Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Open Air

A light show in Philadelphia, Open Air is an art installation in center city that consists of twenty-four high power search lights that react to voice messages which can be recorded and uploaded by anyone with a computer and an internet connection.

The execution was not up to the concept, at least for the night I was there. While the lights were interesting the comments were not. Banal "poetry", unfunny "jokes", and the expected greetings ("Happy Birthday Johnny", "I love you Mary") became increasingly annoying to listen to. I just wanted to yell "shut up!". And the messages were repeated! We learned later that they were repeated based on a voting scheme, with the messages getting the most votes getting the most repeats. But if all of the messages are crap to begin with ...

The lights were cool though and they did turn on and off and pulse to the recorded messages. Which turned out to be a good thing, as the show was not without controversy.

It seems that the 9/11 memorial in New York, which was two beams of light aimed straight up, was a trap for migrating birds. The birds were confused by the lights when migrating through Manhattan, and some became trapped in the light beams, circling the beam and becoming exhausted. Thus there was some concern that something similar would happen in Philadelphia.

So Pennsylvania Audubon raised the alarm and set up a monitoring program. And that's why I was there.

My girlfriend had volunteered to monitor the the birds flying through the light beams. You can see one of the birds as the image above, the little white line in center, above the building (click the image to bigafy). The birds were only visible when they flew through a light beam.

There's another one. There were three of us monitoring that night, and we counted over two hundred birds between 8:00 and 11:00. The good news is that the birds did not seem overly confused by the lights.  Some birds did appear to circle, or fly in an S-curve, but with the lights blinking on and off, and the beams moving, the birds quickly continued on their way to points south.

The second bit of controversy had to do with light pollution, as can be seen in the image above (again, as always, click to bigafy). The International Dark-Sky Association has noted that the Open Air Project "represents a tremendous waste of energy and is damaging to the nighttime environment".

These two images display the summer triangle hidden behind the light beams of Open Air (can you find it?). And while one would not expect to see much of the night sky in center city Philadelphia, or in the center of any major city, it does point out how we have lost the night sky. And how we now take it for granted that the night sky is gone, we don't expect the sky to be dark. So we have no problem wasting light in this fashion. The insidious problem is that as each generation takes the current sky as the "norm" we don't realize what has been lost. And Open Air drives home the point that it is ok to light up the sky.

And that is very sad.

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