Last night, the Microsoft flagship store on Fifth Avenue between 53rd and 54th Streets served as an unlikely cultural venue. On Thursday evenings, much of the art world often infiltrates Chelsea, the Lower East Side, or even the Upper East Side for exhibition openings; the upper level of the retail store served as an alternate gathering place for art critics—alongside corporate executives, publicists, and anyone else who secured a spot on the guest list. Through the ground floor sales area and up a flight of stairs, the crowd gathered to eat hors d’oeuvres, drink wine, and listen to artist Tabor Robak describe his new digital artwork, Sundial, which debuted on a screen on the building’s facade.
The Brooklyn-based Robak has also exhibited in more typical venues. He shows at the hip Lower East Side Team Gallery, and museums in Shanghai, Tokyo, and Zurich have all included his work. His Liquid Demo recently played on a screen at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center as part of a larger citywide digital art exhibition organized by the New York non-profit, Public Art Fund.
During a discussion with Florin Gale, Creative Director of Microsoft Store, Robak briefly explained how he developed the design. “I originally approached this piece as almost a scientific experiment. I set out on a journey to develop a system to procedurally generate color palettes,” he said. Afterward, he showed me on his laptop the different source material that contributes to the undulating, three dimensional shapes in the work.
Robak researched the different climates / biomes of Earth (tundra, desert, rainforest, etc.) and referenced a map that plotted them in two dimensions. He then purchased 700 images from the Adobe stock website of the environments, attempting to find one for each hour of the day. “You end up going through people’s vacation photos,” he said. “These are pictures that people are selling on Adobe for ten bucks.” Relating his technologically complex version of sampling to a more traditional art form, he compared this process to crushing flowers to create pigments. Selecting pixels from various images, he created his palettes to correspond to different hours. The completed Sundial also changes according to the time of day, mirroring the city’s mood.
Hailing from Portland, Oregon, Robak discussed a more West Coast appreciation for nature as well as a love for the rhythm of New York’s four distinct seasons. “I just wanted to bring fresh weather to New York. It sounds really silly, but… I’m affected by the light. I love being outdoors,” he said. He viewed the screen on the front of the building as “almost like a cloud…a little weather box.”
There’s an irony here, too: in his design, images of climates become jumbled beyond recognition and a screen – in a city known for privileging the manmade over the natural – serves as a substitute for the sky itself. Bustling city dwellers (who might just be complaining about our awful weather) will look up and see pixels from images of places they’d rather be. A sense of distorted escapism and a mingling of the natural and the artificial pervades the work.
“The idea behind this culture wall, from an aesthetic perspective, was really to push this notion of what is possible with a digital screen,” said Gale. The collaboration also explores the potentialities of mingling commerce, technology, and art in new ways. Gale and Microsoft will examine the response to Robak’s piece before deciding whether to continue working with contemporary artists to program the screen. Hopefully, this partnership will serve as the beginning of a fruitful relationship that supports local artists, offers large-scale accessible public art, and provides a forum where aesthetics and innovation can intersect with everyday errands and routine. “There’s already so many large scale video displays that aren’t being used,” said Robak. Why not give more of them to artists seeking new outlets?