Integrating Media

Integrating Media: Art Museum Combines Video and Channel Letters

With its dedication to the fine arts, the Seattle Art Museum initiated a project to enhance its exterior and wanted to create an artistic piece that acted as more than your typical sign. Doug Aitken Workshop, an art studio in Los Angeles, took charge of the project and designed a display that integrated channel letters with two large LED video panels, which were provided by Barco, a hardware display manufacturer. The sign, titled MIRROR, spans across the building’s corner along First Avenue and Union Street, but despite its massive size, the display marries into the overall look of the Seattle Art Museum.

The content of the video board, which was filmed over the course of about two years, is constantly changing based on the environment. (Photo courtesy of Western Neon)

“We wanted it to become an extension of the building’s skin, something that’s embedded with intelligent relationship with the DNA of the building,” says Noah Sherburn, lead designer of Doug Aitken Workshop. “It took some close work with LMN Architects to make sure we used the same architectural material palette so that it was always in harmony with the surroundings.”

Projecting from the building, the video boards feature hours of scenic and urban film of the Pacific Northwest, shot by the Doug Aitken Workshop team over the course of a couple years, Sherburn says. Given the size of the video board and viewing distance, quality was especially important. As such, the scenes were shot with a RED brand digital camera at a high resolution of 13 millimeters. The video is played through a custom software system that chooses the content based on the surrounding environment.

“It becomes like a barometer for the city,” Sherburn says. “It can tell how much traffic there is in front of the building, what the wind is doing, and the temperature, so based on all these factors, there’s a set of rules that creates certain compositions. If you actually sat there and watched the film for even an hour, you probably wouldn’t see the same sequence happen. It’s constantly editing this ongoing film.”

Along the side of the building’s façade were diffused Barco LED strips enclosed in an exterior-rated etched glass, Sherburn says. Rather than use straight glass, the etched glass with the diffused light helped enhance the overall look.

“It was really important to have a physical etch in the glass, so it actually gathers the light at a microscopic level,” Sherburn says. “That gets you that blurring, which was important for the atmosphere’s look and feel.”

Western Neon, a custom sign shop in Seattle, fabricated and installed the building’s channel letters, says Stephen McCallum, sales and project manager. The channel letters, which were illuminated by white LEDs from CAO Group, were made with a No. 8 polished stainless steel finish. In this topographic position, the material of the channel letters works with the video as it reflects the featured images.

“The topography actually made it more challenging to fabricate because of the geometry of each of those faceted faces,” McCallum says. “You have to put it together like a puzzle, and it had to be pretty dead on. A CAD file that was used to water jet cut all those shapes, and each one was literally a triangle or trapezoid, and they also had to be at a certain angle in order to create the peaks and valleys of that faceted surface.”

Before installation of the channel letters, an armature had to be attached to access to the video boards. (Photo courtesy of Western Neon)

Putting together this intricate piece took some trial and error, McCallum says. Western Neon always had to think a few steps ahead to ensure the angles were correct and the pieces all fit. Of course, this took some patience during the fabrication process, but it was necessary even while on deadline.

Once the channel letters were ready for installation, transportation proved to be tricky, McCallum says. The channel letters were 8' tall, requiring Western Neon to make custom crates for each piece. This kept the signs safely stabilized as they were moved to the job site.

Before the channel letters were installed, the construction team had to make some building modifications, says Mike Morris, senior project manager for Sellen Construction Company, a commercial construction firm in Seattle. The video panels near the channel letters still had to be accessible for service, but given the size of the channel letters, the video panels would be blocked. To counter this, Sellen Construction Company had to extend the armature that held the channel letters.

When the channel letters reached the Seattle Art Museum, installation was fairly straightforward, McCallum says. The existing arms from the building’s original lettering were extended by about 10 inches prior to installation, but the rest of the process held no surprises, and the channel letters worked well as an integrated piece with the rest of the display.

“The channel letters are in front of a video panel, and the video is in motion displaying all different images: It moves, it scrolls, it fades in and out of focus, and it zooms in and zooms out,” McCallum says. “That’s all reflected immediately in the lettering.”

With this massive signage project now complete, Sherburn says he’s thrilled with the results. The finished piece closely achieved the original vision for the sign, and the advanced software with its high-resolution images creates a distinctive user experience. Each component of the sign fits together to attain that seamless look the Seattle Art Museum desired.

“It’s not this overwhelming barrage,” Sherburn says. “It’s a piece that rewards you for the time you spend with it because of all the content, so that’s unique in a way, but it can also grab your attention in a passing glance. It’s working at a really high level of sophistication and visual elegance. I feel fortunate to be able to bring something in a fine art context to the public. It says a lot about the city and museum.”