High tech public art shines in Waterfront Park

High tech public art shines in Waterfront Park
The art installation at Waterfront Park was designed to be interactive, respectful to the site and “Insta- grammable.” (Rendering from SOFTlab)

By Cody Mello-Klein | cmelloklein@alextimes.com

The word “lighthouse” typically conjures images of Babylonian towers guiding ships home. Alexandria’s latest public art project, however, offers a different interpretation.

Mirror Mirror, a new public art project that opens at Waterfront Park this weekend, is reimagining and reinterpreting the lighthouse – and Old Town’s waterfront.

“[The idea was] not necessarily a beacon or to warn ships but something that kind of marks the edge between land and water, which could also be a destination or a place that you might embark for another trip or another journey,” Mike Szivos, founder of SOFTlab, the New York-based design studio behind the project, said.

Mirror Mirror is the first installment in the Office of the Arts’ “Site/ See: New Views in Old Town” public art series and will remain in Waterfront Park until November. The lighthouse-inspired artwork takes the form of an open circle with sound-responsive technology. SOFTlab designed the installation to respond to sound with light so that visitors can interact with and alter the artwork’s appearance.

Mike Szivos, founder of New York-based design studio SOFTlab

With Mirror Mirror – as with every public art project – the Office of the Arts assembled a public art task force to put out a call to artists to submit their portfolios for review. The task force invited more than 50 artists to apply to create the public art at Waterfront Park, accord- ing to Diane Ruggiero, head of the Office of the Arts. Of the 50, nearly half responded to the invitation.

During its public art review process, the Office of the Arts doesn’t require artists to submit specific design plans. Instead, the task force reviews an applicant’s qualifications and portfolio to determine whether they would be suited to the goals of a particular project.

For the Waterfront Park project, the task force sought an artist who could develop a piece of art that was interactive, respectful to the site and “Instagrammable,” according to Ruggiero.

“The new wave of public art is not only [about] a great piece of public art, but now I can take my picture in front of it and share it with all of my friends,” Ruggiero said. “… The idea behind the series in general is that we want it to be something that will be worthwhile for folks to leave D.C. and come to Alexandria to see and to come multiple times.”

The task force found SOFTlab to be a design studio capable of tackling the high-profile project and creating something that was both a part of and apart from Old Town’s traditional aesthetic, Ruggiero said.

“Our work is very contextual but not in a way that it looks like the surroundings or mimics it. It responds to those elements,” Szivos said.

The task force selected SOFTlab for the project in May 2018. About a month later, Szivos came to Alexandria for a two-day visit. He said he came up with the idea for a lighthouse-inspired design after he saw the modest Jones Point Lighthouse during that trip.

Szivos said he came away from his time in Alexandria fairly confident that the task force wasn’t looking for just another statue, and Mirror Mirror is certainly not that.

A 25-foot wide, eight-foot tall laser cut aluminum open circle with a panorama of lenticular lenses backed by one-way mirrors and LEDs, the project evokes a lighthouse without mimicking one. Szivos said the reflective, sawtooth, lenticular lenses are the project’s most direct reference to a lighthouse.

From the outside, the glass creates fragmented reflections of the park and people walking by. However, because the design is an open circle, parkgoers can also walk inside and experience something totally different. The lenticular lenses are angled to create a series of rotated box-like chambers that house LEDs.

“What’ll happen is that when it lights, it actually makes that surface transparent,” Szivos said. “Because it’s backed by a one-way mirror, it will actually produce an infinity box. That light will get reflected infinitely depending on if you’re standing on the inside or the outside.”

The installation crew for Mirror Mirror works on bringing the public art piece to life on March 24. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

The project gets its name from this infinite series of reflections and refractions.

In September 2018, Szivos pitched the design to the task force, which was largely on board. There were a few concerns, however, mostly regarding the technological aspect of the piece.

“We wanted to make sure that the piece didn’t make any sound that would interfere with people’s enjoyment of the surrounding area,” Ruggiero said.

To ensure the installation remains respectful to the site, Mirror Mirror is a sound-responsive, not sound-producing, artwork.

The Office of the Arts had originally planned to open the installation in October 2018, but heavy rain made it difficult to install the project and its accompanying mural. Five months later, it is scheduled to open to the community this weekend. There will be a public reception on Saturday from 2 to 9 p.m.

Mirror Mirror is planned to be the first of several temporary art installations at Waterfront Park. After it retires in November, the next project in the “Site/See: New Views in Old Town” series will be installed in 2020. Both the city and SOFTlab have high hopes for Mirror Mirror. Ruggiero said it’s the beginning of something new for Alexandria’s public art presence.

“I’m really just looking forward to getting the community excited about public art in Alexandria,” Ruggiero said. “I think that this is going to be something really new and unique for our city.”

Szivos said he hopes that, like the name implies, Mirror Mirror will help Alexandrians reflect on how they interact with their city and rediscover that there is serendipity on Alexandria’s streets.

“The urban environment can have surprises,” Szivos said. “It doesn’t need to be an extension of that pragmatism that says, ‘Hey, streets, sidewalks. How do I get from A to B?’”