Blink Cincinnati: Taking Art to the Streets

For four nights this past October, Cincinnati’s central neighborhoods were transformed into museum galleries and playgrounds, and about a million visitors went on essentially the city’s largest art crawl.
It took five organizations, two years, dozens of artists and $3.6 million to pull off Blink, a light-based arts festival that took design to the streets of the Queen City. Residents and tourists followed the path of the relatively new streetcar line to explore murals and buildings illuminated by custom designed video projections.

Cincinnati didn’t invent the concept of a citywide light-based arts festival, and it wasn’t the largest ever, but it was the first to integrate its light installations so closely to murals and existing architecture. Artists were encouraged to make their work as location-specific as possible—turning a tiny corner of a building into a 3D illusion and making a mural of a beloved singer come alive with music.

Blink CincinnatiThe interactive light pads of “The Pool” from Jen Lewin Studio have delighted audiences at nearly two dozen light festivals worldwide.
The agencies Brave Berlin and AGAR, nonprofit ArtWorks, the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber and The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation made it all happen.

Legacy arts organizations are increasingly bringing the insides out in an effort to reach a wider audience. Lighted images, especially moving images, trigger an emotional response and demand our attention. From the first hand shadow puppets to today’s high-tech projection capabilities, art that moves moves us.

A Fest Fit for a Queen

Rust Belt cities often get a bad rap. Coastal dwellers who’ve never set foot in the Midwest might be inclined to assume these former industrial centers are devoid of culture, ambition and hope, but it couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Like its brethren cities Pittsburgh and Denver, Cincinnati is in the midst of a renaissance. The urbanization of the early 21st century has revitalized its core and spurred economic and population growth for the first time in decades.

The arts have been a source of pride for the Queen City, even in lean times: Its symphony is world-class, the Contemporary Arts Center is housed in a Zaha Hadid–designed building, and ArtWorks has adorned walls in the city with more than 130 murals.

One of the biggest arts attractions of the past decade was Lumenocity. This free festival combined live orchestral music with light designs projected onto the face of the iconic Music Hall, a 19th-century architectural masterpiece. Media design agency Brave Berlin partnered with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra to create not just a concert, but an experience. Attendance smashed all projections, and although it was crowded, muddy and chaotic, “nobody cared,” Brave Berlin’s Dan Reynolds says. The event was so popular that the next year it was expanded from one night to four, and a ticketing system was put in place.

But the logistics remained a big issue. Though the idea was to be accessible to everyone, the free tickets were snapped up in an instant. Neighborhood residents were overwhelmed by the multiple nights of crowds and traffic. After three years of Lumenocity, Brave Berlin partners Reynolds and Steve McGowan were ready to tackle something even bigger.

Blink CincinnatiA light-infused art parade kicked off the weekend of Blink. | photo credit: Mackenzie Frank

Rather than force visitors to follow a set path, Blink was designed to be explored serendipitously. | Photo credits: Brian Douglas (top left) and Mackenzie Frank (remaining 3)

Blink CincinnatiThe Zaha Hadid-designed Contemporary Arts Center, lit up with designs from Lightborne. | photo credit: Brian Douglas

The Preparation

Members of the organizations behind Blink traveled the world to see how other light-based festivals pulled it off. Vivid Sydney, a festival designed to boost travel in Australia’s off season, now draws nearly 2 million visitors a year. Baltimore did a light festival, but not quite at the scale Cincinnati was considering. And while the partners were very excited about the plans, they had no idea if funding would come through for such an expansive festival.

So the key would be cooperation. Brave Berlin would oversee the 21 architectural projection mapping installations, the focal point of Blink. AGAR would work on a new series of street murals. ArtWorks would focus on interactive events and outreach. The regional chamber would handle event production, and the Haile Foundation would focus on funding. Local agency goDutch created the identity and branding before the kickoff. The team announced their grand plan a year ahead of the event with a parade, and the support started flowing.

Projection mapping, also called video mapping, might seem like a relatively new phenomenon, but its origins lie in the pre-digital era. According to the makers of Lightform, the first known example of film projected onto contoured surfaces was in a Disneyland ride in 1969. The Haunted Mansion had bodiless singers that were animated by projecting 16mm film of people singing onto busts of their heads.

Progress in computer graphics led to more exploration into projection mapping in the 1990s, then called “spatial augmented reality,” and the advent of smart projectors in the early 2000s made it possible to start playing with video mapping. The trick is using equipment designed to 3D scan the scene you intend to project on, then processing and projecting the video accordingly so it appears as intended.

“Projection mapping can be like painting on a canvas, or you can really interact with the architecture,” Reynolds says. But “it’s all theoretical; there is no way to practice.”

The Blink partners contracted with tech services company PRG to secure the equipment and staff to execute the ambitious plan. A total of 21 projection mapping installations. Multitudes of side events. No rehearsals. Just showtime.

Blink CincinnatiSet up in front of Music Hall, Alan Parkinson’s “Architects of Air” was an inflatable luminarium visitors could explore from the inside. | photo credit: Mackenzie Frank

Blink and It’s Gone

The festival kicked off with a parade at sundown on Thursday, and people lined the streets to watch hundreds of dancers, musicians, artists and light-clad ramblers.

“We knew we had a great show, but you never know if people are going to show up,” McGowan says. “The day of the parade, we walked over there and we were like, ‘We don’t see a lot of people.’ Then later the streetcar went by and it was packed, and we knew it was gonna be big.”

There was no set path to follow to experience Blink: Everyone was encouraged to start where they felt like it and end whenever they were done. The projections ran in loops of three to 10 minutes, so you wouldn’t miss anything. Many people came out multiple nights because they couldn’t see everything in one evening.

A crowd favorite was “Swing and Sway,” a light installation integrated with an ArtWorks mural of hometown girl and “Mambo Italiano” singer Rosemary Clooney (who also happens to be the aunt of George). Jeremy Mosher, a senior multimedia producer at AGAR, had found a remix of her song “Sway” online and got permission from JPOD to use it. It was one of the few installations to integrate sound with the light, and the projection made it look as if Clooney were really singing.

The posts from Blink flowed incessantly over the long weekend on Instagram and Twitter and Facebook. “What we loved so much is that Cincinnati owned it,” McGowan says.

Reynolds adds: “That’s the brilliant thing about art. It’s different for every viewer, but you’re experiencing it together. The inclusion is organic.”

Signing on to develop a citywide multimillion art festival takes a lot of faith, but Brave Berlin never doubted. “I’m proud of the fact we didn’t scale it down when money wasn’t showing up or coming in late,” Reynolds says. “It would have been easy to shorten it, but everyone resisted that and said the scale is what will make it a game-changer.”
The exact frequency for future festivals remains to be seen. But one thing’s for sure: Blink will get a second look.

2018 Worldwide Light Events

The crew responsible for Blink experienced light-based arts festivals around the world in their research. Here’s when you can check them out for yourself this year:

Frankfurt, Germany
March 18–23, 2018

Light City
April 6–21, 2018

Vivid Sydney
Sydney, Australia
May 25 to June 16, 2018

Light Festival
Jerusalem, Israel
June 27 to July 5, 2018

Lüdenscheid, Germany
September 28 to October 7, 2018

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