Commentary: Shining a Light on ‘Illuminating the Arts’

By David Romano

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects me directly affects all indirectly.” – Martin Luther King, Jr

“We need to reinvent our relationship with planet Earth. The future of all life on this planet, humans and our societies included, requires us to become effective stewards of the global commons—the climate, ice, land, ocean, freshwater, forests, soils, and rich diversity of life that regulate the state of the planet, and combine to create a unique and harmonious life-support system.” From a statement by a group of academics including 13 Nobel laureates issued on April 29, 2021 (as reported in the SF Chronicle)

What, and who, is Illuminate the Arts? It wouldn’t be a big deal except that they are taking over our public spaces, causing light pollution and using corporate dollars to influence City government. Illuminate’s mission statement is, “Illuminate rallies large groups of people together to create impossible works of public art that, through awe, free humanity’s better nature” (from the Illuminate website).  What does that mean?  You don’t create art by rallying large groups of people together. A rally is to demonstrate, to march, to protest or celebrate.  By subverting the usual meaning of rallying, Illuminate gives the impression of doing something populist when, in fact, it is not.It is not possible to create “impossible”  works of art.  It’s not possible to create “impossible” anything.  But it is clever, if deceptive: if you do make something that you had previously said was impossible, why you must be a creative genius.  I get the impression that Illuminate is laughing at us; we can tell these fools anything if we dress it up in some new age jargon. 

So who are these guys, anyway?  A quick look at some of the Illuminate Board members tells you that art is likely not their strong point:

John Combs, Founder/Principal RiverRock Real Estate Group; Jeff Jungsten,Jungsten Construction,President; Ken Maxey, Director of External Relations Comcast NBCUniversal; Matt Mullenweg, Founder/CEO Automattic Inc.; Dickon Pinner (chair), Partner, McKinsey & Company; Patricia Wilson, CEO, P.S. Think Big, Inc.; Lisa Vogel, Director of Asset Management, Wareham Development.

More from Illuminates Ten Principles: “Be free to all. Create nothing that requires paid admission.”  Shouldn’t be hard to do when what you do is put up lights in public places and you’re funded by donations. “Take worthy risks. Try difficult things and be transparent in sharing all lessons.”  Again, I have to ask, what worthy risks is Illuminate taking?  

“Bring light to shadow.  Pursue positive expressions that address real-world shortcomings.”  “Be in it for others.  Self-sacrifice toward the greater good.” What is illuminate actually doing to deal with our real world problems?  “Always aim high. Seek to unite all people around higher values of love and equality.”  And the way to do this is by putting electric light displays in our public spaces, causing untold amounts of wasted energy and light pollution?

Somehow, all this quixotic double-talk has also translated into putting lights in Golden Gate Park.  Illuminate is lighting up the bandshell for the next two years with bright, colored lights. Also, they apparently plan to light up the Conservatory of Flowers indefinitely “…the dazzling light projection on the historic building’s exterior continues nightly into its third year.” (from the Illuminate website.)  And they have plans for more light installations in the Park.

“In ways we have long understood, in others we are just beginning to understand, night’s natural darkness has always been invaluable to our health and the health of the natural world, and every living creature suffers from its loss.”The End of Night by Paul Bogard. 

Ben Davis, the CEO of Illuminate, asked if he could address a Zoom meeting of San Franciscans for Urban Nature, (I am a member) and we agreed.  Once the meeting had begun, he announced that he had invited Dana King to join us and shortly afterwards handed his presentation over to her.  He was looking to get our support for Illuminate’s latest project, putting an electric light installation across the facade of the bandshell. Dana King is the creator of Monumental Reckoning, a newly installed sculpture in the Music Concourse.  A few weeks later he again asked to speak at our meeting and, after the meeting had begun, again announced that he had invited Dana King, and let her do the talking.  

It may be a somewhat underhanded way of doing business but it is effective.  Who’s going to dare to oppose what a celebrity African American woman artist says?  I guess that’s why Mr. Davis gets paid the big bucks. So be aware, if Ben Davis asks to speak to your group, he will likely produce Dana King in his place once he arrives.  He won’t tell you ahead of time.

“… light pollution poses a serious threat to nocturnal wildlife, having negative impacts on plant and animal physiology. … The rhythm of life is orchestrated by the diurnal patterns of light and dark, and disruption of these patterns impacts ecological dynamics.” Connie Walker, A Silent Cry for Dark Skies, The Universe in the Classroom.

Illuminate’s current big project is Lightrail – “Lightrail will be the world’s first subway-responsive light sculpture. Designed with more than 20,000 LED lights, it will run for two miles along San Francisco’s iconic Market Street, from Van Ness Avenue to The Embarcadero.”(Illuminate website). We need this? Perhaps Illuminate is thinking that the destitute and disenfranchised individuals who congregate on Market between 6th Street and Van Ness will be so mesmerized by the lights they’ll forget about their plight?

The stakes are high and San Francisco is on the wrong path.  Has no one at the Recreation and Parks Commission or the Mayor’s office heard of Greta Thunberg?  I guess what Greta has to say is just an inconvenient truth.   What would Greta think of Illuminate’s projects? Jason Mark, the editor-in-chief of Sierra, makes our situation very clear in his editorial, Writing the Future, “The twin threats of the climate crisis and the extinction emergency mean that the decisions we make today will reverberate on a geologic time scale.”  What does Illuminate do to mitigate the climate crisis or the extinction emergency?  Sad to say, thus far, they are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Illuminate can yet become a good steward of the Earth by turning it’s creativity, imagination and technical knowledge toward reducing the negative effects of artificial light in our public spaces.

“Artificial light at night disrupts a wide range of natural processes. Recent research has shown significant impacts of coastal lighting reducing foraging of intertidal invertebrates, disrupting marine food webs, suppressing movement of juvenile fishes, increasing predation on nesting seabirds…” Dr. Travis Longcore, Associate Adjunct Professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

Everything we do matters.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.  It’s past time to recognize this.  

David Romano is a long-time resident of San Francisco and has lived in the Outer Richmond for the past 30 years.  He is a graduate of SFSU, worked for many years in the City as an accountant and is now retired. He is active in local environmental groups trying to preserve and protect nature in Golden Gate Park.

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