The Urban Light Art Festival as Branding and Commons

Foster & Flux projection onto 118 Findlay Street for Blink Cincinnati, 2017. Photo by Annie Dell'Aria

The modernist imagination often filled the city of the future with an abundance of nocturnal urban lights. Massive screens, searchlights, illuminated facades, and other electric lights crowd the mise-en-scene of science fiction films and speculative renderings of the metropolis of the future. In the early twentieth century illuminated sections of cities were celebrated and marketed for their cultural vibrancy or dreamlike quality. Both the otherworldly escapism of Coney Island’s Luna Park and the brash commercialism of Times Square, for example, prompted locals and visitors to imagine themselves within the city of the future, leading advertisers to capitalize on the spectacle of place. Both then and now urban illumination figures prominently in the marketing and branding of the city, and advertisements feature monumental views of vibrantly syncopated screens or illuminated monuments.

David Klein, New York Fly TWA, 1956, photolithographic advertisement (40 x 25″), Museum of Modern Art.

As people move back into city centers from the suburbs, urban illumination and media continues to factor into how we envision the city of the future and market the city for consumption not only to tourists but to residents. In mid-sized, postindustrial cities in the United States, particularly those that experienced a population exodus from their city centers in the middle of the twentieth-century, the future promise of nocturnal illumination connects to the desire to attract business investment, technology sector employment, and a young, affluent workforce. One of the most significant trends in this regard is the rise of urban light art festivals: temporary, nighttime events featuring dozens of light-based artworks and performances, especially works involving projection mapping onto large buildings. Distinct from light festivals around Christmas, most often held at city zoos, the urban light art festival features a variety of discrete artworks presented in city centers with a dual focus on monumental projection and street-scaled works involving interactivity and play.

The ability of light art, and moving images in particular, to gather people together in public space makes it a promising form for public art – one that can avoid the usual invisibility that befalls much urban sculpture – and generate exchanges between members of the public and contemporary art outside the confines of the museum. Especially with the decrease in theatrical film spectatorship in the age of Netflix, individualized mobile media, and narrow-casting, the shared situation that arises with urban projected images recalls the lost communal experience of the cinema itself. Scott McQuire argues that the new form of media event made possible by media on the street, marked by large screens’ fixity and collective orientation, can offer new potential for social and affective bonds between people on the street, specifically through art.1Scott McQuire, Geomedia: Networked Cities and the Future of Public Space (Malden: John Wiley & Sons, 2016), 135. Discrete public art installations or infrastructural LED screens, which may surprise passersby, or work within existing flows of the city, are of a more limited scale and scope than a heavily publicized downtown event complete with street closures, related performances and parties, food trucks, and festival atmosphere. Nevertheless, in their collective nature, urban light art festivals constitute a significant form of the contemporary public media event and contemporary public art more broadly.

Given their connections with city branding, and the scant media or critical attention they receive, light festivals necessitate a critical framework that scales in and out from the event itself to consider the content, quality, and mode of address of specific artworks through close analysis and audience response, as well as a more theoretical look at the function of the festival in relationship to the broader redesign of the city. Some might hastily dismiss these festivals as a vacuous spectacle, while others uncritically applaud them as successful crowd-pleasers. However, their actual significance to contemporary urbanism is far more nuanced and offers multiple potential trajectories for the future. In this essay, I work through these concepts by drawing upon a developing case study, which explores the projection components of Blink, an urban light festival in Cincinnati. This festival demonstrates the potential of urban light art to bring together a diverse section of the public. At the same time, however, it reveals the rather ambiguous relationships urban light festivals often have with city branding and the delivery of passersby to advertising spectacle.

