Let’s face it: Most Philadelphians—like most people—have never stepped foot inside an art gallery. They don’t care about what new exhibition is opening at the Art Museum or the Barnes. They think our murals and public sculptures are weird looking. They don’t know a single local artist. They have no idea what First Friday is. And they most certainly aren’t reading this column.
Fortunately, all of this means little to world-renowned installation artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, who has chosen this city to be the host of his greatest masterpiece yet: an interactive public light experience that combines mobile technology and 24 of the most powerful search lights in the world.
It’s called Open Air, and regardless of whether or not Philadelphians like it, understand it or appreciate it, they will be the ones with the ability to control it. “We wanted to make something that is free, inclusive and would empower Philadelphians,” Lozano-Hemmer said of the project in a press conference last month.
After noticing how dead the Ben Franklin Parkway becomes at night, Lozano-Hemmer—best known for Vectorial Elevation, the large-scale installation he created for the 2012 Vancouver Winter Olympics—was inspired to make it the focal point of his project in hopes of breathing new life into the area. Basically, Open Air offers locals an opportunity to connect to the public space in a very intimate way while also simultaneously challenging their perceptions of “art.”
Here’s how it all works: People can record a 30-second message using the free “Open Air Philly” iPhone app or on the project’s website (openairphilly.net). The frequency and amplitude of their message—as well as their GPS location—will be used to create a unique light formation in the sky. The app will notify participants when their message is about to go live—those on the Parkway will be bumped to the top of the list—and these light sculptures will be visible anywhere within a 10-mile radius of the Parkway each night from 8 to 11 p.m.
If this sounds really complicated, it’s because it is. Until the app is officially launched on Thursday and those lights beam up into the night sky, it’s hard to imagine what the experience will actually be like, especially since no one has ever experienced it before.
With Philly being the birthplace of American democracy, Lozano-Hemmer has opted to keep all the messages completely uncensored. The hope is, of course, that when given a platform, locals will use their best discretion. So while the occasional inebriated mumblings and “Fire Andy Reid” rants are inevitable, you can also expect plenty of thought-provoking commentary, hilarious jokes, inspirational poems and maybe even a marriage proposal.
It also helps the that recordings are not anonymous and will be automatically archived on the Open Air Web site, where other users can rate them, flag them, leave comments and see an image of the light sculpture they produced. One can only hope that when this is all said and done, Lozano-Hemmer will weed through the messages and release a “best of” compilation.
In addition to a listening station at Sister Cities Park, Eakins Oval will serve as the official project information center, where locals can borrow iPhones, hang out in a lounge area and enjoy nightly events sponsored by various local community and cultural organizations.
Commissioned by the Association for Public Art and presented in conjunction with both the Live Arts Festival and DesignPhiladelphia, Open Air will be unveiled this Thursday with an opening celebration along the closed inner drive of the Parkway. The event will feature virtuoso voice performances, local food trucks, a live countdown and a presentation by Lozano-Hemmer himself. The messages with the highest ratings online will be the first to activate the searchlights.
And if it can get locals excited about art, even if only for a few minutes, then perhaps there’s hope.
Opening Sept. 20, through Oct. 14. 7:30-11pm. Free. Various locations. openairphilly.net