Capital Region project wins national public art challenge

breathing lights project rendering

A rendering showing how Breathing Lights might look.

A joint Albany-Schenectady-Troy project has been selected as one of four winners of the Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge, and is now in line for up to $1 million in funding from the org.

The local project is called "Breathing Lights" and aims to make use of vacant properties in the three cities.


For two months, Breathing Lights will illuminate the street-facing windows of hundreds of vacant buildings in Schenectady, Albany and Troy. Warm light will fill each window with a diffuse glow that pulses with the gentle rhythm of human breathing. Concentrated in economicially disadvantaged neighborhoods with high vacancy rates, these installations will transform vacant structures from pockets of shadows into places of warmth. Collectively, this public art installation spanning three cities will transform public space, in this case the streets, making it a must-see attraction and impossible to miss if you are in a targeted area. This massive installation will illuminate the region's struggle with vacancy and its effects on residents and neighborhood economies, and will regenerate interest in once-vibrant communities.
Led by artist Adam Frelin and architect Barbara Nelson, Breathing Lights will bring together local architects, students, engineers, artists, and product developers to design and install custom light instruments. Illumination kits will consist of miniature LED strip lights bound in adhesive fabric, affixed to interior window frames. The lights will shine through windows covered in diffusion material, powered and controlled by batteries and rheostats. In a region that pioneered electricity, a project centered on lighting technology infuses the installation with history and place. Breathing Lights has a life cycle. At the end of the installation, windows, one by one, will fall dark. In sharing the sense of loss comes a stir to action.

In addition to the funding from the Bloomberg Philanthropies, organizers and partners say they've also gotten commitments for $500k from local orgs to help fund the project.

The installation is tentatively scheduled to run October-December in 2016. Organizers are also planning a range of public engagement activities to help focus community discussion and action about vacant buildings. We hear those events are tentatively planned to start ahead of the installation, and will culminate with a regional summit in the spring of 2017.

Vacant buildings and neighborhood disinvestment have been a persistent problem in many parts of the Capital Region for a long time, so gathering attention for the issue is good. But the real test will be transforming that attention into meaningful action, so we're looking forward to seeing how that part of the project plays out.

The Albany-Schenectady-Troy project was one of four winners (out of 237 submitted entries) of the Public Art Challenge. The others were: Gary, Indiana; Los Angeles; and Spartanburg, South Carolina.


This is really remarkable for our region to receive this recognition, and the project sounds like it will be a very meaningful experience. Congratulations to all involved!

kudos on a great sounding project. AOA don't dorp the ball, keep update coming so it doesn't slip thru the cracks.


I know this is not going to sound great, but Habitat for Humanity and other organizations committed to rebuilding neighborhoods could have put $1.5 million to much better use. Essentially, we'll be blowing away $1.5 million in two months without having made a dent on anything. Just sayin'. Even though I like the idea....

@JoeA, totally get the sentiments, and equally go back and forth on this, but given that this is philanthropic money designed to use art as a means of conveying important societal issues, the Capital Region was locked in. At the end of the day, I'd rather we pursue it and use it, even if only motivates one person to do something "tangible."

To be fair, the money being thrown against this competition is a drop in the buck against other philanthropic monies that arguably make a more tangible "dent." Maybe because I'm an artist, I don't necessarily see this as "blowing" the money if organizers are able to move beyond a nifty light show and actually generate some tangible action out of this by getting people engaged with the Habitat for Humanities and land banks of the region. Time will tell...

As an artist and a social worker, I also have mixed feelings about the project. One million dollars could go a long way in the residents lives if used for purposes that address actual needs. Out of curiosity, were the residents involved in the conversation? Is this something they even want in their neighborhoods? Did anyone ask?

Additionally, rather than raise awareness in neighborhoods that are already well aware of their circumstances, perhaps an awareness campaign reaching folks who are often segregated from the reality of Albany's poverty would be more effective?

I do believe that art is very powerful in social movements, but this seems like a (well-intentioned) misstep.

Ok wait, in my effort to write an informed response, I watched a video on the project on, which confirmed just how PROBLEMATIC this whole thing is. The only people speaking in the video are white. There were 2 women of color used in the footage, one was serving food to the white woman leading the project, and the other was a young black women being talked at by said white woman. This white person goes so far as to describe distressed neighborhoods as "pockets of darkness." Like what...?!?!?! From what I can tell, this initiative is not being led by actual people affected by food apartheid, or economic and racial segregation.

Furthermore, the intent of the project is to encourage people to "bring roots" into the neighborhoods, which is code for gentrification. Gentrification ultimately leads to displacement, not empowerment. Look at New Orleans, NYC, San Francisco, Oakland, etc. for examples on how gentrification often mutes the voices, experiences and cultures of those already living in areas, ultimately making the cost of living too high for folks to stay in neighborhoods they've lived in for decades.

There are more immediate needs, such as a supermarket for starters, that would benefit people who already live in intentionally segregated neighborhoods in Albany.

Full of frustrations here...

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