How Josef O’Connor and David Hockney are lighting up the world

Digital outdoor screen showing artwork of sun

The London member and founder of Circa talks about working with a national treasure, pausing capitalism, and pulling everyone out of lockdown fatigue

By Anish Patel

Art becomes more vital in times of uncertainty. It gives us something to reflect on, talk about and – for a few brief moments – escape or engage with the world, depending on our want. Right now, it’s fair to say, we need all the help we can get.
It was this thinking that led artist Josef O’Connor to set up Circa, a new platform dedicated to showcasing digital art in the most conspicuous of public spaces. Throughout the pandemic, O’Connor has worked with an impressive roster of artists, including Ai Weiwei, Patti Smith, Tony Cokes, Cauleen Smith and Eddie Peake, to project selected works onto Europe’s most iconic digital billboard, Piccadilly Lights, at London’s Piccadilly Circus. Every evening, at precisely 8.20pm GMT, the platform has paused its run of adverts for two minutes to take a non-commercial break and lift the city’s spirit through art.
Yet, it’s O’Connor’s latest project with David Hockney that takes Circa’s mission of enlightening audiences to a global scale. Working in collaboration with Times Square Arts’ Midnight Moment programme, Hockney’s digital animation of a sunrise (part of his recent foray into iPad art) has been broadcast around the world on colossal screens.
Named ‘Remember You Cannot Look At The Sun Or Death For Very Long’, the artwork can be seen at Times Square in New York and Pendry West Hollywood in LA, Coex K-Pop Square (the largest LED screen in Korea), and Yunika Vision in Japan. In this worldwide display of unity, Hockney’s vision of a rising sun stretching out over rolling hills offers a powerful symbol of hope as many parts of the world awaken from the deep slumber of lockdown.
We sat down with O’Connor to talk about his latest project.

Digital outdoor screen in city showing the word David Hockney
Digital outdoor screen in city scape
Black and white digital outdoor screen in city scape

Clockwise from top left: Yunika Vision, Shinjuku; Times Square, New York; 
Piccadilly Lights, London

Why did you decide to launch Circa?

‘I first had the idea when I was 19, but it was only about three years ago that I acted on it and reached out to the screen owner, Landsec, via Twitter. I was inspired by Piccadilly’s kinetic architecture – how it morphed and changed with time to reflect the world – from neon lights in 1908 to the iconic red and white Sanyo sign in the 1990s, etc. You could accurately guess the decade by just looking at a photo or postcard of the landmark. This inspired the concept for Circa, to pause time and commission artists to create new work that considers the world around them, circa 2020/21, etc.’

‘Initially, I only asked if we could have the screen for an afternoon, but that quickly developed into a challenge to see how we could pause time every day. It all clicked into place when I realised that 2020 was also 20:20 on a digital clock, rooting the concept in a time that’s easy to remember and would move forward by a minute each year (circa 20:20, circa 20:21, etc) just like clockwork. Developing a concept is similar to carving stone. You chip away until something feels complete.’

How did the partnership with David Hockney come about? 

‘The timing was right for a hopeful reminder, and nobody does that better than David Hockney. We’ve been fortunate to work with so many incredible artists, but like Norman Rosenthal [chairman of The Circa Advisory Council] always likes to remind me, “You’re only as good as your last show.”’

What’s the aim of the projections? 

‘By pausing commercial adverts, we’re essentially pausing capitalism, and using that time to present new and meaningful ideas to help guide us all forward. The combined screen time on the Piccadilly Lights is worth more than £1m, so it needs to be used wisely. From Ai Weiwei amplifying his activist message to Tony Cokes displaying Elijah McClain’s last words ‘I can’t breathe’, we’ve set out as a platform to create space for two paradigms to coexist and work together to achieve something meaningful.’

Digital outdoor screen in city scape

<span style="white-space:pre-wrap;">Piccadilly Circus, London</span>

What does sunrise mean to you?


How has the project been received?

‘The idea of repetition – seeing Hockney’s sunrise appear on multiple screens around the world – was inspired by John Berger’s theory on repetition. The seasons repeat and the sun continues to rise every day... It’s captured a much-needed sense of hope and joy, as his work always seems to do so well.’

Why was making this global so important?

‘After the year we’ve all had, it felt right to step into spring with a message of hope. I think that’s what Hockney’s work is all about. His view on the world is one that inspires us all to look more closely, and uplifts so many people with his use of colour and humour. We wanted to share that experience with as many people as possible and make a collaborative statement by partnering with Time Square Arts and other screens in Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Seoul.’

What are you raising money for? 

‘We launched the #circaeconomy in October last year and sell affordable artworks each month by Circa artists for £100. A percentage of the profits goes back into helping build an economy that commissions new public art in our communities, nurtures more diverse cultural industries, and supports emerging creative potential. This has been a challenging time for artists and cultural institutions, and I wanted to use the platform to help support as many people and organisations as possible. Aside from offering a free public art programme, we’ve given away cash grants of £5,000 to The Showroom, Chisenhale Gallery, and Culture Art Society. We’ve also just partnered with Dazed to launch ‘Class of 2021’, awarding an emerging video artist with £30,000 to help kick-start their career. As a collective achievement, this is what I’m most proud of.’

What’s next for you and Circa?

‘I’m really proud of everything we’ve achieved and look forward to growing the audience across our new locations in Tokyo and Seoul. Personally, I’m excited to spend more time with my mum this summer and visit as many galleries as possible. James Barnor’s new exhibition at the Serpentine will be a highlight, as will our June collaboration with the Chisenhale Gallery and Nikita Gale.’

Circa is currently selling a time-limited poster by David Hockney for £100 (plus VAT for UK customers) at until the end of May

Series of sunrises painted digitally

Screening times for ‘Remember You Cannot Look At The Sun Or Death For Very Long’ by David Hockney

London: Piccadilly Lights, at 20:21BST
New York: Times Square, at 23:57EST
Los Angeles: Pendry West Hollywood at 20:21PST
Seoul: Coex K-POP Square LED screen at 20:21KST
Tokyo: Yunika Vision, Shinjuku at 09:00JST
Online via CIRCA.ART every evening at 20:21BST

A purple, pink and orange gradient with the text Summer of Love

Closeness, spontaneity, and our moment in the sun

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