A spectacular display of art and technology, artist and architect Suchi Reddy‘s “me + you” sculpture bursts with light, color and collective emotion in the central rotunda of the Smithsonian Institution Arts and Industries Building. The architecturally significant museum—which opened on the National Mall in Washington, DC in 1881—closed in 2004. It now reopens with an awe-inspiring exhibition called FUTURES, where Reddy’s work plays a pivotal role. Underscoring the glowing, interactive artwork is the concept that our emotions contribute to the world around us.
To understand the shimmering 20-foot-tall work requires knowing how to interact with it. Visitors to the museum can step up to one of the sculpture’s nine mandalas. When the mandala turns green, they can speak “my future looks…” and add a forth word of their own choosing that represents how they feel. Through voice-recognition technology, machine learning and an algorithm, the final word (and the tone used to convey it) is interpreted into a unique explosion of color on the mandala. After the personal presentation ends, the colors all join the central tower—creating a colorful, collective vision of the hopes and dreams of all participants. It functions on so many levels: the aesthetic experience is fantastical; the conceptual undertones are thoughtful.
“About two years ago, curator Isolde Brielmaier came to me and asked if I would like to make a proposal to be considered for an artwork in the rotunda at the Smithsonian,” Reddy, founder of Reddymade architecture and design firm, explains. “That work needed to address the possible relationship between humans and technology. I came up with this idea of turning the vibration of sound into the vibration of light, playing with emotion through technology.” It was chosen and fabrication began in July of last year.
“It’s the work of so many talented people—a labor of love and passion on the part of everyone involved,” she says. Amazon Web Services (AWS) commissioned the work and brought Brielmaier in. “From the technology team at AWS (who helped us with the backend and all of the information processing, as well as the artificial intelligence and machine learning) to my own technological team (who helped me create all of the visual code that overlays the patterns on the information that we get back from the ML data) to my fabrication team at Bednark Studios, who helped me build this cloud sculpture that has thousands of acrylic tubes and nine mandalas—each of which was 1,600 LEDs hand-soldered in them,” Reddy explains that turning her concept into a physical sculpture required the skills of many.
Reddy’s work with neuroaesthetics—which we’ve observed in-person everywhere from Milan Design Week to the first-ever Google Store—plays deeply into the experience. To interact with “me + you” feels exciting, as if joy had been programmed into it from the start. “Feels,” of course, is the most active word in the experience, as Reddy’s mission statement has long been “form follows feeling.” As she explains to us, “We affect everyone and everything by how we feel and what we put into the world around us. Emotions bind us. They are a powerful medium through which we can affect change. That’s why I want this sculpture to be something that helps people be self-aware and to see how they can contribute to everyone else’s vision for the future.”
To see the work is to see strangers interact with it. Over opening weekend, we observed innumerable visitors speak their futures—from “bright” and “strange” to “hopeful” and “confused.” Some people tried multiple words, enjoying the unexpected results. This grants an element of discovery that involves participants even more. “I’m overjoyed,” Reddy says, as she watches museum guests engage. “It’s wonderful to see people of so many different ilks use it—and see the ways in which they try to use it.”
FUTURES is part of Smithsonian’s 175th anniversary programming—and it’s reason enough to head to DC. For those who don’t believe they’ll be able to make it to the museum before July 2022, Reddy worked with AWS and Hovercraft Studio to bring “me + you” online (soundtracked by work from Sacha Mendel). It’s another imaginative manifestation of a concept that aims to bring light to as many lives as possible.
Hero image by Alyssa Schukar for Original Copy