Art CIMG0941

Published on August 22nd, 2012 | by Elizabeth Coleman


A Look into Jen Lewin’s Interactive Arc Harps

With so much art being a purely visual experience, artist Jen Lewin wanted to find a way to mix together light, sound, anddance to create a more unique type of art. And she did just that with her Arc Harps, one of her sets of large, interactive instruments played by movement through laser-light beams. They are designed for public play and just recently were shown for several months outdoors at the New Orleans Botanical Gardens.

“There is something really beautiful about the way the light plays on the skin when you dance through them,” Lewin said. “People feel like they are a kid again. It’s very fun.”

Lewin studied architecture in college, wishing to integrate her two passions: science and art. She immediately started working with moveable structures and robotics. This jettisoned her into working more with computers and designing software. She built her first light harp after trying to salvage a wooden harp with poor resonating qualities.

“I had this beautiful harp but it didn’t sound good,” Lewin explained. “I wanted to save it so I put lasers on it instead of normal strings. I showed it in New York and it was a huge hit.”

When the laser strings are broken by movement, it plays musical notes and other sounds.

“They are not simple on/off devices,” Lewin explained. “When a user breaks a beam, the harps are able to tell how fast the person is moving and the height of their hand. This information allows my software to create complex and soft sounds that swell and grow over time.”


Despite the heavy technological programming involved in her art, much of Lewin’s work has a very feminine, soft quality to it.

“I was born on a Navajo Indian reservation,” Lewin explained. “My grandmother used to put me in frilly dresses, but I was such a tomboy and would play in the dirt anyway. That duality is still with me today. I work in my studio in dresses, and I’m welding and working with heavy machinery. I can still be a woman and build lasers.”

Other examples of Lewin’s work examine the intersection between light, sound, movement and community participation. One of her installations, The Pool, is composed of 106 interactive circular platforms placed in giant concentric circles. As participants leap-pad from circle to circle, the pads communicate wirelessly and “listen” to each other to form an organic feedback network to change the LED light color in different patterns. The Moths are another example of the interactive nature of Lewin’s work; The Moths are robotic forms that only come to life after participants stop and interact with them.

Lewin’s work uses this participation to foster a sense of community.

“It is so interesting to see people interact with my art,” Lewin said. “This wonderful dialogue occurs. First you have one person interact with the harp, then two people, then ten people. And then those ten people start talking to each other, laughing and playing, and this sense of community forms from the shared experience. I just love it.”

The interactive nature of the Arc Harps highlights the many layers of an aesthetic experience. One of her biggest accomplishments is being able to make art that resonates with the participant on an individual level, creating a beautiful, meditative experience, but also is meaningful in a group setting.

“It’s one of the biggest challenges in interactive art,” Lewin said. “Many artists shy away from it, but it’s always been something I have been interested in.”

“There is a certain point in collaborative and interactive art where you have to give up a bit of control,” Lewin added. “You don’t know what’s going to happen, how people will react. It’s scary. A lot of artists have issues with it.”

With an honorarium grant from Burning Man, the Arc Harps will be making their third appearance at the week-long event in the Nevada desert next week. This year, Lewin is collaborating with artist and musician Johnny Dwork to create an even more dynamic sound and light installation. Dwork is bringing new sounds to the three Arc Harps, adding more dimensional layers of sound.

“Each of the three different-sized arc-shaped harps features a distinct custom soundscape,” noted L’Ha (short for the Laser Harp Alembic), the name of the collaboration between Lewin and Dwork. “The smallest harp hosts ‘Spoken Word’ – a quasi-random ‘odd’ poetry generator. The mid-size harp offers a digital drum circle, unlike any other… at Burning Man. The largest harp presents a mélange of thumpin’ dance grooves… Mostly whomp, dubstep, and breakbeats.”

For more information about Jen Lewin and the Arc Harps, visit

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About the Author

Elizabeth Coleman is an attorney and writer, born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from UCLA and a law degree from Santa Clara University School of Law, where she received a certificate in public interest and social justice and served as an articles editor on their law review. Apart from her legal career, Elizabeth enjoys writing short stories and dabbling in art (the messier, the better!), and previously was a regular contributor to SWOOP Magazine. She has recently started working on her first book, a young adult fantasy novel about lucid dreaming and parallel realities. Read her blog at

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