Introducing: The Light Fantastic

The Cultural Trail saves its best public-art installation—a color bath by noted New York boundary-pusher Vito Acconci—for last.

“I’m a city person,” artist/designer Vito Acconci says one late-spring afternoon as he watches workmen build his first Indianapolis project, a complex series of lights and pipes in and around the sidewalk beneath the Virginia Avenue parking garage downtown. “If I see a street, I understand it.”

The New Yorker knows how to fix one, too. Acconci’s new work reimagines the garage underpass’s ugly mass of concrete and soot as a spiny, illuminated piece called Swarm Street. Trail organizers flipped the switch on the light installation this spring, though Acconci’s team continued to work on some of the more advanced functionality. According to their plan, pedestrians and cyclists will activate motion sensors, causing thousands of LED bulbs overhead and underfoot to light up like fireflies. “Art in and of the street is good,” says Jody Rosenblatt-Naderi, chair of the landscape-architecture department at Ball State. “It indicates life and renewal.”

Few places in the city begged for life like the Virginia Avenue underpass. Acconci’s goal wasn’t to provide a light source—the underpass was already lit—but to “make pedestrians and cyclists the cause of the light,” he says. Yet practically speaking, Swarm Street changes the perception of this dark, somewhat unnerving section of the Cultural Trail. And it does so dynamically, in a way that won’t merely put pedestrians at ease but actually attract them. Trail organizers expected nothing less when they pulled off the coup of convincing Acconci, an internationally recognized artist, to accept the commission.

Acconci (pronounced ah-CON-chee) looks like he could be the grandfather of Saturday Night Live’s Fred Armisen. He dresses in black from head to toe and has a craggy face, a quick smile, and a New York accent that turns “think” into “tink.” The 72-year-old is a writer by training, an artist by reputation, and an architect by desire. He transitioned from writing to performance art in the 1970s, and he wasn’t afraid to be subversive. In an often-noted work called Seedbed, he lay under a wooden floor in a gallery, pleasuring himself while talking about the people in the room over a speaker. The IMA owns a 1975 Acconci installation, not currently on view, that invites viewers to sit and listen to sounds emanating from boxes attached to the wall. But Acconci never liked the idea of conventional galleries. “I wanted stuff that people could use,” he says. “Stuff that people could be in the middle of.” 

Since he started Acconci Studio in New York in 1988, his team has designed some of the more ambitious and audacious ideas the world of architecture has seen, including Mur Island in Graz, Austria, a floating amphitheater with a stage, a cafe, and a playground inside what looks like a half-opened globe. His 2002 proposal for the World Trade Center site, casually called “New World Trade Center (Full of Holes),” presented a 110-story structure shot through with exterior tunnels, top to bottom, like Swiss cheese. Still, he’s not a household name, and it’s partly because many of his designs never make it off of the drawing board. They tend to present extreme engineering challenges.

Swarm Street is no exception. It has been in the works since 2006—as long as the trail itself. Acconci visited Indianapolis half a dozen times to inspect the space, get the lights working,  adjust the colors, and answer a question he himself posed: How can we do something physical that people will notice? The city’s hope for the space is more basic: “Give me a reason to be here and feel safe,” says Mindy Taylor Ross, the Cultural Trail’s public-art coordinator. But this summer, construction was halted when the team encountered technical difficulties. “When you work with highly conceptual people who are always trying to be on the edge,” says Ross, “there are innate challenges with troubleshooting, how to build it, and how to make it work.”

The installation may never function exactly as Acconci Studio planned—when two people meet on the sidewalk, their “fireflies” are supposed to stick together—but Swarm Street has already illuminated the ambition of the Cultural Trail team, and that is a beautiful thing on its own.

Photos by Tony Valainis.

This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue.