The collaborative process behind TABULA, a public artwork of architectural light and data

Posted by Charles Gadeken, Aug 14, 2017 0 comments

This post is part of our Public Art Network 2017 Year in Review blog salon.

When I was approached by Brick architectural firm to create a site-specific piece of art for their building in Palo Alto, I was thrilled! This would be my largest piece of permanent public art to date. The resulting piece, TABULA, was a huge effort of collaboration on the parts of many talented people, and was a learning experience for us all.


Bringing TABULA to life required deep collaboration with architects, scientists, artists, programmers, city officials, construction personnel, and real estate management and insurance companies, but together we were able to get it done. I am very proud and happy with what we accomplished.


When I first saw the long slim fins mounted on the building, it was clear that rebuilding those to be transparent and integrating the LEDs would create an evocative and beautiful work of art and bring the building to life. Being in the heart of Silicon Valley, I decided that the light programming should be data-driven with a series of live datasets. I tapped my friend DVR to join me, as he has a solid portfolio of light installations based on seismic data. The first iteration of TABULA is based on an earlier work of DVR’s titled “Earth Light Seat,” a public LED light display which responded to real-time globally detected seismic activity and was presented in Newtown, Sydney, Australia in 2013. We conceived a plan whereby the light panels would depict a map, on which live and historical datasets would be broadcasted, and colors would change daily. Thus, the artwork is a map of the world, a work of science, a history book, a newspaper, a calendar—all in one! TABULA was born.

TABULA. Photo by Allen Mort.

The effort of taking our concept to reality was monumental, and could not have been done without the programming efforts of Rene Christen of CodeOnCanvas and Ryan McGee of LifeOrange. We received custom LEDs from Mark Lottor of 3WayLabs. We designed and fabricated our plastic light diffusion fins with Reeves Extruded Products, Inc. However, much of the assemblage and installation of the art was done by outside contractors for the building. As a DIY artist, I found it personally difficult to give over the installation of my art to a construction company. The level of coordination required amongst all the involved teams definitely slowed my usual solo creative process. Bringing TABULA to life required deep collaboration with architects, scientists, artists, programmers, city officials, construction personnel, and real estate management and insurance companies, but together we were able to get it done. I am very proud and happy with what we accomplished in TABULA. It was quite a learning experience for me, which has prepared me well for the next public art opportunity.

Continuing challenges on TABULA include updating and maintaining the art. Unlike a static sculpture, this complicated piece of technology requires constant vigilance to be sure the LEDs and computer are operational. In addition, we will be changing the datasets every two years to reflect a new earthly phenomenon, which will require a whole new round of software programming. This is officially the biggest art effort that I have ever embarked upon, even more than the two 50-ft LED trees I built for Coachella, one of which is installed right now at the Hermitage Museum in Norfolk, Virginia. As such, it is extremely gratifying to have TABULA recognized by Americans for the Arts PAN Year in Review.

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