Monday, November 16, 2009

Constellation Energy

constellation energy
(photos by Eric Leshinsky)

This is an installation for Axis Alley, an open air exhibit in Baltimore, curated by Sarah Doherty in the fall of 09. The site for the show is a nameless (literally) alley street between Hargrove and Calvert, running north/south for only three blocks in the Lower Charles Village neighborhood. The majority of the houses backing up to the alley are vacant, and most of these are owned by the city of Baltimore. The alley, and the backyards of the houses, are visited by drug users, prostitutes with clients, the homeless, and anyone else looking for a temporary quiet spot off the busy north/south streets that cut through these blocks.

View Night Small

The lights are solar powered pool floats, they comprise a light detecting diode, a light emitting diode, a small solar panel, and a battery. During the day, they soak up sunlight, at night, they give off a soft blue glow, more atmospheric than functional. Another series of solar powered LEDs was reconstructed from a set of christmas lights. These were taken apart, soldered back together with extra wire, and threaded through the mat of wild vegetation in the yard, forming another network on the ground.

The title of the project, Constellation Energy, is a nod to the local power company, and also a kind of personal shorthand to help think about ideas of sustainability and autonomy. In an imaginary green world, where every household can use their own energy, grow their own food, and recycle their own waste - where every unit is potentially a closed loop like each of these lights, what are the motivators that bring the nodes together?

constellation energy 01s

A lot of this was heavily influenced, conceptually and visually, by an older piece from Bryan Boyer that I've never been able to get out of my head: Form Follows Fable. Boyer suggests that it's the power of stories in the cultural imagination that forms and reforms the network:

"To be comfortable telling stories is to desire a shared existence, a "we" amongst the autonomous stars, that is OK with continual re-invention and happy to be part of multiple constellations."


Globe Plaza
(image by Bryan Boyer)

On the site, other things got linked into the network: the big Ailanthus tree, the powerlines and cable TV wires that criscrossed the airspace overhead and clung opportunistically to the masonry walls, the other vegetation that intertwined itself in turn with all of that, forming fat braids with the cords which were then wrapped with copper mounting wire from the glowing spheres, the vines that sprout leaves to catch the sun and then bud off into brightly colored berries.

constellation energy 02s

I never saw the space finished and glowing, these photos at the head of this post were taken by a friend. This is a project that was complete for less than 24 hours. Sarah, the curator, was watching me wire the lowest light to a chainlink fence when she predicted: "someone's going to come along and smash that with a brick". By the next evening, that's exactly what had happened, and by the time I made it out to the site to replace it, all of the globes wtihin easy (even some in not-so-easy) reach had been stolen. The copper was cleanly snipped with wirecutters. Someone had even taken the small solar panel for the lights on the ground. By the time I had returned again with replacement lights, mounting them all overhead with a ladder, the feral vegetation that sheltered the smaller lights had been weedwhacked, short fragments of wire and broken LEDs were mixed everywhere with shredded Paulownia.


(photo by Sarah Doherty)

Other friends pointed out the unintentional resonances with the human environment that I had overlooked: these vacant houses had likely already been hit by scrappers, looters who strip houses of all the wiring and piping that can be ripped from the walls. In that context, copper wire wasn't the best choice as a mounting system. Maybe worse - the blue lights, again, unintentionally, looked a lot like the iconic blue light police cameras that are all over the city. These are known colloquially as 'blueberries' and are so recognizable that people base halloween costumes on them.

This is all well. It's a space that is probably someone's outdoor temporary home. In one sense, this unasked-for light, however pretty, is the light that invites destruction. It is the thing that effects change in the environment that then asks for reaction and change in kind. If it can't survive that reaction, then it doesn't deserve to be in public. And in still another sense, as these lights start to act like plants - soaking in sunlight, clinging to and intertwining with their environment, it's appropriate that they are then treated like plants - they are trimmed, clipped, and even harvested.

As interesting as it is to think about iconic (or even atmospheric) objects dissolving into the networks of formal resonance and systemic connection that create and sustain them, it's useful to remember that there are always other contexts and networks present, too, overlapping and invisible, but no less relevant than the ones we seek to address directly and dialogue with.

DSC07221

[[For more on Axis Alley, see the flickr photo pool here, or the Baltimore Sun slideshow here and story here, for more outdoor installation art, see Invasive Species]]

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