Albany, Schenectady, and Troy, NY

Learning From Two Months of Illuminating Abandoned Homes

For two months last fall, Breathing Lights wove through New York’s Capital Region. Using gently pulsing lighting to humanize abandoned buildings, it was frequently perceived as a celebration, a sales pitch, or a call to action, but rarely as just art.

The installation literally shed light on an awful problem—abandoned and collapsing buildings in poor neighborhoods—for which solutions have not surfaced. It also gave the sad properties some TLC just briefly, only to return them to darkness.

“The lights had to be short lived to draw attention to the longer-lasting things,” says Adam Frelin, the upstate New York artist who helped conceive and lead the project.

The idea of temporarily lighting vacant houses in Albany, Troy, and Schenectady took shape as a group of community leaders and artists mobilized to win a $1 million Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge grant in 2015. Breathing Lights was one of four proposals selected from more than 200. It ended up being one of the largest temporary public art works ever installed—requiring as much as seven hours for one person to see it all.

With it, 200 dark and vacant homes commanded attention from October through November 2016, beaming with light every night from 6 to 10 p.m. The lights, which pulsed behind white shades, were reminders of the people who had once lived there. They illuminated once-proud homes on quiet streets and rows of decrepit structures along thoroughfares. The impact was every bit as big as the project in a region that had perhaps grown accustomed to its empty buildings.

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Albany, Schenectady, and Troy, NY

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