On select nights for the rest of 2018, the Merchandise Mart's massive riverside facade will be awash in color and light, as high-tech projectors from across the river display moving artwork on its face. Obscura Digital

A new projected video art display on the 2.5 acre facade of theMART will bring light and color to the city’s skyline two hours a day, five days a week, 10 months a year.

After 80 years, theMART—Chicago’s 1930s-era market and office building that dominates the skyline—is getting a makeover. But it won’t require any major construction or renovations. Instead, the building’s massive riverside facade will be awash in color and light, as high-tech projectors from across the river display moving artwork on its face.

Here’s how it works: Obscura Digital, a company specializing in architectural projections, set up a total of 34 projectors, shooting over 1 million lumens (a typical household lightbulb displays roughly 800 lumens). Sixteen projectors shoot the display on the left side of the building, and 16 on the right side. Two more handle the middle tower. It’s no easy task—they need multiple projectors so that the show is bright enough, but keeping them calibrated can prove difficult, especially since they all must work to project a two dimensional image reasonably onto a jagged surface, all while avoiding the windows so as to not disturb people inside.

Obscura Digital

But that’s not even the hardest part. “The biggest technical challenges were to build a long-term sustainable, weatherproof, secure, stable (vibration-resistant), and serviceable system,” said Matthew Ragan, Obsura Digital’s lead software engineer on the project in an email. Valerio Dewalt Train Associates, a Chicago-based architecture and design firm, helped with the projection placement and construction.

Obscura Digital

Art on theMART debuted September 29. Thousands of viewers lined the river to watch the initial two-hour long show as different visual projections danced across the 4-million square foot building. Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the show, "a visionary project that brings Chicago’s legacy of public art and iconic architecture into the future.”

Obscura Digital

The artists for the first show, Diana Thater, Zheng Chongbin, Jason Salavon, and Jan Tichy, were chosen by Art on theMART executive director Cynthia Noble and a Curatorial Advisory Board, which is made up of curators and contemporary art leaders in Chicago.

Obscura Digital

These artists’ work will stay on display every Wednesday through Sunday* for two hours after dusk until the end of the year. Then, the city of Chicago and theMART will collaborate to choose the next batch of artists, who will debut in March, 2019. “Right now Cynthia Noble and theMART team are thinking about the programs seasonally, but have an open mind as they explore the limitless possibilities for this public art platform,” Ragan said.  

Obscura Digital

Most projection shows in large public spaces become not just a spot for public art, but for advertising. In fact, a recent horse racing promotion projected onto the Sydney Opera House recently came under fire for monetizing a world heritage site. That won’t happen here. Funded by Vornado Realty Trust as a gift to the City of Chicago, all of the partners have said they’ll keep the space exclusively for large-scale public artwork, and not advertisements.   

“And as an ever-changing installation,” Ragan said. “It'll be interesting to see how the curatorial approach evolves over time.”

Correction: A previous version of this post stated the wrong days of the week that Art on theMART runs.

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