Monolith Art Installation

Review: Monolith at Outernet London

Image credit: Hilary Lamb

A city-centre digital art installation marking Mental Health Awareness Week depicts anxiety as a living monolith on the brink of bursting.

The installation was created by artist-technician Jack Dartford to share his own experience of anxiety. Dartford, who is on the autistic spectrum and who had severe anxiety as a child and young man, explains: “It came from the idea that I can’t really explain my emotions very well verbally, so doing it visually is, I guess, the way I communicate.”

Dartford originally envisioned the installation as a physical monolith: a freestanding LED wall. Moving the concept into the unique space of Outernet London’s Now Building forced him to redesign it while dealing with a volley of technical challenges, but also offered the opportunity to create something immersive and vast in scale.

For Londoners – Outernet London’s Now Building is the one with the gigantic LED screens outside Tottenham Court Road Station. For non-Londoners – imagine an inside-out billboard comprised of 23,000 square feet of 16K wraparound screens and more than 70 speakers, installed in a public space in the middle of town. Outernet London, which describes itself as the most advanced immersive space in the world, shows roughly half commercial content and half editorial content like Monolith. The installation was brought into being by Outernet’s charity arm ADOT, Dartford, immersive experience company Chaos Inc and suicide-prevention charity CALM, with the intention of exploring anxiety and building empathy among visitors during Mental Health Awareness Week.

Millions of colour-changing particles comprise the monolith itself, which represents the ever-present anxiety in Dartford’s mind: “It’s something that’s so large in my head and very unavoidable [...] it might not always be doing crazy stuff in my head, but it’s always there.”

Monolith art installation blue

Image credit: Hilary Lamb

As the building fills with people, the particles heat from blue-green to yellow-orange and begin to move in increasingly wild patterns: a visual representation of impending sensory overload.

Monolith art installation red

Image credit: Hilary Lamb

The final stage comes when the particles turn red and fly across the walls. Dartford says: “That’s when you have the realisation that there’s no backing out of [a situation] and you have to face it. It’s just a panic attack at that point.” He explains that the monolith represents how he experiences anxiety, but it also ‘experiences’ anxiety in response and represents that back to the viewer.

A feed from a camera in the space is used to monitor various factors in real time, such as the number of people within it. These inputs are used to generate a noise wave, which is multiplied with a clean sine wave to produce a more erratic sine wave, from which the content is generated. This does not only apply to the visual content – a soundscape by sound designer Halina Rice runs on the same system, growing more frantic and unsettling as the space fills with people.

Stacia Pfeiffer, co-founder of Chaos Inc, said: “Jack Dartford has delivered a living, breathing expression of the hidden world of the inner psyche. Monolith breaks down the barriers between artist, artwork and audience. In planning the installation, we have made full use of the technical capability of Outernet’s impressive facilities – including a real-time, crowd-responsive particle system, making the audience a central figure in the generative nature of the piece. Halina Rice has created custom spatial audio for this installation which builds upon and reacts to the visual content, creating a fully responsive AV experience.”

In simulating a panic attack, Dartford acknowledges that the installation may not be a pleasant experience for visitors. “I think that’s kind of the point,” he said. “To create empathy in people who don’t necessarily have as much anxiety as others, so they can go ‘oh wow, this is actually what it’s like’. It’s not to scare people away, but to give them the experience of what it’s like so hopefully they walk away with slightly more understanding of what it feels to be in that headspace”.

Monolith is free to visit at Outernet London’s Now Building until 21 May 2023 (Mon-Fri 12-2pm and 5-7pm, Sat 12-2pm, Sun 6-8pm). Details at


Monolith at Outernet London

Monolith is a simple concept which makes superb use of Outernet London’s high-spec venue.

The installation strips away all the tired, culturally specific tropes around anxiety to represent it in as abstract a way as possible: millions of coloured particles moving across the walls and ceilings. On a computer screen, it might look like a 20-year-old screensaver. In its extreme abstraction, it cannot be said to be beautiful, transgressive, or even especially interesting to look at – but this is done with intent. It succeeds at what it aims to do, which is to convey in a totally universal language the experience of anxiety.

Its ‘panic’ stage is impressive. The yellow-orange particles flicker red, raising the heart rate slightly, before turning red and spilling across all the ceiling and walls like lava. Within this space – huge, bright, bass throbbing through one’s body – Monolith brings about a palpable sensation of dread, like being in a nuclear bunker or a spaceship as it falls into a star.

Halina Rice’s soundscape is at its disturbing best in this latter stage. At the initial, ‘calm’ stage, it is almost a pastiche of the ambient music used to accompany mindfulness instructors, layered with a very slow, pervasive pulsing bass such that one cannot be permitted to forget the presence of anxiety even in the best of moments.

Monolith is crowd-responsive, but this is subtle enough such that a casual visitor is unlikely to notice. Watching a couple of cycles as commuters filled and emptied the Now Building, it was difficult to discern the impact of the people on the installation. This particular installation is also compromised by the lack of full immersion – the people outside and attention-grabbing adverts playing on other screens in the complex are distracting enough to detract from the sensation of being trapped within a panicking mind – but this is hardly a complaint with Monolith itself.

Despite this, it is hard to think of many venues that would serve this installation better. Monolith is well worth a detour for passing Londoners.


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