Growing up in east Tennessee, Christina Leigh Geros reveled in the natural fireworks exploding nightly in her yard.
“When I think about summer or even spring and fall, I think about lightning bugs, because our lawns would just be covered in these glittering lights. To me, that’s an evening outdoor space,” said the Harvard Graduate School of Design grad, whose next stop is Indonesia for a year of digital storytelling on a Fulbright-National Geographic Fellowship.
What she’ll leave behind at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study tells a physical story of nature, movement, space, and especially light. Those vivid firefly memories inspired a particularly brilliant feature in Geros’ installation at the Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Garden. Unveiled in May as the winner of Radcliffe’s biennial public art competition, “Latent (e)Scapes” consists of 1,600, 1/8-inch acrylic rods that glow.
In the daytime the translucent bars — planted in nine berms of long Pennsylvania sedge and a no-mow fescue mix — resemble long, sprouting extensions of the surrounding yellow-green grass. At night, LEDs embedded in the tubes transform the garden into a glowing landscape sensitive to its surroundings.
The rods are connected to sensors that relay information to an intricate system of computers that regulate the light. They change color, shifting from solid white to red and orange, and fluctuating in intensity in response to motion from passersby. Soon, another computer connection will enable the rods to react to natural forces such as heat, wind, and humidity.
The competition, which began in 2013, offers degree students from across the University, regardless of concentration, the chance to submit a design for the garden space in Radcliffe Yard.
A jury of Harvard faculty members including Radcliffe Dean Lizabeth Cohen selects the winner.
“The public art competition invites students throughout the Harvard community to be part of Radcliffe’s mission of advanced study by being creative outside the classroom,” said Cohen. “Latent (e)Scapes is a breathtaking visual statement. And it’s also an inspiring blend of art, science, and landscape that captures well Radcliffe’s commitment to supporting work that crosses disciplines in new ways.”
Inspiration struck Geros during January break in 2013. On a drive from the East Coast to Kansas, she was taken with the waving dune grasses along the New England shore and their icy inland counterparts — “a family of tall grasses frozen in time” that blanketed much of the Midwest state.
“I had this idea that if those grasses were of a synthetic material but within a naturalistic environment to some degree … their movement would have this sort of natural state to it, [but] the synthetic-ness would call your attention to something seemingly out of place.”
For the installation, Geros worked with Cambridge Landscape Co. on the fabrication of the nine different “scapes.” Her colleagues at the design collective SHO, GSD alumni Gregory Thomas Spaw and Lee-Su Huang, along with interactive design specialist Jake Marsico, helped her fine-tune the computer elements and the lighting. When it was complete, “the interactivity of it became everything we could imagine it to be,” she said.
It also became a way to engage people with art in a different way.
Some of the best public art makes “a statement about your interaction within that space or that place’s connection to a larger environment,” Geros said.
Working in the natural environment brought a unique set of challenges. The no-mow grass was supposed to reach between four and eight inches, but Geros quickly noticed some patches weren’t getting anywhere near that long. The reason? “Hungry bunnies,” she said of the rabbits that make the garden lawn their regular twilight meal. “They are mowing the grass.”
As the seasons turn, weather will become an important factor. Geros tested a few acrylic rods last winter and they held up to February’s frigid temperatures. She also planted a few rods near the GSD campus to check their durability under the weight of the snow. They didn’t bend, but she remains realistic about the primacy of New England winters. A repeat of last year’s would temporarily put her work out of sight.
“Fingers crossed,” she said, “I really hope we don’t have a serious winter.”