Designers and co-creators of the Wabash Lights Jack C. Newell and Seth Unger have been working on their project for four years, and now they're ready to move forward with a beta installation of the brightly colored LED light tubes for Wabash Avenue. The duo recently launched a new Kickstarter campaign to raise $55,000 for the beta test, and as of today, the designers are nearly half way to their goal. The project is a public art installation that will also double as a placemaking effort, which will hopefully draw more visitors to the otherwise dingy underbelly of the 'L' tracks on Wabash Avenue between between Madison and Adams Streets. So, why should people care about the project? We checked in with Newell and Unger to get their take.
In short, why should people care about the Wabash Lights project and who is it for?
The Wabash Lights is for everyone. When fully complete, the lights have the ability to be controlled by anyone in the world—even though the project "lives" in Chicago. It's unlike any other piece of public art in that you can be anywhere in the world and feel connected to what is happening here.
Residents and visitors to the city should care about this project because it will promote Chicago as a global destination, create a greater sense of place along Wabash Ave., and help to bridge the gap between State St. and Michigan Ave.
We believe that great public art has ability to bring people together in a meaningful way. The Wabash Lights will give locals a reason to remain downtown after 5 p.m. during the work week and also promote Wabash as a local weekend destination. The Loop is changing drastically, but not as fast as surrounding areas like River North and the West Loop. We believe that The Wabash Lights will help to promote business growth in the Loop and be a district-making catalyst for the Wabash corridor.
You've previously mentioned that the concept may help out local businesses by attracting more visitors to the area. Are there any other similar programs that you can point to that offer an example of how this concept or something similar has been successful in practice?
These types of interventions are happening many places. From Millennium Park in Chicago to the High Line in NYC, The Bay Lights in San Francisco, all the way to some yarn bomber in Des Moines that doesn't get a ton of attention. By applying principles of placemaking, we want to enhance what's happening on Wabash and build on the growth already happening in the area. When you visit an area of a city, you don't always remember the things that you do, but you will remember how that space makes you feel. Right now, the feeling on Wabash (or the lack of feeling) is generally not a positive one, or at the very least is ripe for an intervention like this.
What will exactly happen? We cannot answer that for a myriad of reasons, but one reason is because this project is unique in that we aren't prescribing "The Art." We are creating a digital canvas for anyone in the world to interact with. By facilitating this transformation, we expect to drive business, impressions, foot-traffic, or any of the other kind of metrics you could use measure a successful place.
As of this moment, you're nearly halfway to your current Kickstarter fundraising goal of $55,000. Why are you guys looking to crowdfunding for this project versus conventional means of fund raising? Or is it a combination of both?
It is a combination of both. We wanted to do Kickstarter first because we saw it as an opportunity to turn the traditional methods of funding for public art on its head. Public art is supposed to be for everyone, but is usually paid for by a few and created by one. Inclusivity is incredibly important for us, and Kickstarter allows us to not only bring anyone's voice into the conversation about how this piece of public art will look and feel, but also empower them to have a stake in it. The plan is to transition from a successful Kickstarter campaign to a capital fundraising campaign using more "conventional" fundraising methods.
Who are some of your biggest backers?
We've gotten great support from CTA, CDOT, CLA, Alderman and Vice Mayor Brendan Reilly of the 42nd Ward, DCASE, as well as members of the art, tech, and design community in Chicago. The Kickstarter for us is a big coming out party. Prior to our launch we didn't have all the necessary input and approvals so we didn't feel comfortable heavily promoting the project. Now that we are making it very hard for us to hide we are seeing a lot of people coming out to show their support and get on board. We're currently in the process of putting together an Advisory Board to help guide us as we realize many of the goals of The Wabash Lights project.
How does the Wabash Lights fit in with the larger and ongoing Loop redevelopment efforts? There's a new stretch of riverwalk, Maggie Daley Park, the new skate park in Grant Park and Bus Rapid Transit all on the way, and all of these projects are public resources.
Our goals align with all of the projects that you have listed—to bring people or keep people in the Loop, to provide places for people to create meaningful memories, have a fun and safe time, and to increase interaction with fellow Chicagoans and visiting citizens of the world.