Sound and vision at the Saatchi Gallery in London

A new David Bowie exhibition at London's Saatchi Gallery is using cutting-edge LED technology to draw fans in. Paul Milligan speaks to the integrator involved.

Nearly five years after his untimely death David Bowie remains one of most enigmatic and fascinating musicians of the last 100 years. As anyone who has seen his comments in a 1999 interview predicting how important the internet was to become to our lives will know, Bowie was always interested in technology and in looking forward rather than back.

So it seems fitting that a new exhibition in London’s Saatchi Gallery of photographs of Bowie by award-winning photographer and close friend, Tony McGee, wants to use technology to bring art into the digital age. Tasked with helping the Saatchi Gallery mix the art and AV worlds was Tom Brittain, director of UK integrator HiiLife.

Saatchi Gallery Bowie Samsung The Wall

The choice of the Saatchi Gallery wasn’t by accident says Brittain, “Samsung sees art and The Wall as having a natural relationship and one of its key strategies with The Wall is to target the art world. Samsung UK wanted to push the boundaries with The Wall and where better than London’s inspirational Saatchi Gallery, where pioneering artists such as Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin have launched their careers.”

So why did the Saatchi Gallery want to move more towards digital art? “They wanted to introduce a digital aspect to their physical world. We learned along the way that there is a growing appetite in the art sphere to leverage our industry’s AV technologies and solutions. Digital art is out there already and people are using digital art, but it is few and far between. People still want to immerse themselves in the brushstrokes
of a painting and they want to get right into the heart of the art work. We have an opportunity to bring a new way of thinking to this very traditional market, seamlessly blending the physical with the digital,” says Brittain.

The decision was made at the start of the project to use Samsung’s The Wall microLED display and becomes a first milestone for the technology in a major art project in Europe. The decision was unusual but a brave one for such a big name in the art world says Brittain. “The challenge with physical art and reproduction on digital displays is that it is incredibly hard to produce an image that truly reflects the original artwork. Doing so on a 146-in LED screen is even more challenging but the Saatchi event was aiming for a stunning effect.”

Romesh Saatchi Gallery Bowie Samsung The Wall

Normally in the art world when a decision is made to go digital, it is done in a much smaller form factor, the fear is that the digital will distract from the art, so caution can often take hold. “Art clients always want a tiny screen in the corner of the room which doesn’t interfere with the interior design or decor, and is often an afterthought. The essence of The Wall is that it is modular and therefore you can be more creative with both aspect ratios and size. This was important in this project as Gallery 3 is the largest gallery at the Saatchi. Anything smaller would have been lost in the space,” he adds.

The biggest challenge on this project was to get the display to fit in with the rest of the exhibition. “When we initially discussed the project with the client, they want it to still feel like an art gallery, as opposed to a technology show or something that's going to overwhelm the other physical pieces in the gallery and put off their clientele,” says Brittain. “It had to enhance the experience for the visitors, as opposed to intruding on the experience.”

The Wall installation in Gallery 3 consisted of 12 modular cabinets arranged in a 2 x 6 configuration resulting in a digital canvas of 1.8m x 2.7m. The 0.8mm pixel pitch
of The Wall was chosen to give maximum pixel density resulting in a total resolution of 1920 pixels wide x 3240 pixels high. As the vertical resolution was 1.5 times that of a UHD image, the exhibition UKneeded the close collaboration of the event’s artistic director to ensure that the digital art to be displayed was presented in such a way as to ensure that the maximum performance of The Wall could be exploited. Content was played out using the built-in media player in the Samsung S-box LED processor.

“The key thing was to make it subtle, and to make the implementation work for the Saatchi gallery, we had to treat it like an art install which is quite hard especially with an LED wall,” adds Brittain. Redundancy was an issue here, so to avoid any downtime of the photography on display Samsung Magicinfo was employed so the support team could deal with issues immediately. Magicinfo provided remote support functionality during the event and was also driving content for The Wall, as well as managing the streaming for a ‘channel’ to 5G-enabled smartphones in the gallery.

Saatchi Gallery Bowie Samsung The Wall

“The beauty of a project like this in an art gallery is that you truly do have a blank canvas to ensure an integrated and fitting technology implementation. The events team at Saatchi have extensive experience of course. Working with them, in the capacity of technology consultants, to integrate all the various Samsung technologies was very rewarding,” says Brittain.

Installation of The Wall normally takes a week, but up against a tight deadline, HiiLife was able to get the display up and running in just three days. One challenge here was that the aspect ratio of the display wasn’t a standard 16:9, “so a lot of the content had to be rendered out and optimised to The Wall's aspect ratio. The design was purposefully closer to portrait, more like an art canvas, as opposed to how it is typically installed, which looks like a television.” Samsung was in charge of making sure the content got the best out of The Wall (and vice versa), and their content team spent six days getting the photos looking their very best. The digital files were rendered at a resolution of 1920 x 3240 pixels to match the resolution on The Wall and could therefore be mapped 1:1 to the screen with zero scaling. Adobe RGB colour space was the chosen colour profile for the digital files, as this can be fully exploited by The Wall and gives a range of reproducible colours and colour vibrancy far in excess of the standard sRGB colour space.

The configuration of The Wall also created another challenge for Brittain once he got to site, “The significant size and odd shape was really difficult to fit in because there was a fan in the ceiling directly above the display."

Audio of David Bowie tracks chosen to complement certain art pieces was subtly playing in the background, capped at 84 decibels. Wisdom Audio loudspeakers, designed to complement the visual experience, were selected.

Other Samsung displays dotted around the exhibition included the Frame TV for showcasing art, traditional Samsung professional Displays (QMR series) running digital menu boards in the bar arena, a Serif TV also showcasing art, while a Sero TV provided portrait and landscape interaction with mobile devices and associated art. On the first floor Samsung provided Flip touchscreens to show visitors the exhibition floorplan and interactive art gallery brochure through internal internet browser capabilities.

Nat Bowens Saatchi Gallery Bowie Samsung The Wall

The Flips were also very popular with the artists themselves including Nat Bowens [pictured above] who drew pictures and painted using the Flips’ functions at the launch event. All displays are connected via the network and are fully remotely managed and monitored. The exhibition was run via a combination of HiiLife, Samsung and Saatchi events team staff working together to ensure continuity of supply throughout the life of the event.


Samsung The Wall microLED, Flip displays, Frame TV, Serif TV, Sero TV, QMR series displays and Magicinfo software
Wisdom Audio L75 loudspeakers

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