Go Deeper

Gourmet Ice Cream, Dark Skies, and Rafael Lozano-Hemmerʼs 24 Bat-Signals: Opening Night for “Open Air”

Posted September 28th, 2012

Julius Ferraro is a freelance writer in Philadelphia, a former Festival Guide intern, and regular blog contributor. We sent him to cover the opening night of Open Air. This is his story.

Rahzel performs with Mayor Nutter (left) watching the lights at the opening of Open Air. Photo by James Ewing.

My Thursday night started with a closeup view of the moon—craggy, cratered, with the arc of the earthʼs shadow slicing it out of the sky—from the lawn outside the Franklin Institute.

I was in the wrong place.

After the jump: a blacked-out parkway, love for computer glitches, and Rahzel jams.

Biking to the part of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway which was blocked off for the opening ceremonies for Open Air, I had gotten distracted by a pair of guys setting up a telescope. “Weʼre here to protest that light show!” they told me.

Mike had come all the way down from Buffalo, New York to support a variety of national organizations who were against Rafael Lozano-Hemmerʼs grand marriage of technology and human interaction, which was slated to light up the skies above Philly every night until October 14th.

“Weʼre for dark skies,” explained Mike. “Theyʼre suggesting that to look up at the sky and see city lights is beautiful. We donʼt think it is.” The show, apparently, beyond promoting city lights on principle, could interfere with rescue helicopters and the migratory habits of birds.

I was there to see Open Air, though, and I made that clear to Mike that I would probably be writing a promotional article about it. And he still let me look through his telescope—thatʼs brotherly love for you!

When I got to the right place and met my friend, the first thing we were struck by was how darn dark it was. Around 22nd street was the pale glow of the food trucks, and two blocks away at 24th was the square of light from the stage and the viewing screen, and between the two points was almost pure blackness. We didnʼt put together that this was part of the nightʼs programming until later.

When Penny Balkin Bach, the Curator and Executive Director of the Association for Public Art (APA), whose funding and enthusiasm had, largely, brought Lozano-Hemmer to Philly, announced that this stretch of the Parkway was at that moment “darker than itʼs been since it was first lit 75 years ago,” and that by intentionally darkening this stretch of streetlights, Open Air has turned off “1000 times more light pollution than weʼre adding with the searchlights!”

There was something gorgeous about the idea. If you live in the city youʼre never without artificial lighting. When you sleep it creeps in your windows and out of your electronic devices. But gathered now at an event that was basically going to turn the Parkway, and the sky above, into a giant, interactive nightlight, Philadelphians stood, sat, and reclined, collectively, on a patch of earth that was about as dark as it had ever been.

“Weʼre about to see something,” said Mayor Nutter, in his introduction of Lozano-Hemmer, “that has not happened anywhere in the world.”

A web of anticipation united the audience. Even huddled in the dark, before the speeches had begun, the excitement and impatience to witness the unprecedented was tangible.

Then Lozano-Hemmer took the stage. “As a testament to my love of Philadelphia,” said Hemmer, “I will now attempt, without looking at any paper, to spell the word Schuylkill. S . . . C . . . H . . .” Until a few months ago I wasnʼt even sure how to spell it, but his attempt was not only spot on but adorable. And this was the impression that Lozano-Hemmer gave to the assembled crowd. It was clear that this man, world-renowned electronic artist and “the most important Mexican artist alive today” was at least as excited to be in front of us, surrounded on all sides by his gigantic searchlights, as we were to be sitting there in the dark, looking up at the sky.

Then he brought the lights up.

Beams sighed into existence “at a 600-ft apex,” which meant that the lights—I counted twenty-four, twelve on either side of us—met at a point 600 feet above our heads, forming a pair of striated triangles on either side and a gleaming coagulate of light directly above. Six hundred feet overhead.

“As I speak,” Hemmer continued, “the intensity is being modulated.” The lights heated up and dimmed with the varying tonalities of his voice, and you could see how some beams represented bass and others treble, “like an equalizer.”

“They can be seen from a ten-mile radius,” he explained. All labor-union installed (more applause—we had been applauding for almost every definitive statement at this point, like a presidential crowd).

