Breathing Lightsby Charles Duncan
Albany, Schenectady, and Troy, New York
Nightly through November, 2016 | 6 pm – 10 pm
Breathing Lights is a large-scale, multi-city public art installation that aims to draw attention to vacant residential buildings in the Capital District of New York State. It is a highly ambitious initiative: hundreds of abandoned and “zombie” structures, chosen largely along streets of row houses within distressed neighborhoods, pulsate with light generated by LED-illuminated scrims set within windows, mimicking the respiration of living, breathing humans. A winner of the Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge, Breathing Lights unites artists and architects with the mayors of Albany, Schenectady, and Troy, as well as dozens of community and private-sector partners, to realize and engage eight months of programming and events such as youth media projects, building reclamation clinics, community arts presentations, gallery talks, and policy discussions.
Assessing Breathing Lights through the merits of its visual impact captures only a fraction of the gravitas of this unprecedented project, but is certainly the best place to start. Armed with maps of neighborhoods where illuminated buildings are concentrated, one must travel deep into zones that, once vibrant, have largely been bypassed by the post-industrial economy. Following something of a scavenger hunt by car or foot, Breathing Lights buildings become readily identifiable: all windows on at least one story broadcast synchronized, oscillating yellow light, controlled by a master, multi-floor dimmer. Active between 6 and 10 pm, these gently pulsing façades visually punctuate often dark streets with rhythmic swells of light, triggering synesthetic associations to the abstract notion of “cheer.” Hardscrabble, real-world counterpoints to the saccharine glowing cottages of the late Thomas Kinkade, these buildings advertise their agency as once (and hopefully future) centers of human kinship. Pulsating like fireflies, often they stand alongside occupied residences, courting suitors with whom they hope to reenter the intimate dance between dwelling and inhabitant.
As a mark of its success, Breathing Lights engenders observations beyond the lit buildings’ windows; one begins to notice the even larger number of additional abandoned or derelict homes scattered throughout the neighborhoods (only ten percent of the thousands of vacant properties in the three cities are lit). Many, quite eerily, are emblazoned with a large red X, warning firefighters that the structure is too unstable to enter, like an added scarlet letter of shame upon the dejected. In Albany, numerous breathing buildings lurk in the shadow of the Empire State Plaza—Nelson Rockefeller’s grand project that razed much of the city’s oldest neighborhoods to accommodate the enormous modernist state government complex. The good news is that many of these abandoned homes are substantial stone structures with significant aesthetic value, and attention being afforded to them through this project may ultimately ensure their preservation.
Spearheaded by the artist Adam Frelin and architect Barb Nelson (both residents of Troy), Breathing Lights is being realized by a large constituency that ranges from elected officials to neighborhood ambassadors to community volunteers. Frelin, who has executed a number of large-scale public art projects, initially envisioned the installation as a primarily visual spectacle, but upon visiting homes abandoned in haste and littered with personal affects, began to appreciate them as metaphors for individuals, each with discrete histories and relationships within a greater dialogue. Nelson, an architect with a substantial record of employing design as a catalyst to improve disadvantaged communities, embraced the project to engender community engagement. Combining their talents, the installation evolved into a platform to reinvigorate pockets of blighted neighborhoods. For viewers wishing to experience Breathing Lights, which can be accomplished individually or in conjunction with various public events, qualms about being an interloper in these communities should be outweighed by the reality that positive transformation necessitates involvement and investment both from within and from outside these localities. Breathing Lights is an invitation to view art and experience the neighborhoods alongside residents of the communities themselves. Ultimately, the collective mantra is: Come to it, and they will build.
CHARLES DUNCAN is Executive Director of the Richard Pousette-Dart Foundation.