What are you currently working on in the area of public engagement?
Currently I’m lead artist on Breathing Lights, a temporary public art project funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies and co-sponsored by the mayors of Albany, Schenectady and Troy. Along with my collaborator, architect Barbara Nelson, we will be illuminating the street-facing windows of hundreds of abandoned buildings in the Capital Region during the fall of 2016. Warm light will fill each window with a diffuse glow that visually mimics the gentle rhythm of human breathing. Concentrated in high vacancy, economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, these installations will illuminate the need for community revitalization.
In tandem with the art installation, we have created a series of Neighborhood Engagement and Content Creation Programs, including: Community Ambassadors Program, Youth Media Workshops, Community Arts Award Program, and Building Reclamation Clinics. These programs will magnify personal stories from within the shadows of the lights and bring attention to our surrounding urban landscape. The project will culminate in a regional summit on vacant homes and neighborhood revitalization that will engage local residents, prospective buyers and investors, and policy makers.
How did you get involved in this work?
Bloomberg Philanthropies announced the launch of a new program to support temporary public art projects in cities across the US. The foundation invited mayors in cities with 30,000 residents or more to submit proposals for innovative temporary public art projects that celebrate creativity, enhance urban identity, encourage public-private partnerships, and drive economic development. The mayors of Albany, Schenectady, and Troy came together to put forth an application, and Barbara Nelson and I were invited to collaborate on a project idea to be submitted.
Our idea was simple: determine a benefit (the history of lighting technology) and a detriment (vacancy) evident in our region, and find a creative way to put them together. Initially, 237 cities applied and 12 finalists were selected in March of 2015 to submit full proposals. Ultimately, four communities were chosen to receive up to $1 million each to execute their projects over two years, our region being one of the four.
What is the greatest reward in your publicly engaged work?
At this point we are only at the beginning of the public engagement component of Breathing Lights. Nevertheless we have held many meetings with various communities, and I’ve had the chance to hear firsthand how people react to our project. Some love it, some are suspicious, and some hate it. All of it helps to make the project feel alive. The greatest reward so far is experiencing the gap between an ideal and the real collapse.
What impact has this work had on you? ...on your students? ...on community members?
Receiving this award has had a substantial impact on our local arts community, if only by helping to put it on the map nationally. Though our region isn’t known for having a strong arts movement, we hope that Breathing Lights will help lay the groundwork for more art projects like ours to happen in the future, as well as to help bolster support for the regional creative economy.
In regards to issues of vacancy and community disinvestment, Breathing Lights is kicking the hornet’s nest dead on, topically speaking. Because our project is sited in abandoned buildings––places of great pain and loss––we are dealing with this issue in literal terms (as opposed to relating to it metaphorically). From this, we have already witnessed the impact this has on people living in disinvested neighborhoods, which comes out in impassioned speeches during our community meetings. In many ways our project is meant to function as a catalyst and a platform where these difficult conversations can take place.
And for me, I’ve been working for twenty years to be a part of a large-scale, temporary public art project like this. Perseverance pays off!
What are your future plans for your publicly engaged work?
Though it looks promising, it would be disingenuous for me to answer this question now before we have had a chance to implement and evaluate the public engagement component for Breathing Lights. Ask me after this project is finished!