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Art on theMART turns Chicago’s Merchandise Mart into an architectural canvas

Architecture Art Midwest Technology
Art on the Mart turns Chicago's hulking Merchandise Mart into the world's largest digital art projection. (Courtesy of Art on theMART/Bob Grosse)
Art on the Mart turns Chicago's hulking Merchandise Mart into the world's largest digital art projection. (Courtesy of Art on theMART/Bob Grosse)

Until the end of 2018, the façade of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart will become the world’s largest digital art projection, hosting the work of four artists for two hours each on Wednesday through Sunday evenings. Thirty-four projectors located across the Chicago River from The Mart, as the structure is informally called, will work in tandem to project images on the hulking façade of what was once the world’s largest building.

Art on theMART is a privately funded partnership with the City of Chicago, and marks the first time that a projection of this size is being used exclusively for a creative purpose. The project has no advertising backing or sponsorship, but includes a curatorial advisory board established to consult on all content. Additionally, a civic advisory committee allows communication between city agencies, stakeholders, and the public.

Created by large-scale architectural projection mappers Obscura Digital, the technology that supports Art on theMART allows curators and artists to upload an image and select effects and filters, but leaves the software to process the image and slowly render and resolve it over the course of a customizable time period. The projector housing is built into the Chicago Riverwalk, and the projectors are individually calibrated to adjust the light and color over the structure’s façade—a complex combination of fenestration, vertical lines, and setbacks. Windows are masked out in the software, allowing activity to continue inside the building without light interruptions.

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Four artists have been tapped to show work until the end of the year. The opening program features a projection by artist Diana Thater, who has mixed together live footage of wild animals living near Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya. Zheng Chongbin’s work, Chimeric Landscape, will project expanding and contracting ink blots. Jason Salavon remixes art and design histories from Georgia O’Keefe to internet cat videos, and Jan Tichy will present Artes in Horto – Seven Gardens for Chicago.

Completed in 1931 by Graham, Anderson, Probst and White for Marshall Field & Company, Merchandise Mart consolidated the Chicago department store’s 13 separate warehouses into one massive art deco structure on the north branch of the Chicago River and central to downtown. Jenny Holzer was the first artist to illuminate the building in 2008, when she projected a poem onto it during Art Chicago.

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