How Cubism protected warships in World War I
By Marty Graham
via the wired.com web site
If you’re stuck in traffic along the I-5 near San Diego International Airport, and your attention wanders from the brake lights in front of you, your eyes might land on a low-slung leviathan of a building, a third of a mile long, resembling the upper deck of a buried cruise ship peeking above ground. Keep your gaze there long enough, and you will notice that the geometric black-and-white pattern on the northeast side of the structure keeps changing.
What you’re seeing is simply a gargantuan rental car center. But as of September, it’s also a massive e-ink display—and even a sort of time-travel portal. The project by artist Nik Hafermaas deploys thousands of e-paper panels to turn the side of the garage into a sort of outsize mutant Kindle screen, cycling through 15 different designs. Its mesmerizing show offers a flashback to a World War I-era camouflage technique known as Dazzle. That’s where your trip back in time begins.
During World War I, artists protected massive warships by hand-painting them with eye-popping monochrome shapes that fooled enemies aboard German U-boat submarines. The distracting patterns made it hard for periscope-peering targeters to be sure which part of the ship they were looking at, or where it was heading.
Hafermaas is not the first artist to be dazzled by Dazzle. Pablo Picasso is said to have claimed that Dazzle artists drew inspirations from his Cubist paintings. More recently, William Gibson’s science fiction novel Zero History drew inspiration from the disruptive patterns. But Hafermaas, who chairs the graphic design department at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, has actually brought Dazzle back to hypnotic life, in the largest display of the camouflage style in many decades. For the San Diego airport project, Hafermaas and his team at the Ueberall International studio commissioned 2,100 e-ink panels—each of which, solar-powered and wirelessly connected, becomes a pixel in a shifting array.
Hafermaas says he found his inspiration when, leafing through a magazine, he chanced upon pictures of a ship, painted in a distorted checkerboard of black and white. “I saw these patterns that are really part of minimalist art, op art,” Hafermaas says. “But here it’s not meant as art but as the functionality to disguise a warship. It looks like art, but it’s actually engineering.”
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