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Va. Tech architecture students create installation at Smithsonian

May 5, 2013


May 05--A Virginia Tech architecture professor and her students created a technologically interactive art installation modelled on Japanese lanterns at the Smithsonian.

Part of a series called "The Lantern Field," the installation consisted of swaths of paper folded into flowery shapes hung from bamboo poles. Motion sensors caused the lighting to change colors and electronic bamboo chime sounds to change rhythm as people moved through the space beneath the "lanterns."

"The Lantern Field" was on display at the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art during the National Cherry Blossom Festival in April. The seeds that grew to become the installation were planted before Aki Ishida joined the Tech faculty.

The project was inspired by the lantern festivals Ishida saw while growing up in Japan.

"Public parks would transform overnight into magical landscapes," she said. Yet that magic was ephemeral. "These were paper lanterns that would go away after the days of the festival."

"The Lantern Field," too, was ephemeral. The installation went up April 5 and came down two days later after the gallery closed.

Ishida, 42, came to the United States when she was 11. By 2005 she was a New York architect teaching part-time at the Rhode Island School of Design. Japanese architecture has a tradition of using paper to modify lighting.

In 2011, Ishida and her students created "Luminous Washi Lanterns," a lighted paper installation that was part of the Concert for Japan fundraiser organized by the New York-based nonprofit Japan Society to benefit the Japan Earthquake Relief Fund.

"It received quite a bit of attention," Ishida said, including interest from John Malott, president the Japan-America Society of Washington, D.C., in creating a similar project. A board member of National Cherry Blossom Festival Inc., Malott put Ishida in touch with festival director of programming Lillian Iversen.

As they discussed venues, Ishida said she thought of the Freer Gallery, part of the Smithsonian's Museums of Asian Art, as it could offer shelter from the weather yet let an installation be accessible to the outdoors. When approached by Iverson, the Freer Gallery liked the idea, too.

In 2012 Ishida came to Virginia Tech to teach full time. Though projects like "Luminous Washi Lanterns" were difficult to pull off while teaching part time, but coming to Tech opened new doors for collaboration. "I didn't have this direct access to technology and technologists the way I do here," she said.

The making of "The Lantern Field" not only involved Ishida and her 11 sophomore architecture design students, but also Ico Bukvic, a music technology professor who leads the university's Linux Laptop Orchestra (L2Ork), and Brennon Bortz, a doctoral candidate in computer science working under Ben Knapp, director of the university's new Institute for Creativity, Arts, & Technology.

Bortz designed the lighting system that caused the illumination to change colors within a spectrum of rose tints in response to people's movement. Bukvic created a ultrasonic sensor-controlled system that also responded to movement.

Bukvic said that he designed an audio component that would sound at first like bamboo chimes, but listeners who paid attention would notice that the chimes had a surreal metallic reverb. Those who actively tried to explore how they could affect the sound would be rewarded by the appearance of deeper notes, which could also emerge in response to a general flurry of activity.

The group made a similar art installation called "Luminous Kite Lanterns" at the Blacksburg Farmers Market in September that proved to be a prototype for the Smithsonian work.

On April 6, with the festival in full swing, students held a day-long workshop at the Freer Gallery in which visitors could fold and decorate their own paper lanterns that were then added to the installation.

Ishida hopes to create more interactive art like it. "I would like this to be an ongoing experimental project," she said.

L2Ork concert

At 7:30 p.m. Monday, ICAT and the Virginia Tech music department's Digital Interactive Sound and Intermedia Studio will present "Between," a free dubstep concert in Squires Studio Theatre by the university's Linux Laptop Orchestra, also known as L2Ork, led by music technology professer Ico Bukvic. The group creates music using Nintendo Wii remote controls and Linux programming on laptop computers. Several guest musicians will also take part. For more information, visit

Broadway season

Sally Struthers of the venerated CBS sitcom "All in the Family" and many Christian Children's Fund commercials headlines the 2013-14 Broadway in Roanoke season.

Struthers will star in "Hello, Dolly!" as matchmaker Dolly Levi, who sets out to find a wife for the curmudgeonly "half-a-millionaire" Horace Vandergelder. Struthers' role was originated on stage by Carol Channing in a Tony Award-winning performance and in motion pictures by Barbra Streisand.

Other newcomers to the lineup include the critically panned but hugely popular musical adaptation of "The Addams Family" as well as "American Idiot," based on the concept album by punk band Green Day. Jukebox musical "Million Dollar Quartet" is inspired by a real-life recording session that gathered Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.

Here's the full schedule:

-- Oct. 2: "Disney's Beauty and the Beast"

-- Nov. 12: "Hello, Dolly!" starring Sally Struthers

-- Nov. 15: Straight No Chaser, a cappella singing group

-- Dec. 1: Cirque Dreams Holidaze

-- Dec. 19: "Mamma Mia!"

-- Jan. 23, 2014: "Million Dollar Quartet"

-- Feb. 6, 2014: "The Addams Family"

-- March 8, 2014: "Hair"

-- April 10, 2014: "American Idiot"

Organizers note that "Hair" and "American Idiot" include mature content.

Broadway in Roanoke is selling subscription packages ranging from $135 to $190. For more information, call 853-5374 or visit

Lexington juried show

Nelson Gallery, a nine-member artist co-op in Lexington, is putting out a call for submissions for its 14th Annual Juried Show, prizes for which include a $1,000 Best in Show award. Other prizes include a Members' Choice Award of a solo Nelson Gallery show in 2014.

The juror is painter Langdon Quin, a Washington & Lee University alum who is a professor emeritus of painting and drawing at the University of New Hampshire.

There's an entry fee of $30 for up to three digital submissions. The deadline is June 11. For more information and to download a prospectus, visit or call (540) 463-9827.

Civil War hauntings

At 5 p.m. today Blue Ridge PBS (Channel 15) will air "This Place Is Haunted," an hour-long documentary by Abingdon actor and filmmaker Jerry Sword that investigates ghostly legends in Southwest Virginia and Tennessee.

Battle footage utilizing regional reenactment groups and some digital effects help bring to life the stories of the Sinking Spring Cemetery in Abingdon -- where the first grave was dug on July 4, 1776 -- the Civil War battlefields at Saltville, the 157-year old Edmondson Hall in Meadowview and other sites reputed to be haunted.

There's purpose beyond entertainment to examining these spectral stories. "People are going to get history lessons about these places that aren't in the textbooks," Sword said.

For more information on the film, visit

On the blog

Visit my Arts & Extras blog at to have a look at the video of the making of "The Lantern Field."


(c)2013 The Roanoke Times (Roanoke, Va.)

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