The beauty of the Denver Theatre District’s cultural contributions to downtown is that they don’t cost the city a dime — a rare thing in a time when public money for the arts is tight. Under the direction of David Ehrlich, the DTD funds monumental urban installations by international artists, from trees painted blue to site-specific sidewalk art, as well as the artist incubator Understudy, where local talent can play with conceptual ideas for a month at a time. These projects have all been financed by revenue from advertising on the district’s LED signs.
But the DTD’s latest project, the 3-D projection-mapping installation Night Lights Denver, slated for a long-term, rotating run on the Arapahoe Street side of the D&F Tower on the 16th Street Mall, is particularly big for downtown, says Ehrlich. He hopes that it will imbue Denver's urban center, where the streets often look empty after dark, with a new sense of place at night. “We want to create a feeling of crossing over a boundary where you might find an artistic surprise,” he muses.
The program, a looping ten-minute animation sequence to be projected on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights beginning thirty minutes after sunset and continuing for three hours, will debut at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, November 7, and continue weekly, indefinitely. Start times will shift slightly with the sunset times.
“We’ve been providing platforms for local artists — Understudy is a great example — and that led to us thinking about other ways to do it,” Ehrlich says of the concept, which coalesced over a year of exploration and implementation by the district, starting with finding the perfect location for a large-scale visual program. With the help of the Downtown Denver Partnership, the D&F Tower became a focal point of the project; from there, the logistics came together beautifully.
For one thing, the DTD was proactive in working with the tower's management to make improvements to the building. “We said, ‘What if we take some money and reinvest it into the tower?’” Ehrlich recalls. “Now we’re refurbishing and relaunching the tower bell this year. Maybe we'll ring it to signal that the show is starting.”
Projection mapping also requires infrastructure, Ehrlich notes, which makes it difficult for artists to execute large displays on their own. “But we thought, ‘What if we put it together for them and pay them a fair wage?’" he adds. Running with that idea, the DTD was able to acquire a five-year lease on a convenient corner on the fourth floor of the US West Bank parking garage that faces the D&F Tower, where the projectors, computers and refrigeration unit needed to support the display are now installed.
Locating appropriate artists was another concern. In addition to the Hungarian projection-mapping collective Limelight Art, found through connections with Chicago’s Art on theMART project, several local artists were tapped by DTD programming director David Moke to produce animations for rotating programs throughout the year. To kick off the display, animations designed by Denver-based Joel Swanson, known for his work incorporating text-based wordplay, and Sofie Birken, who draws dreamy illustrations, will rotate with work by Limelight through December.
“It’s a good balance: man, woman, local,” Ehrlich says. “Their pieces are very different but contrast well.”
Without wanting to give anything away, Swanson describes his piece, called “Choreographies,” as a grid of “weird, semantic and typographical symbols” in a black-and-white palette.
Swanson has high praise for his experience working with the DTD, which gave him free rein to develop his project: “All of their avenues of engaging with art and artists are generous and supportive. My work tends to be subtle, and how my conceptual work would play in the public sphere was my big concern. But after working through it and testing it, I’m excited to see that the subtlety is still there.”
British illustrator Birkin’s animation, “Queen City,” reels out in a more personal, narrative way, operating as a love story with LGBTQ themes that encompasses her appreciation of Denver and her affection for her wife, the very reason she landed in Colorado in the first place. It was also a chance for her to realize her goal of dabbling more seriously in animation, helped by her friend Vincent Comparetto, who contributed elements to the final piece.
Central to “Queen City” is a large-scale segment of two women kissing. “It makes me feel as if I've done my job,” says Birkin. "It’s the sort of thing that would've helped me a lot when I was thirteen or fourteen.”
Night Lights has the potential to be all things to all people, Ehrlich notes.
What’s next for the new platform? That's still unfolding. “I see it as a cool addition to downtown evenings,” Ehrlich says. “The shows repeat after sunset, so maybe after dinner, people will want to catch the ten-minute show — it adds to the evening. Maybe it could become a community gathering spot, or it could be an additive to New Year’s Eve celebrations.”
He’s on the lookout for ways to persuade the public to join in and make Night Lights a tradition of their own. “In Key West, it’s the sunset. In Austin, you go to see the bats fly under the railroad tunnel,” Ehrlich explains. “It’s a place to congregate, something that becomes part of the firmament of downtown.”
Down the line, Ehrlich continues, “we’d love to see interactive and ambient programming. It could be something as simple as a Pride rainbow.” He imagines sharing video platforms with the Supernova Digital Animation Festival, and envisions using artwork by high school and college students, or maybe just anyone with a good idea.
“That’s why we came up with the idea of calling it the ‘Peoples’ Projector,’” he says. “Maybe we will not limit its use to only art, or only storytelling. If people engage, they might think about it and have crazy cool ideas of their own. This is not about us; we’re open to public thought.
"We want to get Denver talking to each other — it’s that ambitious,” Ehrlich concludes. “We don’t have to figure it all out today.”
Join the Denver Theatre District, the Downtown Denver Partnership and Orange Barrel Media for Night Lights Denver's opening-night festivities on Thursday, November 7, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at 16th and Arapahoe streets. The program is free, and Woody Creek Bakery & Cafe will serve hot drinks and cookies while they last. Learn more and keep up with news about Night Lights Denver at nightlightsdenver.com.
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