1.1.1. Reading a wave

“The sea is barely wrinkled, and little waves strike the sandy shore. Mr. Palomar is standing on the shore, looking at a wave. Not that he is lost in contemplation of the waves. He is not lost, because he is quite aware of what he is doing: he wants to look at a wave and he is looking at it. He is not contemplating, because for contemplation you need the right temperament, the right mood, and the right combination of exterior circumstances; and though Mr. Palomar has nothing against contemplation in principle, none of these three conditions applies to him. Finally, it is not “the waves“ that he means to look at, but just one individual wave: in his desire to avoid vague sensations, he establishes for his every action a limited and precise object.”, so begins Italo Calvino's Mr. Palomar.

In the first chapter of Italo Calvino's Mr. Palomar, entitled “Reading a wave”, Mr. Palomar stands on the beach contemplating the daunting task of trying to see a single wave in the crashing surf. In this installation, readers try to pick out glimpses of Palomar's musings on infinities while immersed in a sensitive field of light and text. Readers struggle to pick out patterns of words from an animated text amidst interference from fields of physical and virtual waves.

Reading a wave is an interactive installation that generates responsive text and light patterns in relation to participants movement. The project consists of a ripple tank atop a vintage overhead projector and a Mac system running Max+Jitter, a video camera, a data projector, plus custom electronics. People's movement results in visual waves in the projection while both obscuring and accentuating parts of the projected text. Movement towards the projection creates physical waves generated by the ripple tank, with a frequency relative to the speed of movement. Movement towards the projector ceases the rippling water and reveals virtual waves generated algorithmically in Max/Jitter.

The waves from people's movements in the space create a sense of a large field of a combined physical and virtual liquid. Overtop the projection of water, pieces of text seem to rise and submerge, along with the waves. This text is selected, sized, scaled and located in relation to people's movements as well. The text itself is culled from Italo Calvino's Mr. Palomar, “In 27 short chapters, arranged in a 3 x 3 x 3 pattern, the title character makes philosophical observations about the world around him. Calvino shows us a man on a quest to quantify complex phenomena in a search for fundamental truths on the nature of being.” The text teeters between chapter one, "Reading a wave" for which the piece is named, and the last chapter, "Learning to be dead", which concludes with death of Palomar-the ultimate observer.


Media: Overhead projector, ripple tank, custom electronics, computer vision system, Max/Jitter


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How to display a flying dragon, from Johann Kestler, Physiologia Kircheriana Experimentalis, p. 247. from

© Erik Conrad 1998-2008