Light is Art | Salem, MA | October 1, 2010

The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) has launched FreePort, its newest contemporary art initiative, with a commission by internationally renowned artist Charles Sandison.


Figurehead, which opened 2 October 2010, activates handwritten words from 18th-century ship logs and journals, creating an immersive environment of swirling, luminous language. Inspired by PEM's 18th-century origins in global trade, Sandison gives poetic visual form to the thoughts and aspirations of America's first global entrepreneurs in East India Marine Hall. The elegant neoclassical room — PEM's original display hall — features immense sculptures from the prows of vessels that once set sail from Salem harbor.

Working at the intersection of visual art and computer programming, he uses his own customized software to map trajectories around the room; the projected images respond to algorithms that guide their behavior. In Figurehead, Sandison's algorithms draw on real-time weather data from the internet, making the installation organic and ever-evolving.

Here's a rather bad mobile phone video I shot at the opening event. It's of pretty bad quality, but you can get an idea for how immersive the installation is.

Organized by PEM's curator of contemporary art, Trevor Smith, the installation is the first in a series of projects inviting artists to establish a unique dialogue with the museum and its visitors. "Each year, we'll work with artists and our audience to explore the effects of global give-and-take on our culture," says Smith. "For over 200 years," Smith says, "PEM has been tracing the ways in which trade, exchange and translation drive cultural change. This is something unique to our museum. These are also the questions that contemporary art explores."