Ever since its debut in the 2008 Olympics, the Beijing National Aquatics Center (aka the Water Cube) has gotten high marks for its sudsy glass facade. But beyond the appeal of lava lamp architecture, the venue's eye-catching exterior also happens to make a great platform for public expression.
Last week artist Jennifer Wen Ma and lighting designer Zheng Jianwei (both lighting consultants on Herzog & de Meuron's Bird's Nest) powered up their new interactive LED installation, "Nature and Man in Rhapsody of Light at the Water Cube." Every night between dusk and 10 p.m., a custom lighting program surveys the emoticons on China's Twitter-like service, Sina Weibo, to send ripples of color across the Water Cube's facade based on the national mood. But if you want to decode this rainbow of bubbly hues, you'll need a copy of the I Ching.
The program's software combs through Weibo users' smileys and other emoticons and sorts them into around 70 categories, which determine the shade and movement of the bubbles. The colors themselves correspond to hexagrams from the ancient Chinese text—red for fire, blue for water, white for heaven, purple for "marsh"—but beyond that, you're kind of on your own. As the Wall Street Journal quasi-explains, the hexagram for "water on water," combined with a happy mood, generates rising peaks of light blue light. Here's a short video of "wind" in action.
Twitter-based installations may be nothing new, but this is more than a splashy art piece. As Ma told the WSJ, "Nature and Man" gives Chinese citizens a public platform for expression—and it's a big deal that the artists secured government permission to allow negative emoticons into their data. “I want people to feel like they have some authorship because their emotions are being registered,” she said. “I really had to fight for the right to feel what we feel.”
Of course, many posts on Weibo are already censored, so there's that. But the simple act of projecting people's feelings—even if those feelings are sometimes wearing sunglasses or drooling beneath giant heart-eyes—does begin to stake a claim for a public voice in state-run spaces. “This is maybe the first landmark building [which] communicates with society,” Jianwei told the WSJ. “Every day it will change its face [according] to the people.”
All images courtesy of Jennifer Wen Ma
[via the Wall Street Journal]