May 09, 2017

“Biancolli: The art of Bloomberg-funded ‘Breathing Lights'”

Date published: 10/03/2016
Publication: Times Union

By Amy Biancolli Updated 11:54 am, Monday, October 3, 2016

They’re odd. They’re unexpected. They’ll stop you in your tracks, prompting you to hit the brakes and pull to the curb. The abandoned buildings now blinking in the night throughout Albany, Schenectady and Troy resemble sleeping giants, silent behemoths huffing calmly from the streets of struggling neighborhoods.

They’re also beautiful. Weirdly, undeniably, disconcertingly beautiful.

Dignitaries gathered on a Schenectady basketball court Thursday evening to greet the start of “Breathing Lights,” the temporary art installation funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies that illuminates vacant structures — from 6 to 10 p.m. each night, now through Dec. 1 — with softly incandescent LEDs. All three mayors were there, alongside scads of politicos, community members, “Breathing Lights” team members and Bloomberg representatives.
One by one, the VIPs stood and spoke under a canopy outside the Boys & Girls Club on Craig Street, hailing the project, its innovation, its community spirit and creative approach to blight, the way art can raise awareness and engender cooperation among the cities. And as they talked, six enormous creatures — empty clapboard homes rigged with lights — heaved slow, deep breaths on Stanley Street behind them.

“I can safely say that I have never been a part of a project like this,” said lead artist Adam Frelin, the houses winking in mute agreement. “And even more importantly, I don’t know of a project like this. I really feel like we’ve all gone into some uncharted territory on this one.”

The event began at dusk, a lone cricket chirping above the sounds of traffic and speechifying. It ended an hour later in darkness. In between, a guy on a bike tooled down Stanley past the colossal breathers. Families ambled along, nudging children and pushing strollers. Curious glances were tossed at the press conference on one side, the glowing houses on the other.

Much ink has been spilled and oxygen spent on “Breathing Lights” since the three cities scored a $1 million grant last year in the Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge, beating out more than 230 applicants from around the nation. But discussing the houses in abstract terms is one thing. Seeing them up and breathing — not in sync but separately, just like any living things — is difficult to process.

Frelin is right: you’ve never encountered anything like this before. Art always invites us to see, but good art challenges us to see in a new way — to notice something that’s been squatting in plain sight all along. Most of the buildings in “Breathing Lights” are just such ignored and invisible objects. Many are ramshackle houses that most of us, if we’re being honest, drive past with a blind eye. We turn from their weathered faces in the same way we look past the homeless. We’d rather not see them, so we don’t see them at all.
The luminous structures in “Breathing Lights” rouse us from complacency. They’re graceful even in their decay and alive even in their emptiness — even as their roofs and porches collapse, even with X’s marked like scarlet letters over their doorways.

Drive slowly along Clinton Avenue in Albany, and you’ll see them here and there: tall brick row houses taking gulps of air. In Schenectady, inch your way from Hamilton Hill up to the neighborhood northeast of State Street, and you’ll find a large, peaked house on Victory Street with seven illuminated windows. Its gentle exhalation is meditative, almost hypnotic.
On Locust near Chestnut, a gathering of adorable clapboard homes breathe in companionable silence. According to Frelin, the team worked hard to find L.E.D.’s that echoed the incandescence of occupied homes, and their efforts paid off: the light beaming from within is warm and human, asking poignant questions in the darkness. What happened inside these houses? Why are they empty? Where did everyone go?

The lights humanize as they illuminate. In North Troy, the neighborhood around River Street has several lit structures, including an enormous, 20-window building on 7th Avenue and a tiny white clapboard house covered in vines on 6th. On River, sitting at the intersection with Smith, sits an empty shop with a winking storefront. Imagine the bustle that once marked that corner.

Nearby is the Sanctuary for Independent Media, one of three “community hubs” for “Breathing Lights” — along with the Boys & Girls Club in Schenectady and the Albany Barn — that serve as hotspots for programming. But many other neighborhoods in the three cities also boast inhaling houses, around 95 percent of which are on the market and available for purchase. One aim of the project is attracting potential buyers.
Another: getting people to visit disinvested neighborhoods.

“Despite the fact that it’s taking place in hundreds of locations, this project could really easily be missed. … You have to really go to the places where the reality of this issue exists to be able to see it,” Frelin said. “Also, this is a very quiet project. It’s not showy, you know? It’s not fireworks. So it really demands an attentive viewer that wants to stop, and slow down, and spend some time with it.”

Sometime in the next two months, look up the city maps on Choose a neighborhood. Go. Drive around the streets, keeping your eyes peeled for respiring houses. Pull over when you find one.

Dwell on it. Breathe with it. Think about the lives once lived inside it. Consider its brokenness, its poignancy, its beauty. Then drive away, and find another.
[email protected] • 518-454-5439 • @AmyBiancolli

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