Blinded by the art? ‘Open Air’ light installation raises environmental, air traffic safety concerns

In two weeks, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway will be illuminated nightly by 24 of the world’s brightest robotic searchlights as part of “Open Air,” an interactive exhibition commissioned by Philadelphia’s Association for Public Art and created by Mexican-Canadian artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer.

The installation is coming to the city as a part of the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe. “The Live Arts Festival is an activity that really calls attention to Philadelphia’s creative opportunities, so we were very anxious to create a public art project that would coincide with their efforts and we’re also interested and involved in making the Parkway a more creative pedestrian space,” Executive Director of the Association for Public Art Penny Balken Bach said. “Over the years, it’s turned more highway than parkway, so we’re eager to see if we can find ways to really turn this space back to the people and animate it in some way.”

A rendering sketch of “Open Air” showing one possible light formation.

But the project is making waves among some members of the environmental and public safety communities, who are railing against light pollution-related health concerns and disruption to the flight paths of migratory birds and aircrafts.

“It is quite serious because the American Medical Association just this past June announced that light pollution is hazardous for people’s health and their safety,” said Audrey Fischer of activist coalition One Star At A Time, citing hormonal and sleep rhythm disruptions and visibility problems for senior drivers as potential issues.

The Association for Public Art stated in press materials that the lights will not be directed at building windows or flight paths. But Fischer, who is also a former air show pilot, begs to differ, citing photo renderings of the beams crisscrossing every level from ground to sky. “There’s just no way you can stop a light beam once you’ve released it and every report that I read said that some of these will be absolutely chaotic in their motion,” she said. “I think it’s a potential hazard that could add risk could delay an emergency vehicle – possibly ground them, possibly much worse.”

Some renderings depict the beams pointing every which way.

Manager of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Philadelphia Air Traffic Control Center Melveice Harris said that, though FAA approved the exhibition, area flight carriers have not yet been alerted and he does not yet know whether the lights will disrupt their paths. “We’re going to have a trial basis starting sometime next week and we will make those suggestions if we see that there are any concerns or any sources of conflict,” he said. That trial period is set to begin Sept. 12 and run through the exhibition’s opening on Sept. 20, according to Harris.

The light show also comes during the peak weeks of bird migration season, when over 250 species will traverse the area, according to Conservation Director of Pennsylvania Audubon Janet Starr. “Open Air’s light beams will reach higher than Philadelphia’s buildings, thereby having the potential to impact many more birds,” she said in a statement. “During the Open Air light show, tens to hundreds of thousands of birds will be flying in the night skies over the Philadelphia region, and many of these birds may be distracted or trapped by the search lights sweeping Philadelphia’s skyline during the show.” She said that once they are attracted to and then “trapped” in light sources, birds often become confused and fly into man-made structures.

The lights are clearly depicted as reaching higher than the tallest


“I have to say that the artist has been very responsive to our concerns and has made the commitment to adapt the show as may be necessary,” Starr said in an interview yesterday. But she also said that given the short notice – the organization just learned of the exhibition in early July – she worries they will be unable to secure funding in time to pull together a monitoring program measuring whether birds are being affected during the show so that it can be tailored accordingly.

Bach said Lozano-Hemmer is now integrating blackout periods into the show and investigating the possible use of UV filters to mitigate its impact on bird migration. An engineer will also be on-site during the entire duration of the project and will have the ability to immediately shut it down if the lights become a safety issue. “The concerns as I understand it is that nobody, including us, wants to startle the birds,” Bach said. “The lights are actually moving very slowly. People are under the misconception this is a flashing disco light show – it’s not.”

Bach said the lights will be more controlled and move more slowly

than many opponents seem to think.

Deputy Commissioner of Parks and Recreation Mark Focht said his department approved the project, deferring to the FAA and Pennsylvania Audubon for concerns about birds and planes. He said the beams of light will move slowly across the sky and won’t be concentrated on one location for any long period of time, mitigating their impact on flight paths.

But some say that’s not enough. “The artist said that this is an expression of free speech, of being able to use the sky as a medium for electronic art and expression,” Fischer said. “Well, people have a right to have a voice but not when it interferes with everybody else.”

Other opposition

Here are some excerpts from other individuals and organizations who issued statements in opposition to “Open Air”:

“Bad lighting, which, sadly, is embodied by “Open Air,” affects far more than the ability to see the stars clearly. Bad lighting in all its forms is a waste of energy, natural resources, and money. Ecosystems are affected as navigation systems and other biological processes of nocturnal animals are disrupted.”

– The International Dark Sky Association

“Certainly this project seems oblivious to science, pretentious, one could argue silly, and possibly even meaningless. In a world that seems increasingly ignorant of science and the importance of knowledge, ever more turned on to mindless entertainment 24 hours a day, this project fits right in. It’s a shame that artists like Lozano-Hemmer, who apparently has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, are so clueless to the ill effects their projects create, even as we all wonder what exactly this accomplishes for civilization anyway.”

– David Eicher, Editor of Astronomy Magazine

“I suppose that art is supposed to be edgy, and my objections simply attest to the success of Open Air. I can only hope that next year aPA won’t decide to race garbage down the Schuylkill, or burn down Fairmount Park so that we can appreciate the beautiful wildflowers that follow a forest fire.”

– Christopher Kyba, former Philadelphia resident and current ecological researcher at the Institute for Space Sciences of the Free University, and at the Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Berlin

How it works

– The exhibition will be live on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway between
21st and 24th streets every night from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. Sept. 20
through Oct. 14. Its viewing area is one square-mile and its lights will
be able to be seen from a 10-mile radius.

– Described as “at once a visible voicemail system, a rant line, a public
stage and an archive of recordings from Philadelphia’s past and
present,” participants can submit messages through the project’s website, which went live Wednesday, or live on-site through a free “Open
Air Philly” iPhone app, available for download starting Sept. 20. The recordings, which can be up to 30 seconds long, will be played through large
public speaker and the searchlights will adjust in brightness and
position in time with the frequency, intonation and volume of the user’s

– The messages that are submitted while the user is on the Parkway will
be prioritized and played on a first-come, first-serve basis. The lights will fix on the person as their recording
plays using a GPS locator built into the app. The messages on the
website will be subject to user ratings, with the most highly-rated
recordings playing first. There is also a pre-recorded archive of
messages from famous Philadelphians.

– While there will be a system in place for users to flag inappropriate
recordings submitted through the website, there will be no monitoring
system for those submitted through the app on-site. However, those who submit live
messages can be tracked down by the location and identity
information sent out by their smartphone.

– There will be a Project Information Center at Eakins Oval with an app
downloading center, free iPhone loan stations and seating areas, plus a
second information outpost at Sister Cities Park.

More from our Sister Sites