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Downtown art installation 'Zee' closed indefinitely, blamed for causing seizures

| Monday, Sept. 30, 2013, 11:18 a.m.
Pittsburgh Cultural Trust
Zee (Austria/USA, 2008)

An art installation Downtown will be closed indefinitely to allow the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust to assess its safety.

Three visitors in three days reported suffering seizures when visiting “Zee,” a room-sized installation by Austrian artist Kurt Hentschlager at 943 Liberty Ave. that features thick fog and strobe lights.

“We're taking time to assess the situation, and the exhibit is closed indefinitely until we get the chance to do that,” trust spokeswoman Shaunda Miles said.

Pittsburgh fire and EMS officials closed the installation on Sunday evening because an 18-year-old woman experienced seizure-like symptoms. She was treated at the scene and released. Two others reported seizures since the exhibit opened on Sept. 27.

Patrons had to sign a waiver before entering the installation, inside a former newsstand building next to the ToonSeum. The waiver stated that anyone with “photosensitive epilepsy,” breathing problems, heart problems, headaches, claustrophobia or anxiety should not enter.

Dr. James Valeriano, chair of neurology at the Allegheny Health Network, said the seizures seemed unusual, given the rarity of photosensitive epilepsy. He said about 2 percent of the population carries the genes for epilepsy, and a fraction of those have photosensitivity, or seizures that can be triggered by flashing lights.

Even fewer people do not know they have the condition.

“For three people to show up in three consecutive days with photosensitive epilepsy, that's an unusual cluster,” he said.

Valeriano said suggestibility could be a factor, because the waiver mentioned epilepsy prominently. Visitors could have mistaken headaches, confusion or disorientation produced by the exhibit for seizures, he said.

He advised those who experienced symptoms to follow up with their doctors. Undiagnosed photosensitive epilepsy can be accompanied by broader epileptic disorders and seizures that aren't linked to flashing lights or colors.

Depending on a person's sensitivity, treatment can include medication, avoidance of flashing lights or even using blue sunglasses and light filters, because blue light appears to be less of a trigger, Valeriano said.

Miles did not know how long the exhibit, which had been scheduled to run through Oct. 27, would remain closed or whether anything about it would be changed. Hentschlager could not be reached for comment.

The trust did not have an estimate yet of how many visitors went through the installation as part of the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts.

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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