Design Miami/ Basel’s Gates

Matthew Israel
May 20, 2014 7:10PM

If you attend Design Miami/ Basel this year, you’ll have to see Jamie Zigelbaum’s Triangular Series; it covers the entire ceiling of the fair’s cavernous, 30,000 foot entrance hall, so it’s unavoidable—but unforgettable.

The product of over three years of work, Triangular Series is a site-specific, immersive installation composed of 59 large, tetrahedral, white lights of varying sizes that will be suspended from the ceiling of the Herzog & de Meuron-designed atrium leading to Design Miami/’s entrance. The intensity of the lights in the fixtures will also change according to the patterns of visitors’ movements 30 feet below: the faster and more complex the human traffic, the faster and more complex the resulting effects of the lighting.

Triangular Series’ reactive lighting is made possible through highly complex technology, such as custom, dynamic color temperature LED lighting, advanced sensors, and unique software. (Zigelbaum is a graduate of MIT’s Media Lab, and as a result, is highly versed in the details of interactive technology). Yet at the same time all of this technology is virtually invisible to viewers. Thus, the lights will seem magical, and all that will be seen is the play of light and the fantastical resulting relationship between what is human and what is not. One might compare Triangular Series to the work of Olafur Eliasson or James Turrell. Zigelbaum cites both as influences. Speaking of Turrell, he explains, “I’ve cried in front of his works. They have such minimal sensory information but such an incredible effect.”

According to Zigelbaum, one of the major concepts underlying Triangular Series is entrainment, a phenomenon discovered in the 17th century by Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens, where some oscillations fall into rhythm with each other, a phenomenon observed in both organic and inorganic systems. Examples of this “odd sympathy” are the synchronized flashing of Malaysian fireflies, or how pendulum clocks gradually assume the same period if placed next to each other.

Zigelbaum is relatively new to the more mainstream worlds of art and design and he comes to them via a fascinating path. He grew up with strong interests in science, math, avant-garde film (David Lynch, David Cronenberg, and Ingmar Bergman are among his favorites), literature (especially science fiction), and technology. For college he attended Tufts University, but in the process of his degree, he took five years off, to work as a carpenter, a day laborer, and even an A/V operator for a chain of off-track betting facilities. At one point he studied Tibetan Buddhism and spent almost a year in a monastery in India. In his final years at Tufts, Zigelbaum worked very intensely with Rob Jacob on human computer interaction projects in the Computer Science department and was encouraged to begin publishing his work. After Tufts, Zigelbaum went straight to the MIT Media Lab.

A bit of a black box to outsiders, the Media Lab is a graduate school started by Nicholas Negroponte in the 1980s, based out of the MIT Architecture School. It houses a number of projects led by individual professors who you can apply to work with. It also controls its own funding and admissions. As such, it functions, according to Negroponte, as both church and state. On its website, the Media Lab advertises itself as promoting a “unique, antidisciplinary culture” and focusing on “encouraging the most unconventional mixing and matching of seemingly disparate research areas.” Currently at the lab there are 350 projects ranging from digital approaches for treating neurological disorders to a stackable, electric car for sustainable cities.

At MIT, Zigelbaum worked on tangible and gestural interfaces and pursued a PhD. Some of the major influences on his work during this time were professors Hiroshi Ishii, Pattie Maes, Neil Gershenfeld, Ed Boydon, and Chris Csikszentmihalyi. He was particularly engaged with Csikszentmihalyi’s class on technology and social control. “We were asked to create a dystopian interface. It was fascinating, probably the best class I’ve ever had,” he said.

One of the first projects Zigelbaum created at MIT was Slurp, a digital eyedropper that can copy and paste files directly off the screen. “From then on I just kept making stuff,” said Zigelbaum. Eventually he dropped out of the PhD program and ended up collaborating with Marcelo Coelho. As a team, Zigelbaum + Coelho were awarded the Designer of the Future Award from Design Miami/ in 2010.

For the last two years, Zigelbaum has struck out on his own. He is at once a constant creator and thinker. For example, parallel to his around-the-clock work on his Design Miami/ installation, he still finds time to engage with ideas that inform his work. Currently of interest to him are Ian Bogost and object-oriented ontology; the writings of Evgeny Morosov; Jeremy England and dissipation driven adaptive organization, and the science fiction of Charles Stross and Verner Vinge, among others.

Zigelbaum’s last major work, Pixel, a 40 x 40 inch lightbox whose light color and intensity can be altered by human touch, gained substantial art world attention last year since it received the second-highest bid at the Paddles ON! auction of artists using digital technologies and David Karp, Tumblr’s founder, bought Pixel. (Paddles ON! was the Phillips auction house’s first ever digital art auction—and was a collaboration with Tumblr.) Another edition of Pixel was later purchased by Android’s founder. In response to recent press about the tech world’s disinterest in art, Zigelbaum comments: “Maybe there’s a simple reason: there isn’t much work out generally in the market that interests tech people, and here I am thinking specifically of work authentically engaged with contemporary experiences like digital computing. I know dozens of artists making sophisticated and compelling work exploring such spaces—spaces of extreme importance to our culture, yet they are exhibiting and showing their work in other areas or on the peripheries of the market. Their work has broad appeal though, and is inclusive of the tech world. I think we’ll start to see things change.”

At right are images of Triangular Series in development. Triangular Series debuts at Design Miami/ Basel on June 17th.

Matthew Israel