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ESI Design/Caleb Tkach
ESI Design/Caleb Tkach

Algorithms transform Chicago scenes into trippy lobby art

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Office lobbies are prime spots for corporations to make statements about their values and taste, yet "lobby art" is usually a shorthand way of saying "insipid crap." However, a studio called ESI Design has given a Chicago office building a much more interesting, experimental and local take on it. Called "Canvas," it's a 14- by 23-foot LED display installation that generates moving paintings based on video from the Chicago River and Navy Pier amusement park rides. "The daily motion of Chicago 'paints' the pictures into place at 515 North State," said ESI's Senior Designer Ed Purver.

ESI Design created the installation at 515 North State, the first US skyscraper created by Pritzker award-winning architect Kenzō Tange. The building used to be the home of the American Medical Association, but now touts "best-in-class connectivity," rooftop honeybees and organic gardens. The brutalist-style gray lobby, while foreboding, is the perfect backdrop for ESI Design's colorful installation.

The videos at first appear to be just wild, streaking colors, but eventually they morph into realistic images of boats, trains and people. The images are created by custom paint-simulation software "in a poetic interpretation of human vision," as ESI Design puts it.

"Our custom software analyzes each video for moving objects, so moments like a person walking, or a car driving become the 'brushstrokes' that slowly create each abstraction," explained Purver. "As each video collides with the next, new compositions unfold in real time, literally creating thousands of possibilities in this one-of-a-kind evolving digital artwork."

All told, the system can generate up to 5,000 unique canvases from the five hours of footage that was shot specially for the project at 16 separate locations. The massive installation can easily be seen from the street, and even from Google Street View, if you can't make it in person.

ESI didn't say how much the installation cost, but we imagine that the owner, real estate behemoth Beacon Capital Partners, can easily afford it. In any case, it's probably a lot cheaper than a Picasso, and more accessible and relevant to the Chicago public, too.

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