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The Wabash Lights and New Trends in Public Art

By Alex Bean on February 5, 2016


The Wabash Lights, a new Kickstarter-funded interactive public art installation, launched its beta test Thursday night. The beta test is an installation of four twelve-foot lengths of LED lights underneath the ‘L’ tracks between Monroe and Adams. Eventually, the Wabash Lights will run the length of seven blocks, from Van Buren Street to Lake Street. Passers-by will use their phones to change the colors and patterns they see up in the ‘L’ tracks above. In both its design and funding, the Wabash Lights presents an intriguing glimpse at the changing face of contemporary public art in Chicago.

Wabash Lights Beta Test
The Wabash Lights as seen from the sidewalk on the night the beta test began. Photo Credit: Alex Bean

The “Public” of Public Art

Last summer the designers of the Wabash Lights, Jack Newell and Seth Unger, launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds for the beta test. They explained why the project was looking for crowd-sourced donations to fund the beta test.

“We are Kickstarting this project because it’s important to us that The Wabash Lights be seeded by the public. Public art is often created by one, paid for by few, but meant for everyone. We want to reverse that notion and bring the voice of the public into our project as donors and also designers.”

It’s fascinating to hear this statement of downtown public art coming from the people. Some of downtown’s other public art has been, as Newell and Unger say, commissioned and executed by a select few. As guests on our Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour know, the Chicago Picasso was carefully overseen by Mayor Richard J. Daley. He arranged for a $100,000 commission for Picasso from the Chicago Public Building Commission. The sculpture’s actual construction was paid for by three large charitable funds. That same method of top-down control is still widely used for public art commissions.

The Wabash Lights designers, on the other hand, will fund the complete installation through donations by corporations and foundations. Nevertheless, asking the general public for funding might speak to changing trends in the art world.

Wabash Lights beta test
The Wabash Lights will be programmable and run the length of the Wabash Street ‘L.’ Photo Credit: Alex Bean

Interactivity of the Wabash Lights

The big hook of the Wabash Lights is the art installation’s interactive quality. Each LED light tube can have its display reprogrammed from the smartphones of passersby. The designers claim that each 1/2 inch section of the lights will be controllable. So if a pedestrian had a great day at work, she can turn a stretch of Wabash Avenue into a neon yellow reflection of their mood. Alternately, a street musician could create some mood lighting of his personal tastes for his street-corner stage. Eventually the Wabash Lights might turn this corner of the Loop into an attraction with its kaleidoscope of colors.

The full experience of the Wabash Lights will not be felt for a while yet. Plans call for the beta test to run for the next 6-12 months. In that time the lights will not be interactive. Instead, the designers will use the time to experiment with a variety of displays. Also they will troubleshoot any technological, logistical and design hurdles that spring up after installation and activation.

You can check out the Wabash Lights for yourself on Wabash between Monroe and Adams. The lights will turn on evening around dusk and stay on until 1 or 2 in the morning.

Alex Bean, Office Manager and Tour Guide


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