Breathing Lights Bring Life to Abandoned Buildings

In October and November 2016, nightly from 6pm – 10pm, Breathing Lights illuminated the windows of hundreds of vacant buildings in Albany, Schenectady and Troy, New York. Warm light filled each window with a diffuse glow that mimicked the gentle rhythm of human breathing. Concentrated in neighborhoods with high levels of vacancy, Breathing Lights transformed abandoned structures from pockets of shadows into places of warmth. Breathing Lights was a winner of the Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge which engages mayors to collaborate with artists on developing innovative public art projects that enrich communities and attract visitors.

This unprecedented, multi-city installation transformed public streets into an evocative experience and provided a platform to reinvigorate partners around the Capital Region’s most visible symptom of decades of disinvestment. Working with dozens of community and private-sector partners, Breathing Lights included eight months of programming and events, including youth media projects, building reclamation clinics, community arts presentations, gallery talks, policy discussions and more.

The technology behind Breathing Lights was simple. Off-the-shelf LED light strips, chosen for color value and intensity, and their breathing “rate” were controlled by a simple Arduino board. The lights were diffused by two sheets of plastic inside a wooden frame affixed to each window.

The majority of the vacant buildings chosen to light were owned by cities, counties or land banks. They worked closely with each city and land bank to understand and map their inventory and to choose buildings. The buildings lit represented less than 10% of the vacant buildings throughout the region at the time.

At the end of the installation, windows – one by one – fell dark. In sharing a sense of loss came a stir to action.