These words were uttered by Daniel Burnham, the director of works for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Burnham, as ringmaster of a creative collective unlike any the world had ever seen, set out to accomplish the impossible, building a collection of buildings, exhibits, attractions, and park grounds that would supercede — no, crush — the prior Paris Exposition and its famous iron work, the Eiffel tower.
The result was that, in two years' time, a barren lakeside sand pile was transformed into the first real theme park in America. When the gates opened in summer of 1893, millions were met with their first glimpse of electrical incandescent light, the majesty of enormous architecture nestled into the most perfect landscapes. Fairgoers witnessed the spectacle of the world's first Ferris wheel, while others listened via live telephony to an orchestra playing in New York City. It was a time of change in capability and technology that verged on disorienting its own participants. Yet Burnham, through labor strikes, through fire, through tornados, and through the combined hubris of uncounted committees, designed and executed this wonder of the world. He lived on site, ate there, slept there. The story (one we recommend further research on) is fascinating and filled with drama. From the tragic premature death of Burnham's collaborator, John Root, to resisting the red-tape-wrapped hands of Congress itself; Burnham willed his design into reality. He truly lived design.
One of the laborers on the fair was a down-and-out gent named Elias Disney. Disney was struck by what he saw take shape in Chicago. His first son, Roy, shortly followed by another, Walt, got their first tastes of glittering electric light, not to mention the gobstopping sights and sounds at Wild Bill Cody's Wild West Extravaganza. It's hard to see how the results of the Chicago Fair didn't ignite the dreams of a young Disney. We all know how both brothers went on to live by the design of dreams, as well as to make the dreams of others manifest. Talk about living design.
Another design mind touched the Chicago fair, a design mind whose cues are perhaps just now coming to fruition in installations across North America: Frederick Law Olmsted, the genius behind Central Park. Our own gorgeously green Seattle benefits from his wide swaths of long developing parkways. And people say opera cues take a long time to complete! Olmsted was always constantly hard at work on multitudes of projects. In the last 30 years of his career and life, he was on the move, visiting countless sites of installations, interspersed with trips to foreign shores that kept his landscape perspective freshly informed. Make no mistake, Olmsted is a designer of themed environments. His raw materials are organic, living, and developing. In his last years (the ones in which he completed the Chicago Fair), he complained of chronic insomnia, a roaring in his ears, and yet he kept pushing his art forward. That is living design.
Lately, we've been really living design. It's always better to be busy than not, at least we thought so. But the usual brisk fall schedule has teetered into the realm of improbable with our taking on a new production of Sinatra in London. With so little time — perhaps three months of effective production period — the show has proven a substantial challenge. We are availing ourselves of all the convergent technologies we've spent so much time blathering about. And here's the thing: maybe we were wrong.
At least on some levels. The technologies have changed the approach. We don't spend quite so much time rendering. We keep elements separate until production in some cases, because of the power and flexibility of the media servers and multi-screen systems. But it's all so infrastructural, so technical. It has proven to have little to do with the passion, the motivation, and the love of it, or the amount of work it takes to get it done. If anything, producers now expect more of designers and in less time. It hasn't changed the fact (in our minds at least) that Live Design happens through actually living design, breathing it, being it. What made all of us artists to begin with should still be the root of why we play this game at all. The media servers? Digital lights? LED? It's all just brushes for the painter, a means to an end. From within us springs that end.
It's funny how cyclical it all is. We bet Daniel Burnham spent a lot of time thinking about how electrical current was changing his design world. Yet it was the whole of the Chicago World's Fair that stunned the world, not just the fact that it was illuminated by alternating current.
And so our shows may come together differently or faster. Maybe we dare to tackle more screens than we might have in the past. Our cueing and integration with lighting is tighter than ever. Yet our shows still look the same, which is pleasing. Our palette is there, the temporal nature of things is the same, and our style is present. Do the new tools change that much, really?
We certainly haven't seen every lighting designer become a projection designer yet. Some have taken the first tentative steps. Some have leapt in with both feet. Others have come to realize that working with content designers gets them where they want to go. And in many cases, there is still a full-time projection designer designing and implementing alongside the LD, stitching the light cues together at the final stage. The full-on, all encompassing “visualist” (a term we recoil from, by the way; after all, isn't a scenic designer a visualist? Isn't a director?) is still a rare breed.
We've also been wrong about proliferation of product. We really thought by now that there would be a plethora of digital lights. Yet it seems that, for now, High End Systems remains the brave innovator, with only Robe (among the big manufacturers) choosing to join the chase with their own digital lights. The development of LED products moves forward but cautiously. It appears as though the wrangling of intellectual property experts has much to do with this slowed momentum. While investment bankers and lawyers decide who shall be paid the most for what, the artists must do with what they have, as opposed to what they could have. The net effect has been slow adoption in any but the concert and corporate markets and unrealistic pricing for products that should cost much less to be accessible to theatrical production. The other phenomenon that has impacted widespread adoption has been the distributed pixel marketplace (MiPIX, G-LEC, Soft- or Hard-LED, etc.) finding its price. Some of the more distributed pixel products had come out priced at a level that made them comparable to high-pitch LED displays. Why would we rent any distributed pixel product for the same price as 10mm? We're not. Fortunately, the market is adjusting, making the stuff more accessible.
And there you go! How boring is that? What does it have to do with you solving the challenge of a tough FOH position, or really getting into the subtext of that song, or understanding who Rothko is and why his work affects the layout of the show?
It doesn't. It's not the be-all end-all. It's not who you are as a designer.
Living design happens at every level, with the technical being just one small part. We have to say that the fabulous food we've eaten in small restaurants in Italy, for example, has done as much to inform our designs as working with digital tools. The magic of being in a dark restaurant, a good cheap glass of red wine, and suddenly the Moscow Chorus (who have been quietly eating all around you, leading you to wonder, is this a Russian hang out) burst into a rendition of "Happy Birthday." Let us tell you, "Happy Birthday" in Russian is more like an operatic gem than our own piffling jingle. Hearing it that day, echoing through the piazza Mercado, with a plate of good simple food, and the lovely flavors and atmospheres of a nation not our own — let's just say it provides as much of the color of our designs as the Catalyst Color FX.
So our inaugural message for Live Design is this: take the title to heart. Live design. Know the tools (we'll be continuing to get that info out here), but also know the art, know the world, know yourself.