Artists Tackle Social Justice, Politics, and Environmentalism in Baltimore’s Newest Festival
by Cara Ober
Light City Baltimore promises to be a spectacle of innovation, creativity, and ideas. Downtown businesses are hopeful that the 5 million dollar festival will attract thousands of consumers to the area, especially after a loss of income after the Uprising last spring.
You might assume that Light City will embrace technological innovation but keep content *lite* in order to appeal to the masses without upsetting anyone. You might think that the artists picked and funded to participate in the festival would be encouraged to avoid the serious social, economic, and environmental issues that fuel much of contemporary art, especially in Baltimore. However, BOPA’s national committee of jurors who selected the festival’s visual artists have strong ideas about the function and purpose of art. As a result, many of the dazzling, colorful installations you will experience in Light City will also educate visitors about social justice, economic inequality, global warming, and Baltimore’s troubled past.
In preparation for the festival, BmoreArt is highlighting a group of Light City visual artists who will tackle social, economic, and environmental issues and provide a challenging critical discourse for visitors and patrons.
Diamonds Light Baltimore by Mina Cheon and Gabriel Kroiz
Twinkling in clusters along Pratt Street all the way down to the water, Cheon and Kroiz’s fifteen diamond shaped sculptures will invite you to come up close and even step inside. With the largest LED piece at 16 feet tall, the installation offers a familiar and deeply symbolic image that represents love, wealth, greed, and capitalism. However, when it’s color shifts from white to blue at 10 pm, the diamonds become specifically about Baltimore.
Artist couple Mina Cheon and Gabriel Kroiz have installed their architectural sculptures in other places to address a number of ideas, but it’s shift into blue is a statement about Baltimore’s ‘blue light’ policing strategy, unequal conditions between blue light neighborhoods and those without, and an awareness of the state of race in Baltimore after the Uprising in 2015.
According to Cheon, they wanted the project to “help in some of the healing aspects needed post the passing of Freddie Gray and the civil unrest. It will be nearly a year since that time… and while last year we had a city-wide curfew and enduring dark times, we are thrilled to be a part of a community of artists and culturalists who can help light up our city.”
These larger-than-life LED sculptures will signify two Baltimores, one prosperous and hopeful and the other in a state of permanent emergency. The light will change from white to blue at 10pm recalling last April’s citywide curfew and respond to what the couple describes as “the most current and largest city light installation in Baltimore” — blue light police surveillance.
Walking in the Light of a History: a Collaboration between Paul Rucker and The Reginald F. Lewis Museum
In his Light City commission, Paul Rucker takes Baltimore’s history of racial inequality back to the 1800’s, when it was the major trading port of the region. Along with all flour, cotton, and tobacco, Baltimore was a major hub for the slave trade, a stopping off point where slaves were sold and then shipped south. Rucker’s installation will feature repurposed streetlights with programmed LED lights at eleven sites along Pratt Street signifying the places where where human beings were bought and sold.“Light City is giving me the opportunity to create a piece that highlights the historical significance of slavery in the Baltimore area,” explains the composer and sculptor, who is working in collaboration with the Reginald F. Lewis Museum on the project.
The 11 sites along Pratt Street feature cascades of lights, along with text boxes, intending to show the varying degrees of the involvement of business in the slave trade and the transformation to today.Rucker is also writing 11 musical compositions that will be performed on March 28 at 9pm. A free takeaway newspaper will also be included in with the project for visitors who want to learn more about Baltimore’s history as a slave port.
Water Will Be Here by Eric Corriel
Water Will Be Here is an interactive projection that examines issues of rising sea levels, and looks specifically at the human impact around it. Installed in a bank of windows, the rear projection encourages viewers to engage with the “sea level” and with the silhouettes this interaction produces. The projection creates a clear vision of the tangible effects of this growing environmental concern.
Corriel’s project seeks to present notion of climate change by rendering its abstract ideas into concrete experiences, and to challenge the notion of climate change by implying a sense of geologic inevitability.“For all the attention the issue of climate change has received, for most of us it still remains an abstract issue that resides somewhere far away, both temporally and geographically,” explains artist and programmer Eric Corriel. “While some may identify climate change with polar bears, melting ice caps, floods in Pakistan, or future water shortages in the Middle East, most people do not have a sense of these things becoming a reality in their own backyards, in their own lifetimes. At the end of the day, this project brings climate change, in any of its forms, into people’s backyards, today.”
The public can experience this piece either from inside or outside the space. “From outside, viewers are confronted with the sensation of water rising over their heads and then receding,” explains Corriel. “From the inside, viewers can put themselves between the projects and the windows that are being projected upon to effectively place themselves inside of climate change. The reactions I received have ranged from, ‘This piece is so calm and soothing – it beats to the same rhythm as my heart’ to ‘Oh my god! I can’t stand it, I feel like I’m suffocating!'”
Gateway: Baltimore by Quentin Mosely
On the south side of Pratt Street at the end of Pier 4, Quentin Mosely’s nine neon 8×8 foot geometric modules will rise overhead, presenting an animated array of shape, pattern, and color in a unified frieze. The artist envisions the project as a welcoming invitation to come together, dedicated to all citizens of the City of Baltimore.
