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The Technology Behind Fishnet Art

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Janet Echelman

Janet Echelman isn’t your typical artist. Far from the traditional image of a lone painter standing at her easel with only a brush and paint palette, she works in conjunction with entire teams to build enormous public art displays.

Her sculptures, which hang from metropolitan skyscrapers throughout the world, are formed using a variety of traditional nautical techniques, a creative eye and cutting-edge technology.

Echelman, a classically trained artist, began experimenting with net sculptures while visiting a fishing village in India. She uses a variety of woven fabrics and lights to create free-flowing structures than can be hung from poles, ceilings or even buildings.

While the visual effect is stunning, what is perhaps more intriguing is the technology behind Echelman’s work. She utilizes customized technology to plan and create her masterpieces.

The Technology

fishnet sculpture

Echelman’s use of technology starts with her planning and building process. She doesn’t simply start weaving fishnets together. There are several practical reasons that technology is required.

To begin with, she is planning and designing by proxy. She is more like an architect building a blueprint of a vision to guide construction workers than she is a painter at an empty canvas. She needs to be able to precisely direct the activities of loom operators and construction teams, along with mechanical, lighting and aeronautic engineers.

In addition to directing others, she must also find ways to test possible arrangements and see their effects on buildings. Her most recent piece in Boston, for instance, weighs more than a ton and can exert up to 70 tons of stress on each of the three buildings. A slight miscalculation or a bit of overexuberance on her part could literally level major city buildings.

Working closely with a team of engineers and computer technicians at Autodesk, she helped develop a three-dimensional computer program capable of modeling designs and testing them for possible problems. She is able to add and remove material in her cyber designs, selecting patterns and thicknesses according to both the aesthetic appeal and the mathematical limits. This software can also preview the possible difficulties that weather, such as strong winds, might impose.

“The software has allowed me to explore density, shape and scale in much greater detail,” Echelman states on her website. “We can manipulate our designs and see the results immediately. We’re able to push the boundaries of our designs further.”

At night, viewers receive a special treat. Echelman’s designs often feature the use of LED lights hooked to individual sensors, which can be controlled through a variety of methods, creating truly remarkable sights. In her most recent project, the one-ton net that will hang over Boston until October, she employed the use of high-capacity load cells, which convert weight to an electric signal. After attaching these load cells to LEDs, the lights of her sculpture react to the natural twists and turns of the material, altering the lighting to accent the work.

In her Vancouver display, Echelman chose a different direction. Viewers could interact directly with the sculpture by using their mobile devices. The work, co-designed by director of Google’s Creative Labs Aaron Koblin, utilized a variety of coding and WebGL technology to create a truly unique experience. Viewers are able to slide their finger across their mobile devices to alter and otherwise interact with the lighting on the project. The structure will also transmit a sound back to the mobile device using JavaScript API for a multisensory experience. Even the design itself is a nod to technology, as it is designed to mimic a 10 million pixel Google Chrome window.

Eichelman’s unique masterpieces are a clear example of ways in which modern technology can bring us new, unbelievable works of aesthetic beauty. As the limits of computer and electronic technology continue to be stretched, art lovers certainly have major reason to smile when thinking about the future.

Images by Christopher Michel and Kenny Louie

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