While it may seem that Madison Square has turned into a landing strip for extraterrestrials, it’s actually the handiwork of Erwin Redl, an Austrian musician turned artist who lives in the United States. He specializes in using computer-controlled lighting to build dynamic installations that dazzle with sci-fi effects. His latest piece, Whiteout, is no exception. Suspended in rows of lighted orbs from a network of cables strung between steel poles, Whiteout hangs just a couple of feet off the ground, creating a carpet of illuminated spheres that sway in the wind and change appearance according to a programmed sequence. Time Out New York recently met Redl at Madison Square to discuss Whiteout and the impact of music on his work.
Why is your work so focused on light?
I’m very interested in ephemeral media, which may come from my background in music. But I also come from a family of furniture makers, so by studying electronic music, I realized that I could combine technology and craft. I could use the same set of algorithms that are used to make music to make art.
Does your musical background still factor into your work?
Absolutely. I’ve always been influenced by the work of Steve Reich and European avantgardists like Iannis Xenakis, who is also a visual artist. Then, of course, there’s Bach and John Cage. His openness to chance has been very influential. For me, art and music are the same. They both explore the relationship between the abstract and the corporeal.
Do you call yourself a digital artist or a light artist or something else entirely?
“Artist” is good enough for me. Besides, my work is about more than just light. I also do a lot of kinetic work. The piece at Madison Square Park is kinetic and also interactive, though more with the environment than with the viewer. I also do sculptures and installations, which I’d describe as unplugged.
What do you mean by saying that the piece interacts more with the environment than with the viewer?
You can’t interact with the piece in the sense of walking through it because the park replants its lawn during the winter. But you can walk around it, and because you experience the work as a unified field, anyone on the other side of it will look like they’re actually inside the installation. That’s why it’s called Whiteout, which is a weather condition in which snow alters visibility.
How do you create your work?
It starts with a drawing, which I scan into a 3-D program to figure out angles and dimensions. Later, I print my designs on spreadsheets, which allows me to introduce an element of chance. It’s like the Bill Gates version of John Cage.
Who’s your ideal viewer: someone who knows your work or someone who just stumbles upon it?
I’m always flattered when people know my work, but I’m happy that as many as 60,000 people a day have a chance to discover something new.
And how do you hope they respond to the piece?
Well, I hope they come back to see it at different times of day and in different kinds of weather. But first I want it to stop people in their tracks.
Erwin Redl’s Whiteout is on view at Madison Square Park through Mar 25 (madisonsquarepark.org).