Beams of light danced across the Philadelphia skyline Thursday night as people throughout the city watched in amazement.
Sept. 20 was the grand opening of “Open Air,” a collaboration between the Association for Public Art and artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. “Open Air” consists of more than 20 powerful searchlights forming a 3-D light installation that can be seen anywhere in a 10-mile radius with the right weather conditions. According to event presenters, it is the first project of its kind in the world.
It is also an interactive project, meaning the beams of light react to voices and sounds.
A free iPhone app was even created to allow Philadelphians to record their messages to be played in coordination with the installation, along with messages from Philadelphia celebrities like Questlove and Tina Fey.
In honor of the historic project, a grand opening celebration was held on the inner drive of Benjamin Franklin Parkway between 21st and 24th Streets, which was closed from traffic. It marked the second time in the month of September that the parkway played host to a major artistic event, after the Made in America Festival on Sept. 1 and 2.
“When it’s closed off for fun events like this it’s a great use for the parkway,” spectator Bridget Barber said.
Masses came out to enjoy and experience the opening of “Open Air,” which featured the unveiling of the project as well as live performances and an array of food trucks.
By 7 p.m., the sun was setting over the horizon and people began filing into the parkway and enjoying the food trucks. Foo Truck, Lil Dan’s, Little Baby’s Ice Cream, Lucky Old Souls and Local 215 all provided the growing crowd with delicious food throughout the night. Anticipation for the groundbreaking night was already underway.
“I’m interested to see what happens,” Joseph Battista, who lives in one of the buildings the searchlights occupied, said. “To get people out here on a Thursday night on the parkway is a good thing.”
The weather definitely didn’t hurt the atmosphere.
“I like the fact that everyone came out to enjoy it. It’s a nice night and I think it’s a great idea to do this outdoor art,” spectator Rob Markwowitz said.
After a countdown to launch that was displayed on a screen near the stage had expired, the festivities began. At 8:35 p.m., the Master of Ceremonies for the night, 6abc Action News anchor Monica Malpass welcomed the crowd saying, “The first in the U.S. and we got it.”
After getting the crowd fired up, Malpass introduced Executive Director of the Association for Public Art Penny Balkin Bach, who played a major role in bringing “Open Air” to the city. Bach was followed by Mayor Michael Nutter who praised both Bach and Lozano-Hemmer for their efforts to bring this special event to Philadelphia.
Next to speak was Lozano-Hemmer, who was voted Wired magazine’s artist of the year in 2003. Lozano-Hemmer brought the lights to an apex, towering over the center of the parkway and explained the process and project.
Performances came from renowned beat boxer and member of The Roots Rahzel, and singer-composer David Moss, who shared his avant-garde style of singing, ranging 4.5 octaves, with the crowd. The night also featured poetry from Philly Youth Poetry Movement’s Jamar Hall and Kai Davis, who wowed the audience.
“I really enjoyed the love poem. It really brought the whole group together. It brought everybody in the audience to silence, so it was pretty moving,” spectator Kameron Schleifer said.
A contest to determine the first message to be heard through the installment was won by Friends Select School of Philadelphia. After technical difficulties, members of the school sang their message live from the stage to cheers from the crowd.
During the delay, caused by faulty Internet, crowd favorite Rahzel was summoned back to the stage by fans and performed an encore performance while Lozano-Hemmer worked out the kinks.
Finally, the stage was set and audio of Friends Select School’s choir flowed through the loud speakers, coordinating with the lights above, becoming the first interactive message to be played with the installation.
Other messages submitted by the public were played with the lights following Friends Select School.
The night was something to be seen and spectators witnessed a first in the world of art.
“I think it’s awesome that it was done first here, I love Philadelphia so I’m glad they picked it,” Steve Gray, who witnessed the show from the grass outlining the parkway, said.
Many spectators considered it a highlight for Philadelphia.
“I think it’s a great moment for the city,” Barber said.
“Open Air” will run nightly until Oct. 14 and feature many events. For more information on this interactive project and scheduled events, visit openairphilly.net.
Kyle Noone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.