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UAlbany art professor breathes life into region's vacant homes

Courtesy University at Albany 

Breathing Lights, one of four winners in the nationwide Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge, is the brainchild of lead artist Adam Frelin, a professor in the University at Albany’s Department of Art and Art History, and lead architect Barbara Nelson, AIA. 

The Challenge provides up to $1 million over two years for temporary works “that celebrate creativity, enhance urban identity, encourage public-private partnerships, and drive economic development.” 

Breathing Lights will illuminate hundreds of empty homes within the cities of Albany, Schenectady, and Troy, with lights that dim and glow to emulate the breathing of a living being. The installation aims to regenerate interest in once-vibrant neighborhoods with high vacancy rates. The three cities collaborated on a partnership that drew more than two dozen public and private partners, including the Capital Region Creative Economy Project, General Electric, and the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The University at Albany Foundation agreed to fund the project up to $10,000 for additional cost and collaboration. 

“I'm drawn to art projects that have a strong visual impact,” said Frelin, who joined the University in 2006. “I’ve always been interested in public art, and I’m ecstatic to take part in a project that is truly massive in scale. What sets Breathing Lights apart from other public art projects is that it will take place in hundreds of separate sites. I love that people living in this region won't have to go to a specific place to experience our project, but that it will come to them.” 

Frelin is a visual artist who works in sculpture, photography, video, and performance. In his artwork he finds ways to insert fantasy into everyday life. His projects include Firefall (public performance involving a waterfall of fire, 2012); White Line (line installation for the American Embassy in Tokyo, 2007), and Pulse (commissioned video artwork for the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, 2004). 

When the call for submissions first went out, Frelin and Nelson sent independent submissions to the Community Foundation for the Greater Capital Region that complemented each other. The Foundation brought them together and they developed Breathing Lights

“Regardless of whether our viewers are knowledgeable about visual art, I believe that it is imperative that we proposed a project that will be captivating to everyone seeing it,” said Frelin. 

“Even if they don't fully understand why it’s happening, I want the public to be able to be enriched by this experience. I want the person commuting home from work to see, out of the corner of their eye, abandoned buildings brought back to life by our breathing light effect. I want the people living in these neighborhoods to discover that the vacant homes surrounding them are now pulsing with life.”

Frelin said he hopes the project will illustrate to the region the power that the arts can have in creating an evocative experience that enriches all, while also laying the groundwork for the creation of a public arts initiative that will make it easier for projects like Breathing Lights to be realized in the future. 

The project was the only one to win in the Northeast and the only collaboration. Frelin notes, “In many ways, being an artist today requires that I work collaboratively. What will make this process rewarding for me is having the chance to work with architects, engineers, private-sector partners and civic leaders in my community to bring about a creative outcome that is greater than what any one of us could have accomplished alone.”

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