And the gently pulsing lights were beautiful. Some were bright for their entire length, others were invisible until they pierced clouds. Illuminated airplanes passing overhead might have been terrified, expecting missiles to follow—Phillyʼs gone hostile!—unless, as I like to think, their pilots had been notified about the project, and the passengers, as they began descent into Philly International, were directed to look down and claim a view that almost no one in the world would ever see.

Lozano-Hemmer has pointed out that all of the technology in his project was originally devised with “sinister intentions.” Searchlights were used to spot missile targets, or immigrants crossing borders. GPS was originally invented by the military, and is still maintained globally by the US government. It is his intention, in his work, to turn these sinister technologies over to to the public, and use them to bring people together. To allow people to express themselves.

“Rafael is an artist,” Peggy Balkin Bach had pointed out, “who cares as much about art
as he does about the public. And this is rare.”

Among the hundreds of submissions queued on the Open Air website (people have been able to record their personal submissions for two weeks) were poets, rappers, yodelers, excerpts from famous speeches and interviews, bird calls, and three marriage proposals.

Rafael, funny, ironic, and slightly self-deprecating (“I am a nerd,” he kept repeating), at this point gave the stage over to the scheduled artists. Charismatic young Jamarr Hall, a member of Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement and one of Live Artsʼ 2012 Jumpstart artists became the first artist, outside of Hemmer himself, to manipulate the lights, with his poem Cafe Soul.

The lights flickered with the staccato beats of Jamarrʼs lyrics, and most of us decided that the best thing to do at this point was to lie back—you werenʼt really experiencing the night if you were watching the stage or the screen, we discovered. This was like a late-night picnic, so lie back and consider the sky.

The programmers must have been determined to stretch the capacity of these lights, because besides another young, Philly-based poet, Kai Davis, the program included Rahzel, “the greatest beatboxer in existence,” and David Moss, an “extreme vocal artist” with a four and a half octave range.

As Rahzel took the stage, the lights, as elegant as the legs of dancers, rotated gently to span the sky in all directions, criss-crossing in an irregular web. “Letʼs see what these lights can do!” barked Rahzel to our delight, and as he began his performance, we could see on the screen, he was watching the lights as attentively as we were. No one, featured artists included, knew exactly how the lights would behave. And the fast-paced performances of Rahzelʼs beats and David Mossʼs combination of operatic howls and demonic screechings, huffings, puffings, rantings and gurglings stretched the capacity of the spotlights, which simply could not flicker fast enough to follow the speed of their performance.

“The voice you have is technology,” cried Moss, crescendoing his performance. And then, Lozano-Hemmer announced that Rahzel and Moss would jam, an insane experience that I will never forget, and another first, and momentous event at the Open Air.

Overhead, the lights pointed directly up, past their 600-foot apex to pierce a perfect circle of clouds which, in the course of the last hour, had gathered as if to look down on us. Between the clouds and us, little luminescent specks—birds, I decided—danced in and out of the beams like giant lightning bugs.

Despite some internet issues, which began with a need to delay the Project Launch, and developed into loopings and delays in the audio, people remained engaged with the lights overhead.

“I love computer breakdowns,” announced Lozano-Hemmer, in another endearing moment, “because theyʼre human. Youʼve got the nerdy Mexican-Canadian artist with his huge spotlights . . . and then heʼs sweating . . .”

In the end, this incredibly complex technological undertaking was not a situation when we needed perfection. Maybe the wireless network Lozano-Hemmer had put up over the Parkway for the event was dipping in and out of service. Maybe Rahzel and Moss were not the best dancing partners for the relatively slow-reacting lights—but as Mayor Nutter had said, Open Air is still something that has never happened before, and itʼs still impressive.

And if you consider the opening ceremonies to be the dress rehearsal for the twenty-four upcoming events in the program for Open Air (twenty-four! And all free! No one has an excuse for missing this one completely), it went well.

This wasnʼt like when Clear experiences technical difficulties and my internet goes down. I am completely unforgiving when that happens. Lozano-Hemmer and the APA have created a bit of public art which defies precedent. I ‘m looking forward seeing my recorded message manipulate twenty-four massive spotlights over the Ben Franklin Parkway. Iʼll never see anything like it again.

Open Air runs every night on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway through October 14.

–Julius Ferraro