“Baltimore has arrived at a crossroads,” explains Mosely. “It is Baltimore’s time to come together as citizens and unite to find solutions so all live in an equality that is strengthened by diversity, sharing , and understanding.”
The slow changing build-up of color patterns in this animated mural were inspired by African textiles, and the patterns of chance expressed by the hexagrams of the Asian I-Ching. The neon frieze will build and develop over a 90 second cycle, as dazzling color combinations build, switch positions, overlap and interact with each other.
The artist has done similar installations on buildings before, some in Baltimore, like the one pictured above on MICA’s Fox building. The murals are built with a modular system of neon, recycled with each new installation. The artist usually attaches his neon to buildings with wire and post fence structures that allow low wind resistance, often mounted to the tops and full facades of buildings.
Pipelines by Luminous Intervention
“Because white people can’t police their imagination, black men are dying” – Claudia Rankin
“The cradle to prison pipeline is the institutional driving force behind the use of excessive force and policing of communities of color in the United States,” explains Luminous Intervention collective member Ada Pinkston.
“We wanted to create an art action that sheds light on the disgusting culture of violence and inequities that permeates the criminal justice system here in Baltimore and beyond. I would hope that a visitor to the harbor during light city would be reminded of the injustice and inequities that exist in the city, even though they do not make news headlines. And through [the experience] empathize more with the plight of families who have lost loved ones due to the injustice of current societal structures, and in that moment, move one step closer to a revolution within themselves.”Luminous Intervention usually creates large scale projections that are text based. For Light City, they got together as a collaborative to create an original artwork that responds to a very specific architectural structure. The site of McKeldin Fountain carries significant meaning for the Luminous Intervention Collective because the founding members of the collective started working together creating art actions for the Occupy Wall Street movement that was based in McKeldin Square in its Baltimore iteration.
Luminous Intervention is a collective of artists, organizers, educators, and activists that work together to use large scale digital media as a tool to give voice to social justice movements. The rotating collective has included various artists over the years. At this time, the collective consists of Malaika Clements ( mixed media expressionist, organizer, and freedom advocate) , Olivia Robinson (mixed media artist, educator and organizer), Ada Pinkston (mixed media artist and educator), Mike McGuire (organizer and activist) and Erin Barry Dutro (organizer and digital media artist).
“This particular site has been used for countless amounts of protests over the years, and truly is the ‘people’s square’,” explains Pinkston. “In this way, we really wanted to make sure that social justice was at the center of our project, especially considering we are by no means close to gaining any sort of justice for the murder of Freddie Grey, Tyrone West, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and so many others.”
This large scale projection mapping project presents a collage of issues surrounding Baltimore City’s government: police violence, education and recreation, and housing. By using the existing structure of McKeldin Fountain as the façade to present this critical work, Luminous Intervention continues a timely dialogue in an area renowned for supporting First Amendment rights in Baltimore. Pipelines spurs words into action with the “West Wednesday” event, whereby the artists, Baltimore’s community of activists, and festival-goers can come together to talk through these important and timely social issues.
EVENTS: On Monday there will be a forum from 8-10 PM addressing police violence, public education, and recreation. On Tuesday from 8-9 PM there will be performances by hip-hop artists DevRock and Son of Nun. The weekly West Wednesday speak out and protest will take place from 6:30 to 8 PM. All events are at McKeldin Square.
Lightwave: Baltimore’s Beacon by Design Collective, Inc.
The historic Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse, once a beacon at the mouth of the Patapsco River, becomes transformed by light and sound. Enshrouded in a sound responsive projection at the base, the lighthouse becomes host to a sound installation by local artist Wendel Patrick and producer Aaron Henkin, with both interviews and musical compositions featured in the popular WYPR program “Out of the Blocks.”
An undulating, meditative wave floats visibly around the base of the lighthouse, conjuring an image of how it would have been seen during the heyday of use in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. The wave image changes in intensity and pace as the voices of Baltimore citizens share the unique stories that make up the fabric of the city. Lightwave: Baltimore’s Beacon shares these locally iconic and wholly distinctive elements in ways that emphasize the rarity that is both the city itself and the lighthouse that once harkened the way to find it.
Lumin by Kristen McWharter and Steven Lynam
According to Kristen McWhater, “Lumen is a visual art installation, performance, and interactive community space that allows users to draw with light across the Baltimore city landscape. The project invites local muralists, community members, and festival attendees to contribute to a large-scale fluorescent community drawing located in West Shore Park.”
The installation consists of a series of acrylic sheets lit by ultra violet LED lights to illuminate a series of collective drawings and murals. Each night a different street artist will be featured, but the audience is encouraged to contribute their own ideas to the project via colored fluorescent-ink markers available for festival-goers to draw on the wall.The individual panels can be appreciated as a stand-alone drawing, or collectively as a part of the larger whole. With each night of the festival, new shapes, colors and words will appear, and as with each individual festival-goers experience, Lumin will change and reflect this uniqueness.
