Renowned artist and author Douglas Coupland hopes to create a "gorgeous" homage to the northern lights on the side of a downtown Calgary office tower, in the city's largest public art project.

Coupland says he's tried to ensure people can connect with the art installation called Northern Lights on the Telus Sky building, which is still under construction and set to open next year.

Coupland will attach thousands of bulbs to the two sides of the 60-storey tower at Centre Street and 7th Avenue SW.

In a 12-minute sequence running five times an hour from sunset to sunrise, the lights will change colour in patterns Coupland designed to replicate the natural phenomena rarely seen this far south.

"What's daunting is making sure people don't feel alienated by it," the artist told the Calgary Eyeopener.

"If you want to get in the roof of the ... hotel and have your wedding photos taken with this thing going in the background. I mean to me, that would be the ultimate compliment."

Coupland project

Coupland is installing tens of thousands of LED lights on two sides of the Telus Sky tower. (Westbank Corp/Vimeo)

Some public art projects in Calgary have been met with skepticism and even controversy.

To keep people involved, Coupland also has designed a free smartphone app. The app will teach viewers about the Northern Lights and how they work. By holding a smartphone up to the display, people can see colour-specific messages.

He spoke with Calgary Eyeopener host David Gray on Monday morning.

Q: There's a lot of excitement in Calgary, I think, that you're creating this large piece. Can you describe it for me?

A: The facade of the south and part of the north facade have LED lights embedded in them. And with these lights, I'll be using the side of the building as a canvas to create a moving imagery. I think it's going to be quite voluptuous and beautiful.

Q: This is the new Telus Sky building, designed as both symmetrical and curvilinear. Others describe it as a giant cheese grater. What will your art piece be? What will we see?

A: I want to have something that you can see from the ground, but maybe if you're flying by in a plane, you might be able to see, as well. 

The larger part of the idea is to have the northern lights playing on the sides of the building, so that even if you can't see them because we're too far south, you can still get a sense of them. 

And then also you don't get northern lights all the time. That might be a bit sort of repetitive. So I'm able to exploit a lot of changes that have happened in LED technology.

LEDs have gone from zero to 1,000 miles an hour in the last five years: much more flexible and robust and changeable.

I'm going to work with doing some geometric patterns on the side of the building as well. It's going to be really, really just gorgeous.

Q: I love the notion of surprises. Now should let you know, Calgarians have a bit of a love-hate relationship with some pieces of public art. I realize this is private art in a public place. I'm sure you followed some of that. Are you aware of how these things can be perceived in this city?

A: You guys have the weirdest relationship with public art, I have to say. The thing about public art is that it's actually not public, that the public doesn't pay for any of it. It's all paid for by private developers or what have you.

  • Watch a snapshot of how the display with look:

Q: Certainly this piece, yes.

A: I think the challenge in Alberta is because it's a flat landscape and it's largely without trees. Whatever you make has to stand alone by itself. And in the absence of other contexts, it can maybe look a bit barren or bleak.

I used to drive out to the airport with my parents and back in the '70s in Vancouver and there's this piece of minimal art. It's just basically a sheet of steel that was painted yellow.

Douglas Coupland Northern Lights

Coupland says it's important the public feels connected to the exhibit so he's made an app that people can use to see extra content. (Westbank Corp/Vimeo)

Every time we drove past it, my mom would say, "What a waste of money." It was to the point that we always dreaded driving past that sculpture because we'd always get lectured from my mother.

So as an adult, now that I'm making these things out in the world, I try and make something that you're not going to eventually look at and go like, "What's that?" in the wrong kind of way.

I think it's important that people be drawn into and that, in some ways, maybe feel like they're a part of it.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


With files from Caroline Wagner and the Calgary Eyeopener