SARATOGA SPRINGS – Adam Frelin studied the glow of a firefly. He watched it take in oxygen and the pattern of internment flashes it produced. Then he started thinking about what he saw and how to adapt it to the human world.
“It’s one of those things we’re compelled to look at. You look at a lightning bug and think: where else can that be applied?” explained Frelin, an artist, associate professor of art at the University at Albany, and a decade-long resident of Troy.
Two years ago, Frelin and local architect Barbara Nelson, began collaborating on a plan to create an unprecedented, multi-city public art installation. They called it “Breathing Lights.” The proposal won the Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge, and was awarded a $1 million prize.
“We looked at the region we live in, and tried to recognize both the assets and the detriments we could work with,” Frelin said. “The assets had to do with the history of lighting technology – what took place at GE over the years and what’s now taking place at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The detriment would have to be vacancies.
“We have 2,500 vacant buildings in the Capital Region and most of those buildings exist in neighborhoods that have been historically disinvested in one way or another,” he said. “The idea is to create a light effect that would be in these buildings. In this case, that effect creates the appearance of the light breathing.”
In October and November, Breathing Lights will result in the illumination of windows in hundreds of vacant homes in Albany, Schenectady and Troy.
Friday night, Saratoga Springs was granted a sneak peek of the installation that will be attracting national attention to the Capital Region. The area’s first glimpse was staged at Spring Street Gallery, where the building’s window glowed in a gentle rhythm to simulate human breath. Outside the gallery, where ArtsFestFridays staged a celebration in conjunction with the event, the tree branches bowing over Spring Street sprouted leaves bathed in lavender hues. Glow-in-the-dark street performers danced on the pavement accompanied by a throbbing beat produced by a DJ with an affection for the disco era.
Concentrated in neighborhoods with high levels of vacancy, Breathing Lights will transform abandoned structures from pockets of shadows into places of warmth.
“We’re lighting hundreds of them throughout the Capital Region,” Frelin said. His art – which depicts the intersection of the natural and the constructed world - are on exhibit inside the gallery: a gigantic four-way mirror is dropped into a busy vehicular intersection in Las Vegas resulting in auto-vertigo; massive harmonicas are planted atop natural green mountains that seem to inspire a cacophony of sharps and flats blown by the random wind. There are images of hot embers spraying a scarred ridge, and city fountains cast in bronze modeled after the individual faces of its citizenry.
A public art dialogue featuring Frelin will be staged 6:30 p.m. Friday at Spring Street Gallery, on 110 Spring St. The exhibition will be on display weekdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Oct. 29.
“Breathing Lights takes place in neighborhoods that don’t usually have these type of projects happening, or this kind of attention,” Fredlin said. The ‘breathing lights” in a vacant building can reference different things - a life that once lived there, a life that might return should the building was to be re-occupied, the artist noted. “We hope, beyond creating something beautiful, to be able to draw some attention to an issue that a lot of work needs to be done.”
At the end of the installation, the windows – one by one – will fall dark, their shared sense of loss stirring a call to action.