Light and sound installation triumphs at Athens 2004 Olympics.

» Despite the complaints of some that the Olympics has become too commercial, or that it is really politics and nationalism disguised, at its honest best, the games celebrate sport and the accomplishments of athletes. It is also an opportunity for the host cities to introduce themselves to the world. A lot was at stake for Athens, the birthplace of the modern Olympiad, as it prepared to host the 2004 Summer Games. The city extended its imaging campaign beyond the realm of athletics to include culture and architecture with a program called 'Catch the Light: Routes through Athens.' Designed to introduce visitors to parts of the city beyond the Olympic venues, 'Catch the Light' celebrated Athens, past and present, and focused on the unique quality of light associated with the city. Nine international artists/design teams were invited to create interactive art installations along five prescribed walking routes through the historic center of the city. White Noise, White Light, created by architect and MIT faculty member J. Meejin Yoon with the help of a team of six young design and engineering professionals, interpreted the spirit of the city through light and sound.

Exclusive online content MOVIE: View this movie for a demonstration of the installation at night. (Please note: The file is large and will take a few minutes to download. It also requires QuickTime 5.0.)

Yoon was asked by the Look of the City Section of Athens 2004 to submit a proposal because of her interactive media work and a project she had created as a recipient of a 2002 Young Architects award from the Architectural League in New York City. Although she had never specifically worked with the medium of light before, because of her background in interactive installations she felt the Athens venue was a 'great opportunity to investigate lighting.'

When Yoon submitted her proposal she knew her installation would be along the 'Listen to Athens' route, and she would be charged to consider the sounds of the city in its presentation. She explains, 'There are so many sounds in the city you hear unadulterated; I didn't want to just record the city and play it back without filtering it in some way. We wanted to achieve something that was poetic, quiet and powerful all at the same time.' The team generated its own white noise samples electronically, incorporating all sounds at all frequencies.

Located at the plaza at Dionysiou Areopagitou Street, which is in view of the Acropolis, as well as the Ancient Theater of Dionysus, the project is a 15-square-meter field of 4-foot-tall fiber optic 'light stalks' embedded in a 6-inch-high wooden platform. The light source for each stalk is comprised of three white LEDs, and the fiber, because it is pliant, yet resilient, carries the light through the rod to a silicone end-cap. The stems respond to pedestrian movement swaying, as visitors brush by. 'We wanted the installation to be a piece of artificial nature in the city, and we were interested in the relationship of the stalks to one's body as one moves through the field,' says Yoon. Initially illuminated at 40 percent, as people touch the stalks, they illuminate to a 100 percent output. Simultaneously, concealed speakers are activated to emit electronic sound samples. Collectively the sounds create an array of 'white noise' and visitors interact with the city in a way previously unimagined-as both a generator and manipulator of light, sound and space.

For Yoon, the experience of being in Athens and the interaction with the people and other artists was tremendous. 'The most amazing thing,' she says, 'was how public this project was. Everyone had an opinion, or advice on how we could improve the installation. That was great, listening to all the comments and misinterpretations. As an architect you never really stand by your building and watch people interact with it and make comments.'

She continues, 'One of the most incredible moments was the opening night when an elderly Greek woman came with roses for the entire project team and said, 'Thank you so much for bringing this to Athens. Thank you from the city''-which proves that art can be just as important as athletics in fostering cross-cultural communication. Elizabeth Donoff