Dear Baltimore: A Critique on Light City

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Dear Baltimore,
Let’s talk about Light City. A 7 day light, art, and innovation festival, complete with performances, music, and conferences. I went to the opening night of Light City and it was there that I saw you, a team of bikers, with long poles attached to the bikes. On the top of each pole there was a letter, illuminated in red. You weaved in and out of each other until you finally formed the words: Dear Baltimore.


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Dear Baltimore by Thick Air Studios


Dear Baltimore, we were excited for Light City. These words have been buzzing on people’s tongues for about a year now, flashed across computer and phone screens, heard on radios. It was advertised as the first large international light festival in the U.S. and hey, we thought, that’s pretty cool. Beginning this year and planned to happen annually, Light City was supposed to shine a light on Baltimore’s abundance of creative talent, even though only about 65% of the artists showcased were from Baltimore, through a BGE light walk of about 50 light and art attractions in the Inner Harbor and a few light installations in neighborhoods throughout the city.


As a person who likes art, I enjoyed Light City. Okay, it was a little spread out and there weren’t enough descriptions about the art, but most of it was pretty cool. I enjoyed Thick Air Studios' Dear Baltimore bikes as mentioned above. I loved the peaceful and calm Voyages, a fleet of lit paper boats that kept changing colors, by Aether and Hemera Newcastle. But, when I began doing research for this article, I realized that Light City was advertised as more than art. It has frequently been called a way to rebrand or renew Baltimore. And, although Light City was thought of in 2013, many people, including the organizers, are saying that Light City is wonderful event that will bring our community together, in light of the unrest last year following the death of Freddie Gray.


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Voyages by Aether and Hemera Newcastle at Light City on March 28, 2016.


So, although Things is primarily an arts magazine, I want to talk about, not the art, but the dialogue that has been surrounding this festival in my city. Light City Baltimore, which occurred from March 28 to April 3 this year, is the brainchild of couple Brooke Hall and Justin Allen, Baltimoreans who own a creative agency (What Works Studio) and run an online magazine (What Weekly). Inspired by the success of festivals like South by Southwest and after traveling to Australia and seeing an international light festival there, Hall and Allen sought to find a way to highlight (pun intended) the innovation, art, and creativity happening in their home city. (Now is a great time to mention that Baltimore is actually home to the largest U.S. arts festival, Artscape, which happens every summer. This year’s theme is space and the festival attracts about 350,000 people, provides grants and prizes to local artists, and isn’t in the touristy Inner Harbor.)


Hall and Allen began planning Light City in 2013, but this year they were unsure if they should begin the festival now, since the dates in 2016 were close to the one year anniversary of Freddie Gray’s death and the Baltimore unrest. The festival did indeed go on and, although the festival was not planned as a response to last year’s unrest, the way that people have been talking about both events is disturbing.


The organizers of Light City (Hall, Allen, the Baltimore Office of Promotion & Arts, and other sponsors) had open forums around the city to see how the citizens felt about having Light City in the end of March/early April of 2016. Chris McCurry, a senior vice president at a communications firm based about twenty minutes outside of Baltimore, said that Light City “changes the story. It changes the dialogue."


Dear Baltimore, yes, Light City (as art and light!) is pretty damn cool. But Light City will not change the dialogue. This is not what we need. We do not need a new art and light festival (especially when we already have Artscape) to change our dialogue. We need a better public transportation system since it is almost impossible to go from the west to east side of Baltimore. We need programs for children of impoverished families since Baltimore City Public schools report that about 84% of children are eligible for Free or Reduced-Price Meals. We need to focus on the homeless people bundled up in bus stops instead of the tourists across the street who are marveling at a moving, lit up peacock that plays music.


These are the things that change the dialogue - actually improving our city. Listening to our people. Not forgetting about the Baltimore unrest, not using a festival, that although planned prior to the unrest, is said to be rebranding Baltimore after the “damage to our reputation” last year. We will rebrand Baltimore by creating more jobs, increasing funding for schools, and fighting systemized oppression and institutionalized racism. A seven day light festival, largely catered toward tourists, will not help our city in the ways that really matter.


I only saw three art installations, of over 50, that understood our city. One was Lumen, by two Baltimore artists, Kristin McWharter and Steven Lynam, which was basically a few clear white boards that you could write on with LED light markers, to make a community mural. I saw “Black Girl Magic”, “queer af”, and a drawing of a girl with an afro with rings like Saturn around it, suggesting that her hair was space. The other art installation was Pipelines by Luminous Intervention, a Baltimore artist group that had originally planned to disrupt Light City. Pipelines was a series of projection collages about police violence, education, recreation, and housing, described by the creators as an “digital altar” to the black people who have died after or during to police encounters. Finally, In the Light of History by Paul Rucker consisted of 11 sculptures on lampposts that were meant to shine a light on Baltimore’s history in the slave trade.

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A drawing by a community member on Lumen by Kristin McWharter and Steven Lynam at Light City on March 28, 2016.


Along with these art installations, there were a few other parts of Light City that actually sounded pretty awesome and productive. Not the conferences on different types of innovation, which cost about $200 to attend. But there was a collaboration of regional slam poets about social justice (What Was in Darkness Must Be Revealed to the Light) and a teen scholars program, offering internships and mentorships. There was also the Bright Lights Youth Festival, with free conferences and workshops, like an Urban Debate League, and a workshop by New Lens, an organization that makes art that hopes to inspire youth to create change. Of course, these events were not well advertised and I did not hear about them until after I had actually attended the festival and I was doing the research for this article. Art installations that were catered to the community or about Baltimore’s history, and free conferences for teenagers are incredible, but, as a whole, Light City just didn’t exceed the hype.


Dear Baltimore, About 145,000 people in our city live below the poverty line. There have been 317 lawsuits about inappropriate police conduct in our city since 2011. Our city is extremely segregated. When Light City had open meetings around Baltimore, they heard people say that we needed Light City now more than ever. But a festival about light and art isn’t going to change the fact that, between 2005 and 2009, about one quarter of young people in Freddie Gray’s neighborhood had been arrested. Light City, although beautiful to look at, isn’t going to change our city in the ways it needs to be changed. Light City might bring in money for the restaurants around the Inner Harbor and the neighborhoods it extended to (although, doubtful, since most tourists went to the harbor), but Light City won’t help Baltimore become a better city for its citizens.


Justin Allen, one of the organizers of Light City, said, about his three year old son who is beginning to create memories, that “this is how he’s going to remember Baltimore." We don’t need Light City now more than ever. We need change, we need progress. That little boy, Allen’s son? He can look at the lights and have a good time at Light City. But, as for long-term memories, let’s give him something to remember that matters.


text + visuals: zipi diamond
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