Prism is the technological show piece of the London Design Festival. Located in a secret cupola, never before opened to the public, at the Victoria & Albert Museum it is designed by digital artist Keiichi Matsuda. It is a giant sculptural lantern hanging in the highest point of the museum.
Prism is made up of a series of faceted screens, on which fast-moving streams of data about London are shot, changing every 15 minutes. There are five projectors. All the information is gleaned from open data sources and its intent is to portray the complexity of the city. Since there are a number of different faceted sides to the structure, the images are changing constantly.
The structure has been lodged into an unused cupola of the building and it is suspended from above. The screens are made from Japanese washi paper which is used because of its strength and translucency. Made out of an aluminium frame because it had to be very lightweight, it is held up by steel braces against the walls of the cupola. No drilling allowed in this old building. Prism is suspended in the middle, allowing a 360-degree inspection, and also a glimpse of the galleries beneath.
In order to get the pieces into the space they had to be winched up from the ground floor, through a 4 metre wide hole in the ceiling which is on the sixth floor.
The data being displayed visually comes from all different sources. One image shows the energy consumption at 10 Downing Street (home of the Prime Minister) which changes every 5 minutes.
Another shows the number of Boris bikes (rental bicycles) in use and parked (in blue).
Another shows wind directions and tidal directions on the River Thames.
Getting up to see the Prism is no small feat. Groups of 6 people at a time are led up a narrow spiral staircase, past the back of a lower dome and up into the tower.
Then they can then go further up small steps and step out into the highest point of the museum for a magical and breathtaking 360-degree view over the city. As the designer explains: “There’s a kind of panorama over the physical London as well as the panorama of the digital London.”
In the words of the designer:
Prism presents an alternative view of London, exposing unseen data flows in the capital. Gazing into it, we can discern the shadows of data, but are locked out from full understanding. Data sucked from the city flickers across its skin, sometimes in a form that is legible to us, but often in inexplicable and seemingly uncoordinated ways.
As machine languages and processes start to replace human ones as dominant forces in the city, we must re-examine our urban landscape as a new, unexplored terrain. This is not a project about the politics of data visualisation, but rather an investigation into urban informatics, and our relationship with data itself.