UCL News


Striking new 'Beacon' lights up Old Street

15 September 2008

A dazzling tower of multi-coloured lights that will illuminate the streets of Shoreditch, London, from today will unite science, art, illusion and invention to demonstrate the relationship between humans and their environment and to explore if the very ground we walk on could generate solar energy.

The Beacon, the brainchild of UCL neuroscientist and artist Dr Beau Lotto, consists of a combination of coloured Plexiglas and solar panels, mounted on a tower of steel. It produces its own electricity through a collection of solar panels, mounted at the top of the tower, and through unique paving slabs around the bottom of the tower, made of solar cells and recycled local bottle-glass, which harvest sunlight and help power the structure.

In the daytime, the Beacon is illuminated by sunlight showing off the true strong colours of different panels making up the Beacon's four faces. The sunlight also charges up a bank of batteries in the base of the installation. At night, the batteries use their stored-up solar power to light the tower from within by 16 highly efficient fluorescent tubes. The Beacon is not lit up constantly after dusk, but at regular intervals according to the amount of foot traffic - the more pedestrians there are around the tower, the more frequently it will light up.

The six metre steel tower was commissioned by Shoreditch Trust, and built in collaboration with Enzo Fiondella of Creative Interactions and Kees van der Graaf of van der Graaf Studio.

Dr Beau Lotto, UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, said: "The Beacon is an experiment into the potential of turning the ground on which we walk into areas for harvesting energy from the sun. Every day we will measure how much energy is generated by the path made of glass and solar panels. If it has been good weather and enough energy is harvested, the Beacon will light up during the night. If the weather has been rubbish and too little energy has been harvested, it won't - which means people will be able to get a more intuitive sense of what is and what is not possible with solar power.

"It's also an experiment in perception that will try to show people that context is everything and why it has to be. A fundamental question in neuroscience is to understand how the brain sees. Our view is that it does so by shaping its actual architecture according to its history of interaction: what we see is not what's there, but what proved useful to see in the past. Put a different way, we see because the brain evolved to construct its own narratives - not always useful narratives - that become the perceptual truths that guide behaviour. Here, I'm attempting to show that empirical process of perception.

"As people walk past and look at the Beacon, their brain will receive different kinds of visual information depending on when they walk past. During the day when the tower is lit up by the sun, the differently coloured objects will look very different to almost everyone. But at night, when those objects are lit by white light from within, most people - but by no means all - will see the objects as being identical, because at night the light coming from through those objects will be the same. Many, however, will continue to see the objects as being different. The question is, for those that don't, as they repeat their daily jaunts to and from work, the shops, bars, etc., viewing the Beacon at varying times of day - will they also come to see the differently coloured objects at night as being different?

"Finally, it is a social experiment into ownership and social ecology: the community that took the risk to support this project also owns the solar energy system I invented for it. 50 per cent of the money made from futures sales of the stones will go back to fund social projects in the local London area through the Shoreditch Trust."


Notes for Editors

1.) Journalists seeking more information, images of the Beacon, or to interview Dr Beau Lotto, can contact Ruth Metcalfe in the UCL Media Relations Office on tel: +44 (0)20 7679 9739, mobile: +44 (0)7990 675 947, out of hours: +44 (0)7917 271 364, e-mail: r.metcalfe@ucl.ac.uk

2.) Dr Lotto will be giving a talk about 'Visual science and visual art' on 11 September at the BA Festival of Science, Liverpool.

3.) The installation is a partnership project between Beau Lotto and Shoreditch Trust. Shoreditch Trust has a shared ownership agreement in the photovoltaic lighting technique used in the project which sees profits going back into regenerating Shoreditch.

4.) Beau Lotto is a neuroscientist and installation artist who has pioneered new ways of comparing, contrasting and uniting arts and science. His work on vision is of a high artistic and scientific quality, but is also accessible for a range of audiences on many different levels. Beau has written and lectured widely on the nature of perception; public works include installations on light, glass and bees for the 'Lightwave' in Dublin in 2008, 'The Sky in a Bottle' for the Serpentine Gallery, 'White Shadows' for the Hayward Gallery South Bank (part of the Dan Flavin retrospective), 'Fugitive Moments' for the Otter Gallery in Chichester, and an exhibition on visual illusion for Bristol and Glasgow Science Museums. His Lottolab studio is also currently developing two light installations for the South West Arts Council, and a major music performance with international composers, visual artists and architects. By bridging the gap between the biological sciences, psychology, architecture and visual art, Beau Lotto's work provides a platform for us to discover and question everyday notions of the natural world and our place within it. www.lottolab.org

About Shoreditch Trust

Shoreditch Trust is an award-winning charitable regeneration agency, funded through the Department for Communities and Local Government's New Deal for Communities programme. Shoreditch Trust delivers a strong approach to regeneration based on recognising the inherent value of local communities; delivering quality programmes; developing strong partnerships and focussing on the future. The Trust has developed a sustainability theme as an integral part of the regeneration programme, delivering long-term social and environmental benefits through urban realm, culture-led and a range of social enterprise projects such as Water House Restaurant that remain a community asset owned by Shoreditch Trust.  www.shoreditchtrust.org.uk

About UCL

Founded in 1826, UCL was the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to admit students regardless of race, class, religion or gender, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. In the government's most recent Research Assessment Exercise, 59 UCL departments achieved top ratings of 5* and 5, indicating research quality of international excellence.

UCL is in the top ten world universities in the 2007 THES-QS World University Rankings, and the third-ranked UK university in the 2007 league table of the top 500 world universities produced by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University. UCL alumni include Marie Stopes, Jonathan Dimbleby, Lord Woolf, Alexander Graham Bell, and members of the band Coldplay. www.ucl.ac.uk