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‘He’e Nalu’ by Maria Dautant and Golsana Heshmati

2019 marks the 10th year of Australia’s largest light festival, Vivid. As participants of this year’s line up round the home stretch on production for the upcoming opening in Sydney 24 May, Leela Shanker of illumni spoke with the team behind one of 2018’s successful light installations,
He’e Nalu.

The work title, meaning “wave sliding” in Hawaiian culture, is an array of light and sound evocative of riding waves. Maria Dautant and Golsana Heshmati, both New York-based lighting designers, share their experience of the work’s life-cycle from pre-festival and public exhibition to post festival opportunities.

Maria, Golsana, between you there is a wealth of professional and personal global experience. Given your diverse backgrounds (hailing from Venezuela and Iran respectively) and work experience, what led you to Hawaiian culture for the concept of He’e Nalu?

Since the beginning we wanted to use the concept of a wave and the idea of surfing came to mind. Looking into the history of surfing we found it was born in Hawaii which seemed perfect for us, given we were representing the US.

The work combines the medium of light with a critical component of sound. How did you come to the composition and rhythm of the sound loop of waves along with the colour change? Do you typically think about rhythm and sound, or other senses, when designing with light on other projects?

Whenever we start a project, we think about the user’s experience inside this space. It was very important for us to invade the visitor’s senses. This idea drove our concept.
The sound came first because we knew it would be key in creating the immersive environment we wanted. We worked with a friend that is a sound engineer in Miami (Gabriel Alvarez) and we discussed the different sounds we wanted to incorporate in the loop. Once the sound was finalized, we developed the light program using light and shadow to follow the rhythm of the sound. We ended up discovering that, in this case, the interplay of light and shadow and the effects of sound became equally important in creating this immersive environment.

How did creation of this art installation work alongside your successful design practices? How does the process differ? Do they feed each other?

The conceptualization of the piece felt very familiar to us because light, after all, is our main tool and medium at our design practices. Early on we discovered the process of designing a small scale light art project is as challenging and exciting as designing lighting for a large scale architecture project. However, our involvement in the fabrication and engineering of the piece was far more than what we would do in an architectural lighting project. The coordination was also very challenging. Most of the projects we manage are local. The international coordination was a new experience that will be very useful if we decide to move forward with designing new light art pieces as a collective.

The project was ambitious given Vivid commissions work from participants on the basis that much of the budget is self-raised. You took the unusual approach of crowd-sourcing to contribute towards the budget. What can you share about this process, and do you have any advice to other designers/ artists interested in pursuing this avenue for other creative projects?

Our main sponsors (Philips, Crestron, DLFNY and Hawaiian Tourism) and crowd-funding were crucial for us to build our concept in the way it was conceived. But, finding the self-raised funding took a great effort on our part. Constant promotion and communication among friends and other designers was the key to getting to our goal. So, our advice to other designers is to use social media and connections within the industry if they consider crowd-funding as an option to raise the additional funding.

Having developed the concept while working together in New York City, then transposing the installation to Sydney, did you find audiences responded to the work as you expected? How are you wanting to evolve the concept for other audiences and venues in bringing the installation back to the U.S.?

The response from the audience in Sydney was better than we expected. The glowing columns created a portal that invited people in, but as soon as they walked through they were impacted by the sound. Somehow, when the visitors were in the middle, they got it. It was fascinating to see men, women and children stopping in between the two “waves” to immerse themselves in the experience. It was very rewarding for us to see the reaction.

Moving forward and depending on our next venue, we may consider stepping up the interactivity factor by incorporating sensors. This would allow the audience to trigger their own waves.

What do you take from this experience with Vivid and project overall?

Being our first light art piece in an international festival, the entire experience was a learning process for us. The main takeaway is probably the understanding of the challenges and the amount of time and work required to take an idea and make it a reality, even for a small period of time. We will certainly use our lessons learnt in the near future, as we are planning on touring this piece in the US and possibly internationally as well.

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