Lights in the night

Shanti Sumartojo and Alistair Riddell.

Shanti Sumartojo and Alistair Riddell. Photo by Belinda Pratten.

Can you teach an old artwork new tricks? KATHARINE PIERCE looks at a Canberra institution – the Illumicube.

It is at its most active when the city is at its busiest, but many of us will walk past it without a second glance.
Having enjoyed its glory days in the 90s it now sits alone, left out in the cold and robbed of its ability to connect with the community.

Presented to the people of Canberra in 1988 to commemorate 25 years of electricity supply by the ACT Electricity Authority, the Illumicube was designed to respond to the noises of the city, lighting up at the laughter and chatter of the people around it.

But in 2007, when the Illumicube was moved from its prime position outside The Canberra Theatre to make way for the ACT Veterans Memorial, its sound-activated lights were disabled. Now it is relegated to a quiet square on Ainslie Avenue.

Seeing that the ageing artwork was in some need of rejuvenation, ArtsACT approached the ANU School of Art to set about thinking of ways to reunite it with the Canberra community. Dr Alistair Riddell from the ANU School of
Art began work to revamp the Cube and Dr Shanti Sumartojo from the ANU School of Sociology started thinking about conceptualising the potential impact of the new Cube.

“Everybody has a memory of the Cube,” says Sumartojo.

“The fact that it has this public fondness means that it’s ripe for people to re-engage with it.”

Initially, they toyed with the idea of using elements of social media to encourage the public to interact with the new Cube.

“I think it would have been good to have the Cube sort of ‘tweeting’ to you,” says Riddell. “So you could say something and the Cube would respond. But the whole option of public interactivity was rather complex.

“I ended up opting for a much more technically sophisticated solution than just flashing lights, which is ready for an advanced engagement.

“For example, students could write up a program to generate data for the Cube and I could upload that and it would run, so that’s a halfway step to providing full interactivity.”

Future plans for the Cube may lie in some of the original ideas that Riddell and Sumartojo had, such as having the Cube go live on the Internet and giving people overseas the opportunity to design light patterns for it.

“We had the idea of the Cube being this sort of portal that you could interact with locally or globally,” says Sumartojo.

“Bringing people to the Cube was a key issue; the original extravagant projects we had were actually about trying to connect the world to the Illumicube,” adds Riddell.

The rejuvenated Cube also provides an opportunity to explore the way that public art shapes its surroundings, Sumartojo says.

“What we’re working on now is writing up what we think public art can do, and using the Cube as a way to look at public interactivity,” says Sumartojo. “So I’ll be watching how people interact with the Cube and documenting it.”

As winter approaches and the days become shorter, the revitalised shining lights of the Cube, operating from 6pm-6am daily, may attract the second glances it deserves.

Riddell and Sumartojo are now asking themselves the question: is Canberra as a city ready for this kind of artwork?

“Public art has the capacity to shape the space it’s in. Whether the Cube can overcome the fact that it’s been moved to a traffic intersection, I don’t know yet,” says Sumartojo.

Filed under: ANU, ANU Reporter


Updated:  25 March 2013/ Responsible Officer:  Director, SCAPA/ Page Contact:  Director, SCAPA