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Mr. Multimedia

Music + light + architecture = ingenious art.

Artist and architect Christopher Janney, SM ‘78, is a multimedia multitasker. His current workload includes finishing a sound and light installation for a housing development in Leeds, England; designing a 10-story parking garage with colored glass corners in Fort Worth, TX; and collaborating on a performance project with musician Herbie Hancock.

“At a certain level, the scientist’s hypothesis and the artist’s hunch are the same,” says Christopher Janney. Here, his Harmonic Runway engages a traveler at Miami’s airport.

Janney says that far from wearing him out or distracting him, such diversity fuels his creativity. “I believe pushing two seemingly disparate conditions together is what can create new possibilities,” he says. “My interest is in walking a path between architecture and music. I have learned to stay in uncomfortable places of unresolved conditions to wait for new possibilities to emerge.”

This story is part of the January/February 2008 Issue of the MIT News magazine
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Janney courts those possibilities at his home in Lexington, MA, where his company, PhenomenArts, occupies greenhouses that have been converted into studio spaces for sculpture, design, and music. Through his significant body of work–much of which is chronicled in his 2007 book Architecture of the Air: The Sound and Light Environments of Christopher Janney–he has found ways to make those disciplines intersect. He is the artist behind Reach: New York, which lets commuters on the platforms of Manhattan’s 34th Street/Herald Square subway station elicit the sounds of rain forests or flutes by waving their hands in front of light sensors. He hooked Mikhail ­Baryshnikov up to a wireless biofeedback device that let him dance to the rhythm of his own heart, accompanied by live music, in HeartBeat:mb. And when rehearsals with Herbie Hancock’s band start later this year, he’ll be playing a keyboard and manning a bank of computers that use audio input from the entire band to vary the scale, shape, color, and pattern of images displayed on a screen. For each piece, a different, thematically related image will be associated with each instrument.

The Leeds installation, set to be unveiled in late January, is an example of what Janney calls an “urban musical instrument.” Titled Red Wall Sound, it comprises eight red columns housing photosensors, lights, and speakers. Spaced three meters apart along a red pedestrian walkway, the columns form a visual–and aural–extension of the line of a large red wall. As people stroll by or touch a column, their movements trigger lights and recordings of music and of environmental sounds indigenous to Leeds.

After earning a BA in architecture and visual arts from Princeton in 1973, Janney spent a few years in New York playing percussion in local clubs, working in architectural offices, and building sets for theater and television. His desire to meld his interests brought him to MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies, where he finished his master’s degree in 1978 and then stuck around for 10 years as a research fellow.

At MIT Janney quickly learned that he could realize his artistic visions more effectively if he minimized his involvement in the hardware and software his creations require. “I keep back from how it’s actually built, so I can keep the focus on what I want it to do when it’s working correctly,” he says. “When I had been at MIT for a semester, I realized there were people there who could build anything I could think of. As a result, I realized it was my responsibility to be an artist first–to think of the most creative and interesting ideas possible and then find the right people to help me build them.”

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