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Artwork blends music and light in celebration of Dr. Grantham and PKD trial participants

June 05, 2019

By Greg Peters

"Light the Way" light fixture
"Light the Way" blends light and sound in a tribute to Jared Grantham, M.D., and the clinical trial participants who advanced PKD research. Photo: Selena Jabara, KU Medical Center.

The contributions of the late Jared Grantham, M.D., and the clinical trial participants whose efforts resulted in major advancements in the field of polycystic kidney disease (PKD) are celebrated in a public artwork at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

Located in the Hemenway Building lobby, "Light the Way" blends light and sound in a multisensory tribute, which will be on campus through the end of the year. The 25-foot-tall multimedia work was designed to complement the building's signature winding staircase, which wraps itself neatly around the public art piece.

Eighty translucent orbs of various sizes glow pastel blue as passersby engage with the work, causing it to change to a bright white and the music to play as pinpoints of light beam down from LED lamps affixed to the top of the piece, which spans two floors.

"We purposefully designed this art installation to fit beautifully and harmoniously within the negative space created by the spiral staircase — the orbs mirroring the same spiral formation," said Boneli Lotilla, design director at minds + assembly, the New York-based creative agency managing the project. "When the user is underneath the structure, looking up, we want them to feel fully immersed in clouds of light and peaceful sound."

"The piece is great," said Richard J. Barohn, M.D., vice chancellor for research, and a member of the KU Medical Center Art Committee that chose the location. "The visual aspects are wonderful. The fact that movement sets off the light and sound, and that social media messaging can also set it off, makes this a true modern art experience."

Paying tribute

A research pioneer in the truest sense, Grantham spent most of his 60-year career puzzling PKD's causes and potential treatments.

"Dr. Grantham, more than any other single researcher, championed the quest to find a treatment for PKD," said Alan Yu, M.B., B.Chir., director of the Jared Grantham Kidney Institute. "He made many of the seminal observations that led to the development of a vasopressin receptor antagonist for this disease and advocated strongly for its approval.

"The dream would not have become a reality, though, without the altruism of thousands of PKD patients worldwide who volunteered their time and effort and risked side effects participating in clinical trials designed to test the efficacy and safety of the treatment."

"KU Medical Center was a natural choice since it was the origin of so much pivotal research," said Colleen MacDowell, a senior manager in the nephrology division at Otsuka America Pharmaceutical, Inc. "Dr. Grantham was not alone in his research contributions by any means, but his positive spirit was contagious and touched so many, including many patients." Otsuka America Pharmaceutical, Inc. commissioned the artwork and placed it here on loan to the university.

The ripple effect

The journey from idea to installation began in November 2017 when a group at minds + assembly was exploring potential ways to honor the critical contributions of researchers and clinical trial participants to making scientific advancements possible. By early the next year, Otsuka America Pharmaceutical, Inc. and minds + assembly identified One Thousand Birds (OTB), a sound and creative tech studio based in New York and Los Angeles, as the partner they wanted to bring their dream to life.

The creators of "Light the Way" say the work mirrors the way Grantham's work rippled outward touching the lives of countless people worldwide. As viewers interact with the artwork, the piece responds by changing colors and sounds, again echoing the profound effect one person can have. And just as scientific advances altered PKD research through the years, the artwork's social media interface demonstrates how advances in communications technology can amplify the reach of even the quietest conversation.

"In a very real sense, this was all inspired by Dr. Grantham's story," said Claire Morrow, senior producer, at minds + assembly. "Dr. Grantham would very likely not have devoted his life to kidney disease had a childhood friend not revealed to him his own kidney problems. That one utterance was a catalyst for everything Dr. Grantham did. It's astonishing how many lives a single person can touch without even intending to.

"Dr. Grantham was the spark," she continued, "but his light touched so many others, especially clinical trial participants, who then lit the way to change kidney research for generations to come."

With the aid of the KU Medical Center Art Committee, the Hemenway Building location was chosen, and the final plans were approved in September 2018. OTB completed fabrication of the work in November 2018 in New York City, and the piece was installed the week of Dec. 14, 2018, on the KU Medical Center campus.

"This is one of the more comprehensive and multisensory pieces that we've worked on," said Lotilla. "It's truly helped us grow in so many ways. We are looking forward to doing more projects like this in the future."

It takes a village

Just as it took a broad collection of people with varied talents to bring Grantham's vision to fruition, a team of artists worked across multiple disciplines to bring the 800-pound "Light the Way" piece to life. More than 20 programmers, installers and designers collaborated on the artwork, which was digitally sculpted to bring the dozens of orbs into visual harmony with the hundreds of LED bullet lights that produce a starburst effect on the mirrored crown piece when the work is triggered.

"Science is a collaborative endeavor," said Iman Ahmed, associate director in the nephrology division at Otsuka America Pharmaceutical, Inc. "It takes a village — including clinical trial sites around the globe — to accomplish anything as significant as discovering new treatments. By connecting this artwork to the internet, we remind viewers that not only do their thoughts and actions ripple outward and touch the world; countless others impact them daily, in ways they might not even know."

Thanks to motion-activated infrared sensors located near the base of the piece, with a simple wave of an arm viewers can send multiple colors of light racing through the artwork. The sensors also trigger a change in the soundscape, causing another shift in the sensory environment, much akin to the effects Grantham and the trial participants unleashed through simple gestures.

By employing the hashtag #PKD, "Light the Way" empowers Twitter users to take social interactivity to a level not often experienced in public art. The work is skillfully designed so that every time the hashtag is tweeted, the lights and sounds respond, much the same as they do for viewers standing next to the work. Again, it shows how, thanks to advances in technology, even a tiny gesture can bring people into the conversation regardless of whether they are inside a lab at KU Medical Center or somewhere halfway around the world

"Beyond creating an art piece that has a strong, visual impact, we also wanted it to have an impact on people outside of its home base in Kansas City," said David Tuchman, associate director, writing, at minds + assembly. "Considering the strong social media presence among the tight-knit PKD community, incorporating connectivity to Twitter made a lot of sense. We wanted the installation to visually represent the effect every person has on the conversation — the way that each of these lives has touched so many others by sharing their light."

Last modified: Jun 05, 2019