COVID-19 Art Installation Sheds Light on Pandemic Data With Martin LED Video Tiles and P3 Control

Photo: Alex Contell

The Illuminate Cities Project recently incorporated Martin VC-Grid LED video tiles supplied by Hayden Production Services into a unique information-as-art installation called Illuminate: COVID-19.

Co-founded by architect Domingo Abrusci and urban planner Alexandra Payne, the Illuminate Cities Project is dedicated to improving cities through data exploration, art, design and engagement. Its pilot project, Illuminate: COVID-19, is an art installation that combines data mapping and lighting design to visually display COVID-19 infection and death rates alongside racial and economic demographic data, highlighting how the pandemic has affected specific communities in New York City. Brought to life in collaboration with fabrication and design specialist Robyn Squires of RYSQ LLC and lighting designer Elisa Forlini, a RIBA-certified architect, The installation is a large hanging lightbox which Abrusci designed as a map of New York City’s five boroughs. To illuminate the piece, the team required a highly adaptable lighting solution, and chose Martin VC-Grid LED video tiles and P3-PC control software to create an eye-catching design with a flexible, data-driven backend.

“My partner and I both live in Brooklyn, and our other collaborators live in Harlem and the Lower East Side,” said Alexandra. “All of the neighborhoods that we were living in were highly impacted by COVID-19. When Domingo and I started talking about the project, he imagined having the entire city turn off their lights to symbolize how the life had gone out of the city. We eventually agreed to use light as a way of translating the maps we were seeing in the news that showed the neighborhoods which were most affected. Our interest was not only to show where people were sick, but also to provide information which might suggest why those communities were being more intensely impacted. As a planner, it was also about visually displaying information in a more understandable way and making it accessible to individuals that aren’t normally digging through data and doing comparative mapping or correlation discovery.”

In order to create an effective installation that not only displayed data in an easily relatable format but also had strong aesthetic appeal to draw attention on the street, Illuminate: COVID-19 required a bright, colorful and versatile lighting solution. With guidance from Forlini, the team selected Martin VC-Grid fixtures and P3-PC control software as the perfect tools for the job, acquiring 24 fixtures through Martin distributor Hayden Production Services.

“At first, we were talking about using fiber optics, but we began running into this problem where we needed to be able to light up very different areas sometimes, or data that’s in very different geographic subsets, so we needed something that was super flexible on the backend,” added Alexandra. “Elisa, who we brought in because of her expertise as a lighting specialist, sent us a list of companies, and I just started calling people. We had developed a brief about what we needed the tools to do, and I got Ken Romaine from Martin on the line and said, ‘I’m not a lighting person. I don’t know anything about the backend of this. Can you walk me through how these tools work, what they do and what the cost is?’ And he was super helpful.”

The Martin VC-Grid is a creative LED video tile that provides maximum artistic flexibility in an easily configurable format. Each of the installation’s 24 tiles features 64 individually controllable pixels in an eight-by-eight grid with a 25mm pixel pitch for a total of more than 1,500 individual LEDs. With an output of up to 12,000 lumens per square meter and 16-bit per color image processing, the VC-Grid tiles make the map stand out on the crowded New York City streets with vivid colors and sharp contrast. A combined single-cable power and data input and throughput system makes it easy to connect large daisy-chained arrays to the P3 PowerPort 1500 unit, providing a streamlined solution for power and data delivery.

Martin P3-PC control software allowed Illuminate Cities to easily map a sequence of custom images onto the map of New York City, despite the asymmetrical configuration and orientation of the VC-Grid tiles required to fit the irregular shape of the piece. The free P3-PC software provided all the power and flexibility of the Martin P3 creative video and lighting platform in a convenient laptop-based solution, allowing the team to accurately map data with ease.

The piece displays four sets of data visualized by a spectrum of red to blue illumination in a looping sequence. First, areas are illuminated red in varying degrees of intensity to show COVID-19 infection rates from March–September 2020, the first wave of the pandemic in New York. Then, the map fades out and shifts to displaying COVID-19 death rates for the same period. Next, it highlights the locations of communities of color using US Census data for individuals who self-identified as Black, Indigenous or people of color (BIPOC). Finally, the map displays the percentage of people with income below the poverty threshold, also determined by US Census data. Before the sequence repeats, the outlines of the five boroughs briefly glow blue to indicate the cycle restarting.

“For a large part of the population, it might seem rather obvious,” Alexandra said of the data. “Yes, there’s social inequity, there’s drastic racial inequity in our country, but what does that actually mean when it comes to health? What does it mean when the majority of our frontline essential workers are also the people who are being most affected by this virus—not only in its immediacy from a health perspective, but also in terms of long-term wealth gaps and financial well-being—and how does that perpetuate the link between race, poverty and health disparities?”

“We really wanted to build something that would serve multiple purposes: to drive awareness about these issues and cause people to question the underlying structures that brought us here,” Added Abrusci. “We also wanted something that could be a form of art as a memorial and an access point so that people could engage with data about themselves and have their experience reified.”

Illuminate: COVID-19 debuted on December 16, 2020, hanging in the front window of The Canvas at 250 Bowery in Manhattan until February 28, 2021. The piece is now installed at the New York State Assembly District 74 offices at 107 Avenue B, where it will hang until April 12. As more data becomes available, the team plans to update the piece to include statistics related to COVID-19 vaccinations and health care access.