TheMART lit up.
Photo: Courtesy of Art on theMART

Chicago Will Soon Host the World’s Largest Digital Art Projection

The inaugural Art on theMART project will display video installations on the façade of a landmark building

Chicago already has a number of iconic works of public art, including Anish Kapoor’s mirrored bean Cloud Gate and Jaume Plensa’s sculptural video installation Crown Fountain, but on September 29, the city will unveil an attraction unlike any other in the world. On that date, the façade of the city’s iconic theMART, a 25-story commercial building that spans two blocks along Chicago’s Riverwalk, will be transformed into a 2.5-acre canvas for the globe’s largest digital art projection.

“We absolutely envision it as the next public art icon,” says Cynthia Noble, Art on theMART’s executive director. “It’s been 14 years since the Crown Fountain was installed so it’s the right time for a new, expanded, and conceptual vision for public art. It absolutely makes sense that it should be digital given current technologies and potential.”


To create the installation, which debuts to coincide with Expo Chicago, theMART initiated a curatorial board that partnered with the Terra Foundation for American Art‘s Art Design Chicago to solicit proposals from artists that would “address the DNA of Chicago art and design history.” Ultimately, Chicago artists Jason Salavon and Jan Tichy, Los Angeles artist Diana Thater, and Zheng Chongbin of Shanghai were selected. “We hope Art on theMART speaks to all audiences in a way a work like Cloud Gate does because Anish Kapoor can be considered very critically and theoretically, and at the same time, you can be with your family just standing under the concave shape and enjoying it in a pure sense,” says Noble. “We hope that the works that we chose function on multiple levels as well.”

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The approximately 40-minute program will encompass Salavon’s work Homage in Between, Chongbin’s Chimeric Landscape, Tichy’s Artes in Horto (Seven Gardens for Chicago)—a play on the City of Chicago’s motto, Urbs in Horto, which means “a city in a garden”—and Thater’s True Life Adventures. To create the program, Obscura Digital, which has cast large-scale architectural projections on the Empire State Building, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Sydney Opera House, the Vatican, and the Guggenheim among others, developed proprietary software that subs out the windows to avoid disrupting the building’s tenants, and accounts for the Art Deco façade and central tower to create a seamlessly converging projection, which is broadcast utilizing 34 Christie projectors totaling almost 1 million lumens.

TheMART lit up. Photo: Courtesy of Art on theMART

Beyond its massive scale, Art on theMART is set apart from other large-scale digital projections by its permanence. During the September 29 launch party, neighboring streets will be closed to traffic, speakers will project an accompanying soundtrack, and the event will culminate in a fireworks display. Afterward the installation will run Wednesday through Sunday, for two hours each evening after rush hour; audio can be accessed through Art on theMART’s website. In addition, the installation marks the first time a projection of this size will “be completely dedicated to digital art with no branding, sponsorship credits, or messaging,” Noble says.

“TheMART is envisioning this as a gift to the city,” she adds of the decision to forgo corporate dollars. “It’s a philanthropic effort and a very generous one because it’s not only the initial investment in the hardware and software, but in the annual operating costs for this for this very transformative platform. It’s envisioned as public art, and it needs to have a freedom from that kind of language and messaging.”

Art on theMART has secured licenses for the debut works through the end of 2018. After that, the curatorial board will meet quarterly to review submissions.

In 2019, plans are underway to once again align with Expo Chicago as well as the Chicago Architecture Biennial, and other cultural organizations. “We’re absolutely committed to representing diverse voices on this platform, and a range of techniques in media,” says Noble. “This platform can support through the proprietary software even the animation of previously still images, so we imagine we’ll work with quite a wide range of artists and cultural organizations.”

Art on theMART is the next stage in the evolution of the nearly 90-year-old building, which is undergoing a $40 million renovation program to enhance the common areas, including the addition of gathering spots such as Marshall’s Landing.

“Both the Chicago Riverwalk and theMART are Chicago institutions, so it’s fitting that the two will come together to strengthen the city’s legacy of public art,” Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel has said. “This visionary project will quickly become a Chicago staple that helps to reshape the way people interact with the Chicago River.”


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