Chris Combs' Take on The Great Wave Is a Splash of Electronic Artwork That Watches You Back

Made of surplus electronics and a network of 10 Raspberry Pis, this take on Katsushika Hokusai's most famous artwork is sensor-laden.

Electronic artist Chris Combs has built an installation that echos Katsushika Hokusai's The Great Wave off Kanagawa — using surplus electronics and a host of Ethernet cables to create a piece of art which watches you back.

"'The Next Big Thing' is a wooden structure with front pegboards, on to which I outlined the main features of [Hokusai's] 'The Great Wave off Kanagawa' with soft graphite," Combs explains of his latest project. "The main form of the wave is Ethernet cables suspended with pegboard hooks; these cables are also functional, forming a local network with a switch and router also attached to the board. This network is used to interconnect ten computers which cooperatively respond to viewer presence using artist-made software."

Inspired by a classic piece of Japanese art, this "Great Wave" is made up of surplus electronics — and watches you back. (📹: Chris Combs)

That software, running on 10 Raspberry Pi single-board computers, takes in data from distance, infrared, and Doppler radar sensors to determine a viewer's location and movement in relation to the installation, while integrated cameras seek out faces. The data thus captured is then visualized on small screens embedded in the electronic wave — though, Combs promises, all captured data is erased after two minutes to protect viewers' privacy.

"Details from the original print are recreated with items that invoke the manufacture, distribution, and interconnection of consumer electronics," Combs explains. "The churning white 'claws' of the original print are transformed into white spools of miniature electronic components used in the creation of circuit boards (spools of SMD [Surface Mount Device] passives such as 0201 resistors), some of which are partially unspooled to add further wave detail. The boats are crafted with reused bubble mailers, invoking the lengthy journey of drop-shipped products. They contain no people; conceptually, viewers stand in for the fishers depicted in Hokusai's 'Great Wave.'"

The artwork reacts to viewers, displaying data gathered about them — or, for a big enough crowd, entering a storm state. (📹: Chris Combs)

With no viewers present, the displays integrated into the wave show snippets of Hokusai's original illustration. As more come to view the work, the lighting shifts and the screens being to show data from the sensors — and even to label them as users, consumers, or "qualified leads." With enough viewers at once, the artwork shifts to a "stormy mode" — complete with LED lightning.

"In the clouds above the wave are découpaged strips of the artist's personal data profiles from Google, Facebook, and Twitter: items purchased, locations visited, and ads viewed," Combs adds. "Should a viewer closely approach the artwork to read these slices of data, hidden lights behind the pegboard gently begin to glow in a surprising moment."

More information on the artwork is available on Combs' website.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire:
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