As lights go out over Parkway, thousands of messages resound

The “Open Air” installation of spotlights intersecting over the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia attracted 5,500 recorded messages during its three-week run, with almost 63,000 visitors to the website, OpenAirPhilly.net.

The public art project ended Sunday, and the 12 industrial-strength spotlights have been removed. But the messages will resound in cyberspace forever.

“There is one ‘o’ in ‘lose,’ as in the Dallas Cowboys will lose, and two ‘o’s’ in ‘loose,’ as in your pants are loose,” ranted one user, whose 30-second gripe about common spelling errors and the proper use of the apostrophe is now archived online in perpetuity.

Shortly after that message was uploaded, 240,000 watts of light pulsed and pivoted to the sound of the user’s voice. The computerized system cared little for grammar.

Messages included poetry by Philadelphia poet laureate Sonia Sanchez (“This is not a small voice, this is a large voice coming out of cities…”), electronic music and rapping. There were marriage proposals (“she said yes!”) and cruel breakups: “I know you’re watching the lights with David. I just wanted to take this opportunity to say, I think we should see other people.”

Many people got political, addressing gun control, capitalism, cancer, and gay marriage. “All I want to do is get married to my boyfriend in this town,” one user uploaded. “But Pennsylvania doesn’t allow it.”

The Montreal-based artist Raphael Lozano-Hemmer was commissioned by the Art Association of Philadelphia to create “Open Air,” with one of its goals to bring people to the Parkway. Observers say between 100 and 300 people came to the avenue nightly.

“Even in the rain, people were driving up in their cars,” said project manager Susan Myers. “Kind of like a drive-in movie, listening to the app in their car and watching the light exhibit.”

The technically complicated installation was plagued with glitches on opening night, and the website controlling the queue of messages would occasionally falter during the run. There were also complaints from advocates of keeping a dark night sky.

In an email, Lozano-Hemmer wrote that the site system definitely worked, attracting users from 92 countries. About 65 percent were in Pennsylvania.

“‘Definitely’ does not have an ‘a’ in it,” said the forementioned anonymous, angry grammarian. “It’s d-e-f-i-n-i-t-e-l-y. Thank you!”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.