Blink Cincinnati: Promoting the Future City

Cincinnati has experienced an “urban renaissance” in the past decade, especially the area stretching from the banks of the Ohio River through the central business district and “Over-the-Rhine” neighborhood, whose nineteenth-century name derives from its German origins and location over a former canal. Over-the-Rhine was listed as one of the country’s most dangerous neighborhoods in the mid-2000s, but is now a center of nightlife and culture. The neighborhood has recently experienced a wave of private and public investment, though this comes with some of the negative effects of gentrification, such as the displacement of disadvantaged minority communities. In October 2017, Blink, a four-night light festival, sprawled across this very same part of the city. It featured temporary light sculptures, a parade, massive projections onto buildings, and a handful of commissioned murals by a global selection of street artists.

Blink was largely the brain child of Brave Berlin, a local media production outfit that specializes in projection mapping and previously managed LumenoCity (2013-16), an annual event that featured projection mapped animations on the façade of Music Hall, an iconic late nineteenth-century building in Over-the-Rhine, synced to live music from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Building on the success of LumenoCity, Brave Berlin partnered with AGAR (a brand management firm specializing in social events), ArtWorks Cincinnati (a non-profit public art outfit responsible for the many vibrant murals that pepper downtown and surrounding areas), the Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile Jr. Foundation (a major local philanthropic organization) and the Cincinnati Regional Chamber. Despite a host of corporate sponsors funding the event, the presence of logos on site was refreshingly modest, aside from the ubiquitous logo for the event itself: block lettered “BLINK” and an almond-shaped eye.

The concept of “future city” dominated much of Blink’s promotional material. In its October 2016 brochure, the “Future City Manifesto” explicitly linked together the presence of urban illumination with an almost spiritual transcendence of a utopian city of the future without poverty or social troubles in prose reminiscent of similarly utopian writings on technology by Gene Youngblood and Buckminster Fuller. Positioning the event within a longer discourse of illumination as an image of the city of the future, Blink’s mode of address would seemingly be towards a distant gaze, branding the city in the manner of David Klein’s image of New York’s Times Square in the 1954 advertisement for TWA, shown earlier. A promotional video for Blink relies largely on what I call the drone’s eye gaze, aerial shots of the city made specifically by and for digital networks of image production and circulation:

Floating above the city, the shots of this video render Cincinnati as an image rather than a place. In Consuming Cities Steven and Malcolm Miles wondered, “As a result of the intervention of consumption, have cities, in fact, ceased to become a place and emerged instead as an emotional experience, a way of thinking about the world, an idealized perception of experience that may not necessarily reflect the mundane reality?”2Malcolm Miles, Consuming Cities (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 4. Other segments of the promotional brochure tout the festival’s ability to attract “knowledge sector” demographics with college education and desirable income levels, linking consumption and economic development to the utopian future city, at least in the material pitched to potential sponsors.

The Spectator’s Experience

A ground-level, experiential analysis of Blink offers a different perspective. By many accounts, the event was a success: there were no major technological glitches, police, or safety incidents; the weather was agreeable; and over one million people came out over the four nights to the event, a record for any event in the downtown area. Crowds at the event moved from one projection to the next in different paths and paces, often congregating in ad-hoc viewing areas at intersections and sidewalks as well as parking lots that were converted into event spaces with beer tents and food trucks. Based on my interviews with audience members conducted on site, participants largely enjoyed the event and even spoke excitedly about their favorite pieces. Most learned about it through media coverage on radio, TV, or social media and came down specifically to experience it, though they remarked that the layout did provide a process of discovery. Many individuals discussed (or complained about) walking a lot more than they are accustomed to and discovering new parts of the city. Most people I spoke to were local, the furthest away being about an hour, though very few people lived downtown.

One trend I noticed in most of my discussions was how people believed this event signaled a shift in their city. “It’s about damned time,” one young man remarked. Another said “I never thought this kind of thing happened in Cincinnati.” Many respondents called it “great for the city” and hoped it would become a regular event. A few remarked specifically on how the event related to the recent history of Over-the-Rhine, which experienced major civil unrest in 2001 following the police killing of an unarmed African-American teenager. In the years following the already economically disadvantaged and heavily segregated neighborhood experienced further decline, disinvestment, and issues with crime. Even today whole sections remain vacant, though the forces of gentrification will likely continue to change this. One respondent commented that if you had told him that he would be walking down Pleasant Street (specifically in a still largely abandoned stretch of Over-the-Rhine) looking at art at 11pm ten years ago he wouldn’t have believed you. Interestingly, that particular stretch of Pleasant Street featured commissioned murals, one giant disco ball and no projections. Instead the space was illuminated by functional, mobile flood lights.

