0: Star Incubator will light up this year's Scotiabank Nuit Blanche

Six young artists studying digital media and sculpture in the Faculty of Fine Arts are hard at work these days in the Accolade West Building at York University’s Keele campus. They’re assisting in the construction of an immersive interactive ambient light and sound installation that will make its debut next month at Toronto’s Scotiabank Nuit Blanche festival.

Quasar 2.0: Star Incubator (Q2:SI) is the product of the imaginations of York digital media Professor Mark-David Hosale and architect and digital media artist Jean Michel Crettaz of Los Angeles. The duo led a team of artists, scientists and engineers from Europe, North and Central America, and Antarctica to design the installation that the students are helping to assemble.

Quasar 2.0: Star Incubator will light up this year's Scotiabank Nuit BlancheQuasar 2.0: Star Incubator will light up this year’s Scotiabank Nuit Blanche

“For the students helping build this project, it’s not just a job,” said Hosale. “It’s a creative process and their thumbprints are on the work in so many ways.”

Q2:SI is composed of LED-embedded fibre optic membranes that form an intricate, three-dimensional web structure perched delicately on an ephemeral frame of thin looped aluminum rods. The work visualizes and sonifies data, ranging from Antarctic weather and celestial data to infrared and electromagnetic fields, as light and sound patterns moving through its fragile form.

“It’s been really interesting, in that it’s a very large piece and a very large team,” said Alexander Moakler, a third-year digital media student. “From a technical viewpoint, the experience has also been an inspiration for my own work: seeing how layers of simplicity can create complexity.”

Digital media student Alexander MoaklerDigital media student Alexander Moakler

Q2:SI reflects universal space-time concepts of collapsing scale and time into the immediacies of experience and creation. The installation takes in vast amounts of data about things in the world that are invisible to the naked eye, and displays it in an immediate, physical way.

The behaviour of the piece is computed in real time via simultaneously converging data streams including local infrared and electromagnetic fields, muon neutrino (subatomic particle) data streams from Antarctica’s IceCube Neutrino Observatory, and weather data collected at automated weather stations for the Antarctic Meteorological Research Center.

“It’s been amazing working with Mark-David and Jean Michel,” said fourth-year sculpture student Nicole Clouston. “Their work and my work are similar in a way, because they want to get the viewer to think about an idea and spark awareness about our world. It will be really interesting to see Quasar 2 installed at Nuit Blanche and how people interact with it on different levels.”

A local information screen provides in-depth information on the sourcing and processing of the multiple data inputs to Q2:SI. Over time, an observer will notice subtle differentiations in how the data informs sound and light, fluently transitioning and initiating connections for visitors with the various information strata.

Quasar 2.0 creators Mark-David Hosale (left) and Jean Michel CrettazQuasar 2.0 creators Mark-David Hosale (left) and Jean Michel Crettaz

“To me, art that is relevant is art that engages questions that push the boundary of knowledge,” said Crettaz. “We work with science because it’s a discipline that seeks out new horizons and enters dimensions that are not readily apparent. In this way, both art and science are deeply engaged with the mystery of our world.”

The synergies generated between the artist and the scientist can open the doors to new frontiers in perception and experience, said Hosale.

“Artists bring to the table a way of perceiving and visualizing information that unleashes new possibilities,” Hosale said. “Their knowledge and tools can help expose aspects of data that scientists know in their imagination. Seeing it embodied creatively deepens the connections, potentially leading to new discoveries and greater knowledge.”

Hosale and Crettaz are the co-founders of SLAP!, an international consortium of researchers in architecture, the sciences, sound and media arts who engage in speculative visions in architecture and world-making.  As experiments in responsive and performative structures, SLAP! projects explore modes of transposing and creating visualizations of urban conditions and experiential space. As they design and construct structures of past and future time-space objects calibrated as extensions to the human body and mind, the researchers foster new approaches to symbiotic communication and experience.

Hosale and Crettaz have been collaborating on architectonic, immersive sculptural projects for several years, starting with the original Quasar, which they presented at the Southern California Institute of Architecture gallery in 2008. That work, created in association with the US Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, included a Muon counter that measured the subatomic particles that continually bombard our planet from outer space. The counter was installed above the gallery space and was used as one of the input sources to stimulate dynamic behaviours in the body of the Quasar sculpture. View a video of the original project.

Q2:SI will be exhibited at Toronto’s Scotiabank Nuit Blanche festival, a monumental contemporary art event running Sept. 29, from dusk to dawn. The piece will be installed in the parking garage at Nathan Phillips Square by City Hall as part of the Museum for the End of the World, a project co-curated by York film Professor Janine Marchessault, Canada Research Chair in Art, Digital Media & Globalization. Over the course of the night, an estimated one-million visitors will explore the visual art, dance, light, sound and music works on view throughout the city.