The project combines a curated group of local muralists, with visitors who want to participate — adults, children, artists, and non-artists will be welcomed and encouraged to engage. These drawings might brew within their imaginations, from their experiences, or they might be inspired by and in reaction to the harbor vistas and skylines that appear through the acrylic wall itself evoking mark making of whimsical, lighthearted, serious, profound, or insightful sentiments as participants are invited to draw with light.
“I like to think about Lumen as an interface upon which people can directly respond to what people see through the acrylic wall,” says McWharter. “The drawing created will visually manifest on top of our view of the Harbor Skyline; manipulating, modifying, and adapting the way we see this landscape.”
Lumen will be installed in West Shore Park, a venue that allows the wall to have high visual impact as well as for participants to engage with and react to the Baltimore Harbor and skyline in their drawings. Additionally, from this location attendees have access to both sides of the installation, allowing for drawings from either side of the wall to interact with each other, as well as a multitude of possible site lines to view the mural in its entirety.
Projected Aquaculture by Kelley Bell & Corrie Parks
“In discussions regarding Baltimore City, people refer to neighborhoods as “healthy” or “unhealthy” urban space,” explains artist and designer Kelley Bell. “This language is also employed when speaking of another issue for Marylanders: the Chesapeake Bay.”
“Taken in this light, The Bay and Baltimore City are similar ecosystems. Both support a diverse population of inhabitants, provide a livelihood for many Marylanders, and are enjoyed by thousands of visitors every year. Both suffered a long period of neglect and deterioration in the mid and late 20th century. And now, in the 21st century, both are undergoing a period of regeneration and new possibility.”
The project transposes the aquarian activity of the Bay onto the canopy at the Columbus Center at the Inner Harbor. In Projected Aquaculture, the two artists come together from different ends of the stylistic spectrum to seamlessly depict an underwater landscape in a tableau of light and shadow spanning over 250 feet.
Corrie Parks explains, “As a narrative filmmaker, I’m exploring how animation can be taken out of the theater and become more prevalent in daily life. Our project is a perfect example of creating new contexts for time-based media. It’s also a great chance to collaborate with Kelley, who knows Baltimore well and is just downright fun to work with.”
Pyrrha by Robby Rackleff
Pyrrha is a large scale projected animation on Pier 5 featuring a fantastical, dystopian version of the very same place, but when the former shipyards and docks were a bustling industry. This animation features factories pulsing with color and clouds of smoke and showers of sparks from the dry docks of futuristic ships under construction. It captures elements of Baltimore’s past and the future it could have had, if the economy and environment had continued in a different direction.According to the artist, “Whenever I walk around the Inner Harbor, I’m always thinking about what it looked like back in its heyday and what it all might have looked if that industrial build-up had been able to continue to the point of an unstoppable riot of construction. I love the idea of mega-cities, at least on a visual level. A lot of my visual thinking about cities comes from watching movies like Blade Runner and reading Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, JG Ballard’s Concentration City, and especially Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (which is where the name Pyrrha comes from). I wanted to make something that tied all these memories that I wish I had about a city that, in many ways, no longer exists with a childlike fantasy landscape.”
The projection will feature Lego-like building blocks animated into a series of utopian landscapes that the artist envisions like historical and traditional American landscapes, like the Hudson School, intended to astonish and overwhelm.
Natural Lighting Emulator V by Lisa Dillin
Natural Lighting Emulator V calls to mind the diminishing natural landscape and how limited the experience of natural light is becoming in the wake of urban sprawl.
In continuing her work of Natural Lighting Emulator installations, Dillin creates a new immersive spectacle to play with light and how it is often experienced. For its Light City iteration, Natural Lighting Emulator V recreates the experience in viewing sunlight dappled through the canopy of a treetop, fabricated into an overhead structure for festival goers to experience from below.
Hanging over head, the mottled lighting effect of the installation co-opts the pattern of the light as seen through dense foliage. Images sourced from photographic recordings recreate these “natural” elements in an alternative, almost unnatural setting–at night, when the natural light of the sun has evaporated and leaves only the moon to create shadow, playing simultaneously with the experience of light and the suspension of time.
In its inaugural year, the expectations for Light City run the gamut. While some predict it will be another epic ‘Grand Prix’ Baltimore-style disaster (it has its own APP, people!), a growing number of citizens are genuinely excited to visit, participate, and partake in its programming. This festival is highly visible and appealing to a wide audience and has the potential to reach way beyond the usual audience for fine art. This opportunity — for a large and diverse audience to experience local contemporary art and for artists to reach out beyond comfortable and often suffocating barriers — is significant.
There are a number of other ambitious visual art projects not mentioned in this article that focus on formal and technological issues, rather than social or environmental ones, and these are definitely worth checking out as well. Taken as a whole, the overall quality of local and regional art selected suggests that the festival will feature a solid range of committed, ambitious, and visionary artists for this first iteration of Light City. If the artists presented here are any indication the festival’s success, visitors will be delighted, entertained, engaged, and leave more empathetic and better educated about the city than before they arrived.
This article was written and edited by Cara Ober. Many thanks to the artists who provided descriptive and insightful information about their projects before they were realized.