People remarked about seeing the city in a new light, noticing new architectural details and things they did not notice before, as well as people they normally didn’t encounter. Nearly everyone remarked that they were surprised to find so many people in areas that would normally be a “ghost town” at night, while celebrating the diversity of people who came out to experience the event. A couple told me they were excited to be able to share the experience and speak to people they wouldn’t otherwise meet. One woman hoped that the success of the event would promote more public investment in the arts as a means to promote both economic development and inclusion in the city.

New Cinema of Attractions

Nearly all projections were on a loop, featuring animations no longer than five minutes or so and very little narrative content other than occasional thematic connections to the site of projection. What Tom Gunning called the “cinema of attractions” in early cinema is an apt precursor: “the cinema of attractions directly solicits spectator attention, inciting visual curiosity, and supplying pleasure through an exciting spectacle-a unique event, whether fictional or documentary, that is of interest itself.”3Tom Gunning, “The Cinema of Attractions,” in The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded, ed. Wanda Strauven, Film Culture in Transition (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006), 384. Writing in 1986, Gunning’s essay reframed film history and theory away from an almost exclusive focus on narrative and ideological absorption. However, most moving images we encounter at the contemporary moment are already divorced from narrative, often briefly presenting attractions to us in order to stop our otherwise frenetic race through the image-saturated spaces we encounter both online and in the media city. Francesco Casetti likens contemporary screens not to mirrors or windows but rather “displays” or “lightning rods” specifically engineered for partial, distracted, and peripatetic encounters.4Francesco Casetti, “What Is a Screen Nowadays?,” in Public Space, Media Space, ed. Chris Berry, Janet Harbord, and Rachel O. Moore (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 16-40. Moving images, when placed in public spaces, seek our attention most often not for cinematic absorption but for small moments or “impressions,” to borrow from the language of the out-of-home advertising industry.

Unlike the interactive light sculptures clustered mostly in Washington Park and spread throughout the event that were largely made by visual artists, the architectural light projections made for Blink were designed largely by the very same people that produce attractions for the experience economy: Cincinnati-based brand management and production companies that produce media content, immersive environments and social experiences for corporate clients, concerts, and other events. In one sense, the event showcased the city’s existing creative economy. Companies creating projections variously describe themselves as a “creator of wow experiences and events of all sizes” or a “growth medium that leverages human experiences, event production, digital platforms, music, art, and content design to strategically grow a brand’s culture.” Furthermore Blink’s key organizers Brave Berlin were featured in the April 2017 issue of Cincinnati Magazine focusing on the city’s “creative class.” The striking absence of video artists and experimental filmmakers with gallery or public art practices from the roster is worth noting. Even before realization, projections were framed within the discourses of light design, event production, and advertising rather than moving image art.

Sean van Praag’s projections onto Memorial

Hall and St. Louis Church. Photos by Annie Dell’Aria.

Many of the projections had little connection to their particular site. Animations of eyes, cartoon ghosts, and vibrant color illuminated the side of St. Louis Church, a Romanesque-Revival building made more brilliant by the lack of ambient light in the library plaza across the street. Memorial Hall, a Beaux-Art structure across from Washington Park in Over-the-Rhine, featured digital animations that played on glitch aesthetics and at times resembled a late 1990s PC screensaver. Though both projections certainly mapped onto irregular and sculptural architectural facades and delighted crowds of onlookers across the street, they did not engage or otherwise activate the site of projection through conceptual or iconographic means. Projections onto Great American Ballpark, the courthouse, and Freedom Center, on the other hand, featured content that directly referenced the function of the site.

