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Art & Museums

What's the mood? Instagram entries to gauge city's happiness, with results displayed on the Gulf Tower

| Monday, Feb. 9, 2015, 9:16 p.m.
The Gulf Tower, Downtown, lights up black and gold to coincide with the Pirates scoring and wins.  It  will be lit up in red, green and white on March 1 in celebration of St. David’s Day, a traditional Welsh holiday honoring St. David, the patron saint of Wales.
The Gulf Tower, Downtown, lights up black and gold to coincide with the Pirates scoring and wins. It will be lit up in red, green and white on March 1 in celebration of St. David’s Day, a traditional Welsh holiday honoring St. David, the patron saint of Wales.

It's not easy to gauge the mood of an entire city.

But, through a new project by the Carnegie Museum of Art, you'll be able to look at the Gulf Tower, Downtown, and find an approximation of Pittsburgh's mood from Feb. 11 to 13. It also can be seen online at

We've learned since childhood to look up to Gulf Tower and its stepped pyramid-shaped crown lights to check on weather conditions. It's been known to flash to celebrate Pirates home runs and Penguin goals, a mood indicator of sorts.

This week, those lights will gauge our happiness.

“We will read emotional sentiment on Pittsburgh-area Instagram images in real time and control the tower beacon from Feb. 11 to 13,” says Jonathan Gaugler of the Carnegie Museum of Art, who was part of the team that designed the project with curator Tina Kukielski. “Two competing colors will measure positive vs. negative sentiment, acting like a giant ‘mood ring' for the city.”

Green horizontal bars of light will represent positive moods on half of the beacon, while red bars will show negativity.

The project is presented to promote a new exhibit, “Antoine Catala: Distant Feel,” opening on Feb. 14. Catala's first solo museum exhibit in the United States encompasses photography, sculpture and video.

Catala explores the feelings that images evoke — specifically, images from distant places, seen online, that we otherwise have no connection to.

“ ‘Distant Feel' is a rebrand of empathy,” says Catala, a New York-based French artist. “Wars are waged, inequalities increase, all while the ecosystem of screens through which we learn of them expands around us. We become overwhelmed, and our capacity for empathy gets challenged.

“ ‘Distant Feel' is to feel through images, as we so often do. ‘Distant Feel' is also a more focused form of empathy. It acknowledges that it's OK to be detached and encourages us to be more effective in what we feel for.”

David Newbury is the programmer whose algorithm will turn Pittsburgh Instagram comments into data, which will be transmitted to the Gulf Tower's lights.

“We collect the scores from a large sample of people across the area, and we average positive and negative scores,” Newbury says.

“It's important to remember that not everything is positive or negative,” he says. “Sometimes, things are just neutral, and sometimes things can be both. This way, we can track how many positive things people are saying and how many negative things people are saying.

“Once we have that average score, we worked with the technicians at the Gulf Tower to develop an interface to their lighting system that lets us turn that score into a dynamic light show. Depending on what the positive and negative scores are at any time, it will trigger a different animation on the building.”

For Newbury, this is the kind of project that could only happen here in Pittsburgh.

“It's fantastic to be able to do this kind of work here in Pittsburgh,” Newbury says. “I'm one of the Pittsburgh boomerangs — I spent 10 years out of Pittsburgh, working in Chicago and Canada, but I grew up here. Downtown Pittsburgh's always been a special place for me.

“I remember my mother explaining how to tell what the weather was going to be using the Gulf Tower lights when I was a kid. It was amazing to me that the buildings themselves could be used to communicate information. Knowing that I now have the opportunity to talk to the city, using the city itself, it's an awesome privilege.”

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7901.

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