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Shannon’s Fireflies « Site 3 coLaboratory
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Shannon’s Fireflies

A Scotiabank Nuit Blanche project for 2011

Artist: Seth Hardy

Support from Alex Leitch, Christopher Guard, and many volunteers
A Site 3 coLaboratory Project
Trinity Church Labyrinth – near the Eaton Centre

Concept: Light Grid


“Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht frist and lsat ltteer is at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by it slef but the wrod as a wlohe.” (original source unknown)

Language suffers from an interesting paradox: while words are constructed to keep their meaning even if garbled, using words to construct meaning is often an incredibly difficult task. Listening to someone speak in a noisy room is easy for someone who knows a language, but mastery of a language where one can use it to create beautiful meaning is a skill that many never find in their entire lives.

In 1963, the mathematicians Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver published a book called A Mathematical Theory of Communication. One of Shannon’s greatest statements was a way that we can measure the amount of information in a word:

This definition has helped bring us many technological achievements. Every time that we use a mobile phone or the Internet, every time we listen to digital music, every time we watch digital video, we are using an invention that uses the same property as the very first spoken language.

While we can now measure information, we are particularly bad at quantifying meaning. When applying Shannon’s definition to language, it breaks down once we try to move from words to ideas, the way we assemble those words to say what we really mean. Words are easy to understand because they have a lot of redundant information, but redundant words may imply an entirely different meaning.

Why is it impossible to measure the meaning of what is being said, when we can so easily measure the medium?

We are not alone in being subject to the paradox of language. Fireflies communicate with much simpler information than words: simple flashes, on or off. However, through other context such as flash speed, position, and direction of the firefly, more meaning can be communicated. Fireflies can be confused, just as we can, when noise is introduced into the simple words that they speak with light.

Despite the confusion, we all still carry on, communicating the best we can in the ways we can. Artificial languages meant to eliminate ambiguity exist, but are academic curiosities. Even with noise that turns meaning into confusion, we’re somehow able to understand each other, in a way that Shannon’s definition of information can’t be used to explain.

Shannon’s FirefliesMathematics implies order: the first thing that Alice observes is a cube. The spacing of the points in the cube suggests that it is something of meaning, but what does it contain? The cube is five feet on each side, with something at each of the 216 points each a foot apart.

The fireflies are hard to make out in the dark, but are visible as they illuminate. Each can light up on all of their six faces, one color for each axis. Electronics and clear acrylic clearly do not make living creatures, but each firefly thinks and acts on its own; there is no central computer controlling the patterns, the way they light up.

Each firefly will see the light from others that are adjacent, and flash its own light on the opposite side. This way, light introduced at each edge of the cube travels across to the other side. However, relaying the light isn’t always perfect; sometimes fireflies do not respond with their own flash, sometimes they are confused and bend or split the path of light.

Alice, having walked up to the cube to inspect the fireflies closer, wonders how those on the edge of the cube would respond to her own lights. She takes out a small light on her keychain, and flashes it at one of the closest fireflies. The firefly lights up, which then wakes up its neighbors, and the stream of light passes through the cube to the other end.

Whispering Meaning

Alice has also noticed that on two ends of the cube, there are headphones with an attached microphone. She puts one of the headsets on, wondering what the fireflies have to say and want to hear. She speaks a single word– “hello”– and a set of lights send her message into the grid. As each firefly flashes, those around it flash in response.

The message she’s spoken propagates through the cube, but again, sometimes the fireflies misunderstand. Some don’t flash, some split and twist her message, sending light off in different directions. The people gathered around watching don’t know her secret message, only seeing it in a form of light.

As light from other directions come back her way, she hears words spoken aloud. Can she understand what is being said, or have they become so garbled that she only hears nonsense?

Bob has taken up the station on the opposite end of the cube. Alice has a secret she’s been afraid to tell him, but risks giving it a try. She speaks it aloud, quiet enough that only the fireflies can hear, and the light flashes pass information in his direction. But will they keep enough meaning that he’ll understand? She doesn’t know, but she feels like she’s made a first step.

Finding Meaning in the [LN]ight

The installation will start at sundown, and remain fully operational until sunrise. There are no set times for shows; people will be able to interact with the installation (either by speaking or listening, or by flashing their own lights at the grid) at any point.

Participating Artists

Shannon’s Fireflies is a Site 3 coLaboratory project, led by Seth Hardy with support from Alex Leitch, Christopher Guard, and many volunteers.

Floor Plan and Visual Aids


The 6x6x6 light grid will be 5 feet on all sides, with the whisper stations taking another three to five feet on two sides. There should be room on all sides for people to stop and interact with the light grid while other people continue walking by. These are the only requirements of the floor plan; for more details, see the section on site criteria.

Concept Art

Concept: Light Grid

Concept: Light Grid

Concept: Node

Concept: Node


The installation will consist of the following parts:

  • Grid frame – used to suspend and bring power to the light grid
  • Grid – the light grid of 216 individual firefly units
  • Whisper stations (2) – a small computer (in a secured podium) with headphones and a microphone attached
  • Whisper lights (2) – a two-dimensional grid of 36 lights and sensors which convert words to light and vice versa

The light grid, whisper stations, and whisper lights will need electricity. If standard 110 volt wall power is available, this will work. If it is unavailable, the installation can be powered off of 12 volt batteries (such as car batteries). These batteries will either be sealed batteries or secured in battery cases.

The audio levels will be minimal, as the sound will be played through headphones. The lights will not be bright enough to be disruptive, i.e. not high-powered floodlights.

There will be at least one member of the artist team present at all times to ensure that the equipment stays in proper working order. No maintenance of the installation should be required during the night (and it will be tested prior to deployment, we don’t want things breaking down!).

Work in Progress

seth and chris measuring cables

fireflies are done!

the cube - frame only - seth & chris assembling

fireflies - one row of the grid - sneak preview!

syber - soldering edge lights

Seth Hardy

Interactive & Fire Artist

shardy (at) asymptotic (dot) ca

Seth’s background in technology is the basis for his focus on industrial and mixed-media interactive sculpture. He works primarily with fire art and lighting installations that involve physical engagement with technology, providing participants with very personalized experiences.

As one of the founders and the executive director of Site3 coLaboratory, Seth is dedicated to his vision of bringing people in the arts and technology fields together to collaborate, teach, and learn.

More at http://asymptotic.ca