Association for Public Art Turns Spotlight (s) on Benjamin Franklin Parkway

Will 240,000 watts be enough to convince Philadelphians to indulge in a nightly passeggiata along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway after the sun sets?

Artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and the Association for Public Art (aPA) — along with a bevy of sponsoring funders, city agencies, and cultural institutions — are certainly hoping so.

In Europe, Lozano-Hemmer noted at today’s press event introducing his interactive light experience, “Open Air,” there’s a tradition of activating public spaces “to get the citizens involved in their own town.” The Parkway is “lovely,” he said, but strikingly empty after dark.

During its 3 1/2 week run (Sept. 20 – Oct. 14) , “Open Air” intends to change that.   Part performance piece, part art installation, “Open Air” is timed to fit into both the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival & Philly Fringe and DesignPhiladelphia.

At a press event held at Park Towne Place — the complex of four Parkway apartment buildings — Lozano-Hemmer and Penny Bach, executive director of aPA, offered a sneak peek at the work, which features two dozen robotically-controlled searchlights placed on rooftops along the Parkway, half of them on Park Towne Place towers.

An “Open Air” preview.

They began by unveiling a new web site ( that will play a central role in the work.

As the Mexican-born artist has done in public art projects from Bogata to Vancouver, from London’s Trafalgar Square to Mexico City’s Zocalo, this world premiere asks participants to visit the website or download an iPhone app (available beginning on Sept. 20) to record a sound message.

They will then tag their messages, using pull down menus to classify the content by type (anecdote, marriage proposal, rant, statement, etc.), mood (amorous, excited, gloomy, pensive), and subject (architecture, freedom, the future, Philadelphia). Finally, they will choose a light pattern, which will be created based on the amplitude and frequency of each individual voice.

Those swerving lights — programmed into the 24 rooftop searchlights — are the crux of the project. A new light pattern, drawn from the expanding archive of voice messages, will dance along the Parkway — and be visible from up to 10 miles away — every 30 seconds or so, from 8:00pm to 11:00pm each night.

Light pollution, residential infringement, and migratory birds have all been satisfactorily addressed, emphasized Lozano-Hemmer. The total wattage emitted during the entire run is equivalent to that of one professional football game, he claimed (we didn’t check…), and he’s worked with the Pennsylvania Audubon Society chapter to not only ensure the safety of birds, but to capture their “voices” to create still more light sculptures. As for neighboring condos and homes, Lozano-Hemmer said the lights will never cross their paths — or those deemed necessary by air traffic controllers.

Not every message submitted will be transformed into light, Lozano-Hemmer  explained — after all, his similar pieces have drawn  hundreds of thousands of participants around the world. Instead, each will be rated by other users for its power to provoke, move, or amuse, while those judged “inappropriate” by other participants will likely never see the light.

Because the project is first and foremost about getting people to come to the Parkway after hours, preference will be given to those who actually visit the Parkway and use the app to record and submit their message.

When their message is about to be turned into a lighting design, GPS will allow all 24 beams to swerve toward the sender — think of it as George Orwell meets Prince, says Lozano-Hemmer — literally putting him or her into the spotlight. (In all cases, participants whether at home or on the Parkway, will get an alert right before their design is ready to light up the sky. They will also be able to view a snapshot of the light sculpture that their voice created.)

To elevate the continuing narrative — and to encourage ordinary citizens to think a little before they speak — the artist and aPA, working with WHYY executive producer Elisabeth Perez-Luna, have also seeded the archive with pre-recorded musings from a roster of local celebrities like Harry Kalas and Brett Mandel, and others associated with Philadelphia, such as David Lynch and Andre Watts.

An information center at Eakins Oval will offer loaner iPhones for those who don’t own them, and will also allow visitors to listen in to the actual voiced recordings that have inspired the designs.

Whether those message skew toward a litany of “wow! this is so cool” exclamations or to a more carefully considered selection of profound cogitations is up to us.

Contact the reporter at and follow her on Twitter @joanngreco

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