No longer confined to a single machine, data storage has gone atmospheric. Content stored in “the cloud” is better protected against loss and is accessible anywhere, a technique enabled by the light-transmitting properties of fiber optic cables and LCD screens. This technology allows a new relationship with past experiences; even distant memories can be easily revisited, visualized, and shared.
Expanding on this paradigm is “Memory Cloud,” an installation at the Texas A&M University Memorial Student Center created by Re:Site and METALAB, two Houston-based firms of artists, designers, and architects. The proposal was selected from over 300 submissions to a competition inviting works that creatively embodied campus life.
“Memory Cloud” is a grid of tubes, each filled with white LEDs, collectively suspended within an atrium. The tubes’ lower ends are capped with diffusing discs, and the lengths of the tubes and the angle of the discs have been designed to form a swooping, fixed shape resembling a literal cloud. Viewers encounter the installation from multiple vantage points: at eye-level while on an adjacent staircase, from below while passing through the hall, and from a distance. Its respective effects are a maze of plastic rods, a wavy soffit of translucent discs, and a flickering pulse of brightness.
The work’s impressive infrastructure is assembled only to disappear, supporting an interactive experience with light. Previous installations by other designers were either fixed displays of assembled content, or responsive systems, based on sensors mimicking environmental conditions. “Memory Cloud” is both, mixing silhouettes from videos of university rituals and traditions with the tracked movements of passing individuals. These feeds are combined and diffused through the array at varying speeds and distortions. Seen singly, each tube pulses mysteriously with luminous capillary action, but together, the array creates a field effect of shifting densities and shapes. The result is a flock of mesmerizing apparitions.
The attraction of “Memory Cloud” is the way it compresses student experience — historic and real-time — into one compelling, composite present. Institutions rely on this mixture of tradition and renewal for survival, and the memory of past successes is nurtured to inspire current pursuits.
Viewers see their shapes mapped alongside images of older generations, only to watch the forms disintegrate back into noise after a couple of steps in either direction. This temporal flatness is perhaps the best feature of “the cloud,” where memories are instantly accessible, able to be recast and relived as part of our ceaseless march into the future.
Jack Murphy is an architectural designer currently based in Austin and a contributing editor to BI (bipublications.com).
This article is expanded content for Texas Architect, July/August 2013.