When Cities Play with Light: A study in public art displays

A few weeks ago we visited a friend in Philadelphia. Our friend planned out an extensive walking tour that kept us exploring until well after the sun went down. As the evening grew darker we strolled back toward downtown on Broad street. Referring to the numerous enormous murals we passed along the way, our friend informed us that Philadelphia was known as a city of murals and that the downtown area was full of them. While stopped at a traffic light I looked up and was suddenly struck with awe. There on the other side of the street we marveled at a magnificent mural covering the entire side of a multistory building. The building’s wall crenelated in and out and every surface was covered in faces. The painting was made all the more impressive by the lights shining on its surface.  The lights changed color every few seconds and each change illuminated faces you couldn’t see before. Different colors brought out different faces and the overall effect was mesmerizing. Walking closer, we learned it was called “The Evolving Face of Nursing.” See this video to see it in action.

For the most part, public art makes me happy. Beautifying common spaces benefits us all. I like to think of it as an extension of the “Broken Window Theory” tested by the New York City Police in the 1980’s. Just like how fixing broken windows sets a positive precedent, public art likewise gives positive signals: This is a community…we all live here…we all want it to be beautiful and meaningful…let’s beautify it together. In the case of this Philadelphia mural, the subject, the style, and the intriguing light illusions worked together to be meaningful for that community. Downtown Philadelphia is home to several medical schools so the subject of nursing is significant and personal. The faces depicted displayed an ethnic and age diversity which reflects the eclectic makeup of the city. And the light trick was just, well, cool. Like the Bean in Chicago, I think this mural is worth a stop on any Philadelphia tour.

Like I said, for the most part, public art makes me happy….when it works. Now, I realize this might be a touchy subject. Art is largely subjective. Preferences range widely and wildly. What one person appreciates as a beautiful or fun addition to their city others might find tacky or overly abstract or just a flat-out waste of money. It is also near impossible to outguess what people would like.

This was my dad’s favorite cow in 2000. He could see it from his office.

For instance, who would have thought that the CowParade would become such an international phenomenon? As a kid, that was the best summer to visit the New York City; there was a different hilarious cow on every other block. But if I had come up with this idea, and told you that we were going to put hundreds of cow statues throughout Manhattan, you’d think I was nuts. In short, it is hard to tell what will create widespread meaning and appreciate in a population.

That said, I do believe the most popular pieces have a few things in common. The murals, the cows, the Bean…all of these are personal to the city and accessible to the average onlooker. This Evolving Face of Nursing achieves both of these.

By contrast, as I thought about the illuminated faces of that Philadelphia mural I remembered two new Chicago installations which also play with light.

Lightscapes of State Street

In 2011, Chicago installed Lightscapes: A Multi-Sensory Experience on State Street. Then in 2013, Wabash and Congress Streets were lined with light towers that glow different colors at night. On the one hand, the Lightscapes project had good intentions. The Loop association wanted to avoid all of the waste involved in holiday light displays so they instead created a semi-permanent light display that could be customized for holiday activities. The light poles are designed to look like prairie grass and are topped with energy-efficient LED lights which blink in choreographed patterns along to music coming from hidden speakers. In theory, it sounds like a really interesting idea. The problem is execution. The light sticks look rather cheap up close. They certainly do not look like prairie grass and, even if they did, I doubt there are many people on State Street wishing they were out on the prairie, especially since so many them are tourists come to see the big city. Supposedly, the lights dance to recognizable songs, but every time I’ve passed by, the lights just fade in and out and the music (barely audible) just sounds like experimental, electronic tones strung together…beep boom bleeb bum beep beep. Ironically, this display is best viewed at night, but almost everything on State Street closes at 8PM. Overall, this display has little to do with Chicago or the people in it, so it is not personal, and the execution creates more confusion than engagement, indicating it is not accessible. The same can be said for the lights on Congress. To add insult to injury, there is the issue of the price tag. Now, argue all you want that you can’t put a price on art, but this first display cost $1 million, a sum which, in addition to being FAR more than what the traditional holiday lights cost, was funded largely by property taxes, i.e. monies that could have been spent easing the financial crisis threatening the city. And the Congress lights display? $3.4 million. Take that as you will.

Compare these projects with the privately funded Bay Lights project that lights up the Bay Bridge which connects San Fransisco and Oakland. In this case, the art transforms an already familiar feature of the city landscape. The 25,000 lights that glimmer along the wires of the suspension bridge never make the same pattern, so every night is different and easily engages onlookers with its shimmering spectacle resembling a peaceful, fluttering firework. See what I mean:

The Bay Lights installation follows suit with being both personal and accessible. As an added bonus, this $8 million project is estimated to bring ~$100 million in tourism revenue to the Bay Area. So…personal, accessible, AND cost effective. Way to go, San Fran.

In sum, if you are an artist looking to make public art, consider the installations that have come before yours. What do the popular ones have in common? What make them meaningful to the people of that city? Know your audience. Know that they seem to like things that are personal and accessible. “Wow” factors, humor, and positive financial consequences also don’t hurt. If you think that these characteristics are too constraining, then you probably shouldn’t be making public art.


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Filed under Running Commentary on whatever tickles the fancy, Travel

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