Lightening things up with art

'It's a material that's kind of not there.'

NIKKI MACDONALD
Last updated 05:00 23/08/2014
Chris Bennewith
MAARTEN HOLL/Fairfax NZ

LIFE OF LIGHT: "It's the beautiful way it reflects and refracts and distorts. It's a material that's kind of not there."

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During his university years, Chris Bennewith would roam around taking photos with a lens wrapped in bubble wrap, experimenting with weird diffused-light effects.

The designer can't quite pinpoint the reason for his fascination with light, but it has shaped his work ever since.

Watch the hypnotic blooms of colour pulse through the 4096 suspended LED baubles in one of Bennewith's co-creations, and it's easy to see the attraction.

"It's the beautiful way it reflects and refracts and distorts. It's a material that's kind of not there."

The 38-year-old is the guy who has lit up Wellington with the Lux Festival, which has just kicked off its fourth year. It's come a long way in that time, he says.

"I look back now and laugh. It was literally me with a generator and a projector sitting on the waterfront, setting it up on a nightly basis. It was very ad hoc."

Lux fits in with Bennewith's day job, improving links between Massey University's College of Creative Arts and Wellington's cultural and business hub. But the festival's creative inspiration grew out of his experience with international artistic collective Squidsoup, whose members he met on his first job out of university because they shared the same office building.

Bennewith should have been a comic, his timing is so perfect. Brought up in Cornwall, the keen artist was leaving school just as graphic design was becoming a credible career choice. Here was a way to integrate fine art, layout and typography in a steady job. And when he emerged from university a few years later, in the late 90s, the dotcom boom was in full flight and every trendy company wanted a website that did something cool.

While his artistic career choice might seem like a parallel universe compared to that occupied (and studied) by his astrophysicist father Peter, the two shared one passion.

"One of the things my dad did pass on to me from his science and maths side was programming. We used to spend a lot of time doing programming together when I was a kid. Coding came quite naturally to me, so I was able to bridge that space between design and development."

Bennewith landed a job in London's Hoxton Square internet development hub, designing pioneering interactive games and websites for the likes of Sony, Levi's and Universal Records.

After two years and a season snowboarding in the Alps, Bennewith was poached by Squidsoup. As well as interactive design work for top brands, Squidsoup was also designing non-commercial art installations as a kind of research and development for the business, and flying to Los Angeles and Barcelona to exhibit its work.

The installations were experiments with ways of presenting interactive digital art without a computer screen controlled by a mouse or keyboard. They projected images onto materials so thin they appeared to float in space. There were projections that would move when you flew around them, and artworks that responded differently depending on how many people were in the space.

When energy-efficient, vividly coloured light-emitting diodes (LEDs) became cheap and ubiquitous, the co-operative began experimenting with 3D light cubes - a kind of low-resolution 3D computer screen. By that stage - 2008 - Squidsoup had transformed from a commercial company into an international creative collective and Bennewith had moved to Wellington to take up the job at Massey.

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Bennewith still goes overseas a couple of times a year to work intensively on Squidsoup installations, one of which hangs as a permanent exhibition at the Royal Society in Thorndon. This year it's Cologne and maybe New York.

"It's almost like a band, where you create a new album and then you go and tour that album. The more the artwork gets photographed and talked about online, the more people want it, the more you have to balance that - are we making a new one, or are we touring?"

It was one of his Norwegian Squidsoup collaborators, Anthony Rowe, who devised the Lux Festival idea in 2011. The New Zealand version has grown each year, and this year's festival will include more than 30 works. That's in spite of the astonishment that results when Bennewith explains exhibits need to be able to withstand 140kmh winds.

He learnt that the hard way. Last year was a near-disaster, with the worst storm in decades raging over two of the four days. With this year's festival extended to 10 days, Bennewith will again be praying that the weather doesn't turn the lights out on the project.

Lux runs until August 31, from 6pm to 11pm, in Wellington's laneways and on the waterfront.

- The Dominion Post

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