Arts art review

Shedding light on campus

The illuminated artwork Light Matrix by Leo Villareal is officially dedicated at E52

Light Matrix (MIT), 2016
Leo Villareal

Depending on whom you ask, it is either the new sparkling waterfall, starry sky, or ball of light adorning the entrance to the recently renovated Morris and Sophie Chang Building (better known as E52). Light Matrix, as the work of art is officially titled, is part of the List Center’s Percent-For-Art program, which has been commissioning art for campus renovations since 1968.

The artist Leo Villareal is best known for The Bay Lights, his stunning rejuvenation of the Bay Bridge in 2013. The spellbinding array of 25,000 LEDs generates patterns across the San Francisco skyline, and has drawn such praise from the community that the originally temporary installation was made permanent this year.

As part of the official dedication of Light Matrix, Villareal spoke on campus about the inspiration behind The Bay Lights, and many other pieces in his impressive body of work. Originally trained in sculpture, he acquired his passion for illuminated displays after breathing life into a simple 16 LED matrix at Burning Man. Although his pieces today require a number of LEDs many orders of magnitude higher, they still tap into the same inspiration to build “digital bonfires” — pieces that draw crowds to gather around and stare into their mesmerizing patterns.

Each piece begins with an array of LEDs — whether colored or monochrome; planar or volumetric — which Villareal then programs into sweeping, evolving patterns that take more than a little inspiration from Conway’s Game of Life. Much of the piece’s programming is actually done on site, in a fascinating process he likens to “tuning a physical instrument.” His aim is for each of his pieces to capture and interact with its surroundings — The Bay Lights, for example, drew inspiration from the oscillating waters around it.

As I sat outside E52, I tried to imagine the environmental influences that fed into Light Matrix. Interestingly, unlike his other works, which are either imposing centerpieces or oversized murals, Light Matrix is uniquely hidden. Enclosed in a vestibule, while sitting in the shadow of Dewey on one side and Tang on the other, there is no real angle from which to appreciate Light Matrix except when approaching it head-on, or standing under it. But from five-till to five-after the hour, this is hardly the thoroughfare any student would opt to linger in.

In a quieter moment, I found the chance to sit through the overall arc of the piece — watching as it transformed from singular points of lights, to pools at either end of its custom stainless steel rods, to a central globe. One might interpret that each point of light is meant to represent an idea on this campus, blossoming with persistent randomness. Together, they form beautifully distinct patterns that emerge depending on your vantage point. Over time, they congregate, polarize, or tear asunder — perhaps in the rise and fall of paradigms, or in the currents of opportunity, termed neural networks today and CRISPR tomorrow.

But in going about our day-to-day lives, these themes become as lost to us as the full sequence of Light Matrix. Perhaps as each of us cuts through this place with the rush of ambition — just as we race through the doors of E52, heads down and unto ourselves — we catch only a static instance of this ever-changing swell of human understanding.