Bringing life to the city with light

Berlin’s Festival of Lights drastically changes the built landscape of the city by night. Image: Festival of Light

It’s strange to think how dependent we are on our little bit of Earth facing the sun. Every day, as the sun passes beyond the horizon, we flea for safety. Cape Town’s city streets, dominated by commercial use, become a vacuum void of all life. A bustling street, full of people during the day, can become a completely different space at night. As soon as people leave (to the suburbs), shops close, and the light vanishes, and a street can become a very uninviting space. Cape Town has a number of streets that do facilitate the presence of humans at night, most obviously Long Street, but most streets “shut down”, leaving no reasons for anyone to use them.

Light has a tremendous ability to transform a place. The use of light as an artistic medium, and a building as a canvas, can change an otherwise dark street in the city, into an inviting, mesmerizing place to gather. Just think about how Adderley Street changes when the festive season lights are turned on every year. The Infecting the City public arts festival is a notable example as well. The Cape Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance in Church Square, with the National Mutual Life building lit up in the background, or the performance of Ilulwane in the red-lit pool of Long Street Baths, show how light installations can change our perceptions and experience of a place.

There are endless international examples of light being used in some form in public spaces. Berlin’s Festival of Lights, groups like Nuit Blanche, the recent Dumbo Arts Festival, and Greyworld’s Trafalgar Sun installation, all manage to drastically change city spaces and attract people to them. People gather like moths around a lightbulb. Even New York City’s Times Square may be used as an example. It’s flickering advertisements alone, attract people from across the world, and now Times Square is becoming a place to showcase artwork. Times Square Moment is a way to showcase artwork on some of the screens a few minutes before midnight. Artwork is even being created with the primary purpose of displaying it in Times Square, and the amount of display time is being increased as well.

How might we use public light art to strategically activate Cape Town’s empty spaces at night? The great thing about light projections and installations, besides our almost primitive attraction to them, is that they are temporary. Light is simply being reflected off or emitted from a building or object, as opposed to the permanent application of pigment. As a light installation can be changed, removed, or even setup for just one night, it doesn’t face the approval complications that a mural does. Of course it requires energy, money, skill, and hardware, but those are barriers that can be overcome.

Cape Town’s City Hall lit up for the Royal Family visit in 1947. How could light be used now to bring life back to City Hall and the Grand Parade at night? Image: Eliot Elisofon

Without suggesting simply transplanting existing concepts into Cape Town’s spaces, imagine a 3D projection mapping installation enveloping City Hall, a Trafalgar Sun-like object glowing in the lifeless St George’s Mall, or a collection of Times Square-like billboards livening up the Adderley-Strand Street intersection. Imagine David Michalek’s Slow Dancing pieces projected outside the Artscape building, as they were outside New York City’s Lincoln Center.

Whether its purely aesthetic or making a profound statement, an installation can attract people to otherwise uninviting spaces and make them feel safer. Perhaps a permanent light installation in St George’s Mall could attract people every night, providing a reason for an entrepreneur to start a restaurant or bar nearby. Activating Cape Town’s lifeless streets with relatively low-resource light installations may act as a catalyst and stepping stone to bring life into the city.

Whether this is the role of city government to commission an installation, or the initiative of a company like Red Bull, we’ll have to see. However it may come to fruition, it’s surely worth experimenting with.

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