Interactive Art: Open Air’s Light Play on the Parkway

Philadelphians, get your smartphones ready! Your voices will command 24 searchlights on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway starting September 20 at 7:30 p.m.

“Maybe we get rappers or marriage proposals or shout outs. I have no way to know,” said Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, the artist-innovator of the lights on the Parkway, titled “Open Air.” The voice composer David Moss will open the work to demonstrate how a voice can control the lights.

Speaking into a specially created phone app, available on iTunes as of opening night, you can make the lights turn toward the GPS position of your phone. The lights follow you around the Parkway for the duration of your vocal message, changing pattern and brightness with the frequency and intonation of your voice. With a degree in chemistry, and a team of 10, mostly engineers, behind him at his Montreal studio, Lozano-Hemmer created the software that translates a vocal message into a light display.

Lozano-Hemmer said he’d love to use other inspiring Philly voices at the opening like Sonía Sanchez, Black Thought, The Roots, or even Tina Fey. But he joked, “We don’t have Jay-Z’s budget,” referring to the rapper’s “Made in America” Labor Day concert.

Still, Philly’s in for a world premiere with “Open Air,” the first interactive public art project created for the city. Penny Bach, the executive director of Philadelphia’s Association for Public Art, said “Rafael’s at the point now where he can choose the kind of work he wants to do,” and this time he chose to do it in Philly.

The Mexican-Canadian Lozano-Hemmer had never visited Philadelphia before the aPA first courted him for the project in 2009. But, he said, “Two of my patron saints of art, Duchamp and Buckminster Fuller, have important ties to Philadelphia,” (Duchamp’s final work rests at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Buckminster Fuller served as Professor Emeritus at UPenn). Buckminster Fuller’s dome shapes even make their way into the light shapes in “Open Air.”

Lozano-Hemmer also had a strong idea of Philly’s voice.  He said, “Everything about Philadelphia aims to create an inclusive society and there’s a sense of pride with that history. There’s a pride in their innovation, free speech, and democracy.”

To make sure everyone has a say at the light display, Bach said volunteers at Eakins Oval will loan mobile devices to people on the Parkway who leave a license or credit card as collateral. You can also hang out at the Oval and use the device right there if you’d rather not leave a card. People can hear each other’s messages broadcast on low-level speakers at the “Open Air” headquarters at Eakins Oval across from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “We’re hoping to make the experience like an outdoor living room,” Bach said.

Already, you can record your messages for the lights on openairphilly.net. But your message will sit higher on the cue if you’re actually on the Parkway. You have to join the free wi-fi network for “Open Air” run out of Eakins Oval to send your message from the ground. Lozano-Hemmer and the aPA wanted to draw participants directly to the Parkway, which was originally conceived as a pedestrian space. “We want people to inhabit their public spaces,” Lozano-Hemmer said.

Bach said the association pegged Lozano-Hemmer for Philadelphia’s first piece of interactive public art because he’s worked in urban historical areas before. She mentioned his work in Trafalgar Square in London and Zócalo Square in Mexico City and said, “Philadelphia’s such a historic city. It’s great to work with someone who understands that.”

So how does Philly stack up against Lozano-Hemmer’s international experience? For one thing, he’ll never forget the Quakers, about whom he knew nothing before his scouting trips to Philly. Lozano-Hemmer said, “If I ever consecrate a religion, it would probably be Quakerism. It helps that they have a tradition based on open dialogue, which I do a lot of in my work.”

He also fell in love with the derelict Divine Lorraine Hotel, on the corner of Broad and Fairmount. Lozano-Hemmer considered the hotel as a place for public art in Philly before he settled on the light project. He said, “If you were to make an art work there, half the work is already done for you. You could throw some paper clips on the third floor, have people look at it and they’d say, ‘This is awesome!’” He recommended Philadelphians see the hotel if they haven’t already. He hoped “Open Air” would help them feel a stronger sense of ownership and intimacy to all the public spaces in their city.

Bach said, “Rafael had a lot of other ideas before he came to this one [“Open Air”], so we got to talk a lot about what would be unique for Philadelphia. Talking with him was the best part of this process for me.”

“Open Air” runs nightly 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. from September 20 to October 14 with lights stationed between 21st and 24th streets. The free opening night celebration starts at 7:30 p.m. at 24th St and the Parkway, across from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Lozano-Hemmer will speak at a ticketed event at the opening. For more information, visit associationforpublicart.org/open-air-info.

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