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Citywide art project turns abandoned homes into glowing symbols

Breathing Lights uses public art to highlight blight problem in upstate New York

At a time when home lighting often draw outsized attention—the more garish the holiday display, the better—an art project illuminating empty homes in upstate New York has shown the quiet power of lighting up streets that often go ignored.

Breathing Lights, an art installation in New York’s capital region, illuminates abandoned building with a soft glow that waxes and wanes, suggesting the rhythms of breath and human activity.

Conceived of by artist and University at Albany professor Adam Frelin and architect Barbara Nelson, the project, the beneficiary of a $1.2 million grant from the Bloomberg Foundation’s Public Art Challenge, turns vacant homes into lanterns that draw attention to the problem of abandoned properties and blight.

“It’s a really beautiful thing in a place where you may not expect a beautiful thing,” says Nelson.

The issue of abandoned property in the region is a constant, according to Nelson, who leads a local architecture firm and non-profit community design center. It’s both a continual source of work for her colleagues as well as a detriment to the quality of life in the community.

Like many formerly industrialized cities in the Rust Belt, the communities that played host to the Breathing Lights displays—Albany, Troy, and Schenectady—are dotted with hundreds of blighted homes, symbols of the region’s economic challenges. From 1970 to 2000, as manufacturing declined, these three cities lost 16 percent of their populations. While local nonprofits, land banks, and architects can work together to renovate hundreds of buildings a year, the foreclosures keep coming, says Nelson.

“We have walkable neighborhoods and tree-lined streets here, we just need to turn the economics around,” says Nelson. “We need to help get the resources here, to help reach that turning point where people buy into the area again.”

Those factors inspired Nelson and Frelin to find a way to creatively draw attention to the issue. To create the installation, the artists tapped into the area’s history of lighting technology, working with a research center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy. Frelin spent months trying to get the lighting system to work as planned, eventually settling on an easily replicable set of LED lights, powered by a golf cart battery and controlled by an Arduino system, that ebbs and glows behind a light-diffusing piece of plastic. Fitted inside window frames, the lights pulse and glow for four hours every night.

Neighborhood reaction has been positive throughout the installation’s two-month run in October and November. Even some of those who expressed initial skepticism of the project—$1 million dollars for a temporary artwork that won’t permanently change or redevelop these homes?—have come around since the duo began reaching out to community members more than a year-and-a-half ago.

“Locals were able to see the buildings in a new benevolent light,” says Nelson. “It was like seeing the spaces for the first time. They registered absolute awe.”

The installation, which has run for the last two months and supported numerous art performances and related projects, will soon go dark (gradually, the remaining batteries will run out of power). Nelson says organizers were careful not to promise this project would help sell any of the homes but merely raise awareness of the issue. A series of workshops over the next few months meant to guide potential new owners through the process of acquiring and rehabbing these structures will hopefully turn the increased awareness into action.

So far, the concept has struck a chord with other groups working on similar problems across the country. The organizers have received inquiries from Detroit and Atlanta, as well as The Center for Community Progress, for similar installations. As the organizers and Bloomberg begin to evaluate the project over the next few months, Nelson hopes Breathing Lights makes things easier for the next artist that attempts a similarly large neighborhood project, and improves awareness over a pressing local problem.

“I’m hoping this project allows the buildings to shine a light on us and the community,” she says.