Breathing Lights: Abandoned Buildings Glow in the Capital Region

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The Breathing Lights Project: abandoned houses around the Capital Region were given new life. Photo by Lawrence White.
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Pulsating lights controlled by circuit boards lit up homes that would otherwise be dark, signifying the potential of what could be and adding art to the nighttime landscape of cities in the Capital Region. Photos by Lawrence White.
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Breathing Lights gave new life to abandoned buildings. Photo by Lawrence White.
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Artist Adam Frelin and architect Barbara Nelson of Troy, co-creators of the Breathing Lights project, with Neil Golub behind, at the kick-off in September at Boys & Girls Club of Schenectady. The houses with pulsating lights, above, are nearby on Stanley Street. Photo by Lawrence White.

Every door Adam Frelin opened seemed to yield a story of distress. Some of them were mundane: An empty, dilapidated duplex in Albany, long abandoned by its owner and occupants. Or the burned-out hull of a bungalow in Troy, maybe damaged by vagrants that had used it to shelter from the elements.

But other houses that Frelin incorporated into the “Breathing Lights” public arts installation told deeply personal tales of sadness and woe: The still-furnished clapboard home in Schenectady, where family pictures and children’s toys were abandoned. Places frozen in time, where he could envision the occupants leaving suddenly, maybe even in the dead of the night.

“These are deeply sad places and at the same time, these are places that have a lot of potential; these are places where new beginnings can start,” he said.

In the windows of more than 250 vacant buildings, Frelin installed simple LED light strips, their soft hue diffused by two sheets of plastic hung in the frame. At dusk and for four hours into the evening, the windows rhythmically illuminate and then fade in a pattern that resembles breathing.

The lights are battery powered and controlled by a small programmable circuit board. This way, each home “breathes” independently of others that are part of the project, instead of in tandem.

At first glance, the lighting schematic has an effect that makes the homes appear occupied, that perhaps a family is behind the window shade inside watching television. Watch longer and the buildings themselves seem alive, exhaling light into the darkness of the surrounding neighborhood.

“We spent a lot of time getting the light quality right, so that it would remind you of an incandescent light, said Frelin, an associate professor of art at the University at Albany. “At the same point in time, [the light] breathing out of the building anthropomorphizes every building into a living creature of sorts. Every building has its own breath.”

And that’s precisely the point of “Breathing Lights”—to show that each one of the more than 2,800 vacant homes dotting downtrodden neighborhoods and communities across the Capital Region has the potential to come alive again. The installation is aimed at drawing attention to the vastly ignored decay that continues to plague large swaths of each city and starting a conversation about how to unleash this potential.

“Breathing lights is an attempt to encourage people to see our disinvested neighborhoods in a different manner, and to look again at something that we tend to uncomfortably ignore and pass on by,” said Barbara Nelson, a Troy architect who developed the project with Frelin.

“[Each home] shows that it has potential for life and can be resuscitated.”

“Breathing Lights” was one of four projects to receive a $1 million grant from Bloomberg  Philanthropies through its Public Art Challenge initiative. The project was selected from 237 proposals submitted from around the nation. Frelin and Nelson brought the Capital Region’s largest public art installation to life with help from more than two dozen community and private sector partners—from General Electric Co. in Schenectady to the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy. The duo also worked closely with officials from each city to identify homes owned by local land trusts or by the municipalities themselves. “The arts are a way we can approach those challenges from a completely different perspective,” said Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan. “And it allows us to step away from the day-to-day myopia…to think about these houses in a different way. Not as problems, but as an opportunity for us to really rethink the fabric of our neighborhoods and the fabrics our communities.”

The installation, however, was only temporary— all of the homes went dark in December. Yet city leaders hope the legacy of “Breathing Lights” will live on.

“It brings people together to have a conversation about things in a very innovative way,” said Marion Porterfield, a Schenectady City councilwoman from Hamilton Hill and one of several ambassadors to the installation.

“Someone could see one of these houses and say ‘Hey, I could fix this up.’”

Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy and Troy Mayor Patrick joined Mayor Sheehan at the project kick-off on Sept. 30. Arts venues around the region, including the Spring Street Gallery in Saratoga Springs, were involved with “Breathing Lights.” Spring Street Gallery presented one of the first events, the exhibit “You Will Find a World,” by Frelin, a resident of Troy and co-creator with Nelson.

While the lights went dark at the end of November, the installation will continue through a variety of art exhibits, discussions and events. The Breathing Lights Arts Awards Competition commissioned a series of eight projects related thematically to Breathing Lights that have continued throughout the installation; a series of clinics are also scheduled in December on financing, selecting and purchasing a home like the ones featured in the exhibit.

“This project is a little bit like CPR,” Nelson said. “We put a couple hundred buildings here on life support. But we’ve only given them breath. This variety of community engagement activities and local arts projects are giving them voice.”

The Upstate Alliance for the Creative Economy and Community Foundation for the Greater Capital Region were among the companies and institutions supporting “Breathing Lights.”

“Public art projects bring citizens together, as well as attract visitors and economic activity to a city,” said former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose foundation gave out over half a billion dollars in 2015. “The collaboration between these mayors, artists, agencies and creative groups across Albany, Troy and Schenectady is a perfect example of just how unifying temporary public art projects can be.”

For more information visit breathinglights.com and for a schedule of upcoming events visit breathinglights.com/events.

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Shawn MacLean, Neighborhood Ambassador, Troy. Photo by Lawrence White.
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Bloomberg Philanthropies Kate Levin, Former Commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. Photo by Lawrence White.
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Hamilton Hill Councilwoman Marion Porterfield. Photo by Lawrence White.
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John Eberle, President & CEO at The Community Foundation for the Greater Capital Region, Inc. Photo by Lawrence White.
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Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan. Photo by Lawrence White.
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Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy. Photo by Lawrence White.
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Troy Mayor Patrick Madden. Photo by Lawrence White.
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Kick-off reception for the Bloomberg Philanthropies-fund project. Photo by Lawrence White.