AGAR and Jeremy Mosher projection onto Swing and Sway mural with two light sculptures in neighboring lot to the left. Photo by Annie Dell’Aria.

Among some of the most popular site-specific projections were those mapped onto the ArtWorks murals, public artworks that are already popular downtown and often feature connections to the city by referencing local artists, celebrities, traditions, or industries. These projections exploit the precision of projection mapping and also give new life to public artworks usually not visible during the night. Mapped projections onto murals featuring homages to Cincinnati-born graphic designer Charley Harper and comic strip artist Windsor McCay became hubs of activity, the former also hosting live music and the latter with a whimsical score accompanying the activated comic strip panels. Both of these murals are located on walls facing open parking lots, readymade outdoor party stations for Blink and sites likely destined for future development inspired by the waves of interest and investment in the new urban environment aided by the murals themselves. The projection onto a large mural of Kentucky native Rosemary Clooney was arguably the most cinematic work, featuring clips from Clooney’s Hollywood career and a musical score with a clear beginning and end. Despite its location in front of a fenced-in abandoned lot and next to the wide East Liberty Street, which led to a lot of ambient light and sub-par viewing spaces, this projection was a favorite of many of the people I interviewed.

Lightborne projection onto Contemporary Arts Center and Foster & Flux projection onto 118 Findlay Street. Photos by Annie Dell’Aria.

While most projections used an architectural façade as a single (though irregular) screen, some made use of architectural corners. Lightborne’s projection onto Zaha Hadid’s Contemporary Arts Center, one of the city’s architectural landmarks, used abstract patterns to make the building appear to deconstruct and reform along new lines and shapes. A whimsical projection by Foster & Flux similarly mapped onto a corner-situated building, only this work was on one of the many boarded up, empty historic Italianate structures in Over-the-Rhine. Reimagining the building as the “Blink Factory,” this projection was one of the many instances of Blink’s self-promotion at the event and highlighted ignored rather than already beloved surfaces of the city.

The Future of Future City

This juxtaposition of Hadid’s façade and an abandoned building demonstrates two poles of imagining the city as a screen. In both instances the mapped spectacle alternately highlights and deconstructs the physical, architectural components of the façade, but what is to be made of the relationship between the projection and the interior? Although highlighting the CAC, an iconic structure downtown, Blink mostly did not attempt to extend opportunities to the public to experience contemporary art’s many ambiguous, conceptual, political, and complex modes of engagement. Though public art always has to imagine an audience outside the framework of the museum setting, the best public art still finds ways to generate rich and multilayered situations. In this case the projection merely embellished the surface but did not examine the depths of the cultural offerings of its site. The empty interior of the building on Pleasant Street, on the other hand, was filled with a complex, fictional machine by the projection. What does urban illumination want to produce in these structures? A city imagined as an experience to be consumed? Or a place for diverse engagement, collaboration, and sustainable and equitable living? Though we might hastily and cynically conclude the former, my conversations with viewers suggests there is at the very least potential for the latter.

Perhaps it is best to think of Blink as a prototype, a proof-of-concept. Using the power of brand management and illumination, Blink demonstrated the ability of moving images in public spaces to bring people together in unlikely spaces. My hope is that future iterations of the festival (which according to news reports will be coming) will engage more with contemporary artists who use light and moving images to not only attract a diverse audience, but meaningfully explore the aesthetic and political contours of the social by envisioning participation not as an end goal, but as a medium itself.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Scott McQuire, Geomedia: Networked Cities and the Future of Public Space (Malden: John Wiley & Sons, 2016), 135.
2. Malcolm Miles, Consuming Cities (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 4.
3. Tom Gunning, “The Cinema of Attractions,” in The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded, ed. Wanda Strauven, Film Culture in Transition (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006), 384.
4. Francesco Casetti, “What Is a Screen Nowadays?,” in Public Space, Media Space, ed. Chris Berry, Janet Harbord, and Rachel O. Moore (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 16-40.

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