Projections against a building as part of Art on the Mart

Image by, courtesy of ART on THE MART

Analog Meets ART on the MART in SAIC Students’ Collaboration

Images ripple over the art deco facade of the Merchandise Mart, sound booming from nearby speakers. The home of ART on THE MART, this 2.5 acre digital installation site in downtown Chicago is one of the largest in the world. And this year, it features the work of School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) students.

Associate Professor Jan Tichy, who was one of ART on THE MART’s inaugural artists and now serves on its advisory board, helped launch this opportunity as a collaboration between the School’s Art and Technology / Sound Practices and Photography departments. Students in Tichy’s Digital Light Projections course paired with Lecturer Austen Brown’s Analog Synthesis students to create two-minute projections and sound works combined into a single artwork under the theme and title of Analog.

The word Analog spans a building

Rio Usui, who is studying at SAIC as an exchange student from Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, explained the first gathering of both classes in which each student brought a sample of their work. “We just came with our sound piece or video, and without knowing each other, without knowing whose work is what, we just put them on a table,” she said. Viewing each video and sound sample, the classes divided themselves into pairs based on style and interest.

In early September, both courses met at the Merchandise Mart for a 15-second test run and critique of each work in progress, in which they discovered the challenges of creating site-specific work.

Cyrus Spurlock, Usui’s collaborative partner, explained that the lines and colors of their projection were less clear when enlarged on the building’s facade and its location near the river curbed the sound’s reach. “You could not hear anything below 100 Hz. It’s a very narrow band in which audio will be heard, so one of the things our professor [Brown] mentioned in class is it’s gonna be important to be abrasive because there is so much ambience already with the city,” Spurlock said.

Trial, error, and collaboration have been integral aspects of this project. To Tichy, it was important to emulate future professional experiences. “We are trying in a way, like everything within the education system, to model some possibilities that might happen down the road,” he said. “You might find your best friend to collaborate with, but you might also just be paired with somebody that you have to figure out how to make [art] together.”

Usui and Spurlock’s work, Gaze at the Moon, considers the relationship between architecture, space, and humanity, using the upcoming phases of the moon. The ever-enlarging images of the moon’s surface center on the facade and then expand across the building. Meanwhile, the sound evokes racing heartbeats, accelerating as the moon becomes larger.

ART on THE MART’s massive scale makes it a unique student project. The building’s facade is draws visitors in the thousands in addition to its online platform. This year, it’s also included in the Chicago Architecture Biennial. This being a big opportunity for students is an understatement.

Another student pair, Fionn Kelly and Haeun Lee, tried not to think too much about the intimidating scale of the opportunity. “I’m gonna challenge myself and I’m gonna stick with it,” Kelly said. “So, [the opportunity] means a lot, but I’d have to say, right now, I think when I see it up there and maybe pass by it a few times, maybe I’ll finally get it.”

Lee has also been focused on enjoying the process. “[I want to] try to enjoy this time, because I think it’s a really rare opportunity to be in a class while doing a public art [project] together,” Lee said.

Lee and Kelly’s collaboration, Fragmented Flow, points viewers to the nearby Chicago River. Using the magic lantern technique, which projects light onto transparent plastic found in the river to enlarge images, close-up views of waste material and recycling symbols are paired with oscillating beats that transport viewers underwater. Their projection inspects pollutants and waste in the river in an effort to encourage collective action and self-reflection on our role in the environment.

The opening night of ART on the MART always draws visitors, but the continuous display of the work will also create spontaneous viewership. “It’s really cool to have such a big stage to show something, but I think [what’s] the most interesting is that it’s pretty rare that you get to show something to a very unassuming person, someone that would maybe never, ever cross paths with your work,” Spurlock said.

This project erases the idea that certain exhibitions or sites are out of reach for student expression. “[ART on the MART is] the primary platform for technology in art. That’s where we need to be,” said Tichy, “and that’s where we believe that our students have to be.”  

Analog is now on view at ART on the MART every night at 7:30 p.m. through December 30. And SAIC has already secured next year’s slot for the fall, which will open November 20, 2024.

The Analog class together