Company Post

Cassini Spacecraft's Saturn Image Captures Inspire James Cao's ORIENS

Artist and coder James Yuxi Cao's initial inspiration for ORIENS, his meditative installation that premiered at TodayArt Museum in Beijing originated with several of NASA's posts to their Instagram account.

Like many of us, Cao was struck by the quiet and distant beauty of the Cassini spacecraft's image captures of Saturn and its 'atmosphere' as well as other cosmological occurrences such as the solar eclipse and black holes.

"For me as a visual artist, all of these historical moments and stimulating images triggered my impulse to think about these types of shapes and sunlit gradients, and how these shapes could represent the relationship between the individual and the universe we live in. It triggered me to bring these 'infections' into my next audiovisual work.

This audiovisual piece was a perfect balance between stable performance in realtime, editing and post-rendering, all in a flexible node by node control environment. Touchdesigner was the ideal tool!"


James Cao: I chose not to use a CPU-based language tool this time, and rather wanted to try a really trendy but very efficient GPU-based language, especially the shading language of OpenGL (GLSL). Big thanks to The Book of Shaders by Gonzalez Vivo and Jen Lowe which is a really great initial starter book for learning and understand the logic of shader languages.

Throughout the process of my daily shader practice I kept patches of the final rendered visual. These daily creations became the visual base for ORIENS, inspiring and shaping its mood and direction.

JC: To integrate this piece into a final AV composition I decided to switch to using TouchDesigner this time. For me as an artist with a non-traditional software engineering background, a node-based flexible interface with a solid C++ structure and cross-Mac/PC platform is the ideal work environment for my workflow and TouchDesigner was my powerful choice.

Very useful was TouchDesigner's Animation Editor which is a keyframe editor that allowed me to animate and control any type of variables in the GLSL patches. Keyframing is usually the important element for creating audio visual compositions and with this combination of GLSL node editor, I could constantly control all the elements' parameters from my GLSL patch in timeline editing.


The final design of the installation for TodayArt Museum in Beijing was a very encompassing experience. The AV projection covered both the walls and floor creating an interesting enclosed space mapped over a very large area: 90' (30m) x 45'(15m) x 42'(14m). In order to create an immersive experience for ORIENS' flat content, I decided to create another black/inverted colour version of the main content to project onto the floor. This "positive/negative" aspect creates a passive interactive relationship for the audience on the ground: while they watching the projection on the wall they are also sitting inside of it.

"Thanks to TouchDesigner's SOP and TOP operators I could quickly draft the design with 3D models and UV texture-mapping on basic shapes, test them to see it in scale and then do the real model projection test in a single software which was economical and again, very awesome! This flexible, straightforward work process in TouchDesigner really saved me a lot of time."


The sound composition has a 6 min 38 second duration which follows a shorter "prelude chapter" composition which is quiet and gentle in order to calm the audience and put them in the exhibition space and context. The sound effects of prelude section was made by New York-based musician and game maker Eddy Wengu Hu, and the main chapter uses Los Angeles-based musician Mars Noir's work: FORCE RECKONED WITH. The rollercoaster emotion curve for the listener from this song composition attracted me a lot and worked perfectly with the echo effect from the enclosed exhibit space in the museum.


The design of this installation utilizes the three dimensions of this immersive mapping projection space, the content of the visual on the front wall and the ground simultaneously mirror each other. This indicates the relationship between the human and the universe in that while we as humans are watching the universe, we are also part of it. Or, as Chinese philosophy puts it, "two is one, you see the universe inside of yourself."


Artist and coder Cao Yuxi (James) defines himself as an "idealist trying to redeem his pledge under the pressure of social pragmatism". His works are usually generated in the spectrum of sound-visualization, performance, programming and computing media, interactive art, and most especially where those areas meet. After graduating from China Central Academy of Fine Art in 2013 and the School of Visual Arts (MFA) in 2016, he is currently working on a Master of Fine Art degree at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

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