This post is part of our Public Art Network 2017 Year in Review blog salon.

I can honestly say that these are words I never expected to hear. Yet, in the summer of 2015 my team and I were lucky enough to be awarded a Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge grant. Up to this point, most of my temporary public art projects had only a modest budget at best. Having this much money felt almost ludicrous in its generosity. Finally, we could think big—very big.

Whatever your artwork is about, get as close to that issue as possible.

The grant stipulated that funded projects would be tasked with “affirming the many ways in which the arts can celebrate, address, and advance critical urban issues.” In the region that I live in, our “critical urban issue” is vacancy. The Capital Region of New York is composed of three cities––Albany, Schenectady, and Troy––that currently have around 2,500 vacant buildings.

Vacant buildings aren’t simply an eyesore. They bring down property values, become sites for nefarious activities, and undermine the fabric of communities. Talking with people who live next to vacant houses, or had to abandon their home for whatever reason, I came to understand that these are places of deep pain and loss. Though they are scattered throughout our region, their greatest density is within already disinvested neighborhoods. Like many longstanding critical urban issues, the ubiquity and apparent permanence of vacant buildings in our region has made it possible for us to ignore them. So, the question for us was, how should we go about drawing attention to these buildings?

“Let’s light them up,” suggested local architect Barbara Nelson.

As soon as she said it, my mind began working:

Yes! We should light them up, but we can’t simply have the lights stay on because they would be mistaken for any other occupied house. The lights should change somehow. To keep it from becoming too superficial or gimmicky, the effect must be slow, relatable, and ideally reference something that is … essential. It should probably be either a heartbeat or breathing. Seeing that a heartbeat might appear as foreboding, it’s got to be breathing.

Breathing Lights was born.

With Barbara as Lead Architect and me as Lead Artist, we set our goal to illuminate hundreds of vacant buildings with a diffuse glow that would mimic the gentle rhythm of human breathing. The only problem was that our region has little to no history of temporary public art projects, and no arts producing organization to help make it happen. How then were we going to do this?

In short, it took a village, or in our case three cities. Through the support of three mayors, three land banks, a region-wide community foundation, a lighting research center, dozens of local sponsors, and more than 35 art, community, and housing organizations, we were able to create the machine that would allow us to realize our highly ambitious goal. When Judie Gilmore of Mural Arts in Philadelphia stepped into the role of Project Director, we had the expert we needed in managing large-scale public art projects to begin.

And so, for two months in the fall of 2016, 200 vacant buildings in three adjacent cities in upstate New York breathed light into the night. Breathing Lights temporarily transformed these abandoned structures from pockets of shadows into places of warmth. While our breathing effect suggested an imagined occupancy, it also referenced the life that once existed within these houses. Equally, it anthropomorphized each building into a living creature. With hundreds of vacant buildings illuminated over thousands of square miles, Breathing Lights alluded to a metaphorical life force residing beneath our entire region.

Taking nearly seven hours of driving to see in its entirety, the unprecedented scale of our installation attempted to reference the unfortunate scale of the vacancy that we face. While most public artworks are on display in sanctioned and easily accessible locations, Breathing Lights quietly took place within neighborhoods that have been ignored for decades. Because of this, our primary audience became the people who live around these abandoned buildings––people who may lack for beauty in their urban environment, yet deserve it.

But Breathing Lights was much more than illuminated buildings. Through a series of policy meetings, it functioned as a platform that could reinvigorate local stakeholders around our region’s most visible symptom of decades of disinvestment. Equally, it brought resources and opportunities to these communities through neighborhood ambassador programs, community arts awards, and youth media workshops, as well as aiming to educate anyone interested in purchasing and fixing up these buildings through a series of building reclamation clinics. Through eight months of programming that included more than 40 events, we set out to give voice to the neighborhoods we were lighting while facilitating discussions about vacancy, disinvestment, and the role that art can play in combating our most pressing civic issues.

Now that our project is over, I have been reflecting on my experience of it. Were I asked to offer just one piece of advice that I learned from working on Breathing Lights, it would be this:

Whatever your artwork is about, get as close to that issue as possible.

We could have chosen to create work about vacancy, but because we sited our project in vacant buildings, we immediately became tethered to the reality of this issue in uncomfortable yet rewarding ways that I never could have imagined. So, go ahead and get close—real close.


P.S. For more information about the making of Breathing Lights, our local PBS station followed us through the entire process, producing Behind the Lights, an hour-long documentary about our journey.


Hi Lajos,
It was important that the project be temporary, so that meant we needed to be prepared when the lights went off. Three things are happening since then: 1) Our region community foundation (who functioned as our fiscal agent) have begun a program that helps homeowners in disinvested neighborhoods living around abandoned buildings by giving them the funds to do necessary repairs and renovations to their homes to keep them from becoming vacant, 2) The Land Banks in the three cities (which are agencies that oversee vacant buildings on the city's behalf) have been strengthened and refunded by the state due in part to the attention they received during our project, allowing them to continue their work, and 3) In the hopes of continuing to promote public art projects in our region (which outside of Breathing Ligthts, we don't have a strong track record), I am partnering with a local performing arts venue to temporarily utilize vacant buildings as venues for performances in the hopes of making sure they remain a part of public consciousness in the area.
Thanks for your interest!