Flip-Dot Wonder

UK artist collective Troika’s innovative Waterfall at ION Orchard takes a near-obsolete technology into the future

Issue: Jan 2016

Waterfall at ION Orchard commands a presence even amid glittering festive decorations
Waterfall at ION Orchard commands a presence even amid glittering festive decorations

When one thinks of a sculpture, the materials that immediately come to mind are stone, bronze, wood, and perhaps glass. But here’s a special sculpture or installation that uses flip dots. What are flip dots?

When flip dots reigned supreme

Flip dots were invented in 1961 for use in display boards. A flip dot display board consists of many such dots that have two sides – typically one light and the other dark - that work electromagnetically to flip. They combine to form light-coloured letters, numbers and shapes on a dark background. Widely used in the 1970s and 80s in sports stadiums, railway stations and airports for the display of information, the boards would have left an impression on anyone who had paid attention to the dots flipping with a clatter whenever the information changed. But with the advent of the quiet and energy-efficient LED display, these boards have gradually disappeared.

Fast forward to the new millennium – one would have thought that flip dots had long been phased out, but no, they made waves again, albeit in a different world - the art world.

They first caught public attention in 2008 in a public artwork called Cloud, specially commissioned for Heathrow Airport’s Terminal Five, and a year later, in another one called Waterfall, specially commissioned for CapitaLand’s premium shopping mall ION Orchard. Both were created by Troika, an artist collective based in London and founded by Eva Rucki, Conny Freyer and Sebastien Noel in 2003.

Flip dots rejuvenated

“Both Cloud and Waterfall were seminal pieces in our work as artists. We felt that the flip-dot technology was right for those two works and the specific context. We think it’s a beautiful material and technology, and its tactility and sound were what attracted us to it in the first place. We were particularly interested in re-contextualising obsolete technologies,” shares Troika. And how much have these two works changed our perception of the utilitarian flip dots!

Waterfall is located in one of ION Orchard’s main atriums, which showcases many luxury brands. The challenge for Troika to create a piece of work there was great. “You are placing a work of art in a public space that architecturally speaking is not a blank canvas, but can be a busy backdrop with a multitude of functions and purposes. You are trying to reach an audience that does not know your work as artists and might not expect to see an art installation. It is a different way to experience art from viewing work in a museum or gallery.”

Magic in the air

The highly reflective surface of the flip dots catches and throws light
The highly reflective surface of the flip dots catches and throws light

But Troika met this challenge gamely. Installed on a large marble column and spanning two and a half storeys, Waterfall is unobtrusive and yet commands a presence. In a way, the marble ‘frames’ the work nicely so that it stands out. With the light side of the flip dots being made in highly reflective surfaces, the dots catch and throw light as they flip. To me, the work does have a feel of luxury - which may not be the intention of the artists – for it seems to evoke the glittering sequins on a designer evening dress.

Apart from this, the piece is actually rather understated, especially when the dots are not flipping, and people may not immediately understand it. This happened during one of CapitaLand’s family art tours I conducted a couple of years ago. It was in the morning and ION Orchard had just opened its doors for the day. Faced with a static Waterfall, some of my colleagues and their family members could not immediately associate it with the feature that it is meant to represent. And then, suddenly, the dots started to flip, the ‘water’ started to ’flow’, seemingly in ever-changing patterns. There was magic in the air, and everyone was charmed.

Cascading into the future

Troika itself developed the animation software that controls the movement of the dots and the patterns of ‘falling water’, which range from gushing, meandering and trickling, to slowing, drying up and re-emerging; and seem to follow no fixed sequence. It is amazing how mere flip dots, which can be likened to pixels, can be programmed to display so many moods. And just like the future, what happens next cannot be entirely predicted.

One of the many patterns of cascading ‘water’ on Waterfall
One of the many patterns of cascading ‘water’ on Waterfall

The art collective has not used flip dots since Cloud and Waterfall. Will it consider using them again? "Even if we are not ruling out using flip dots in future works, we feel that there needs to be a strong conceptual reason behind doing so,” says Troika. So we cannot be certain if Waterfall will be their last work of the flip-dot genre. We can only be sure that a fascinating work like this will continue to cascade elegantly into the future.

This article is contributed by CapitaLand Chief of Art Management, Francis Wong Hooe Wai

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