CHICAGO—As the last high-rise in a Chicago public housing development was being readied for demolition, an ambitious public art project was underway.
Project Cabrini Green, the eponymous time-based light installation, conceived by artist Jan Tichy, involved community youth groups, students from the School of the Art Institute (SAIC), the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Chicago Housing Authority.
The Prague-born artist, who trained in Tel Aviv and teaches at SAIC, tackles social and political issues though the medium of reflected light. Architectural elements and controversial sites also figure in an acclaimed body of work that includes an illuminated paper model of a secret Israeli detention camp to light projections on Mies van der Rohe's masterpiece, S.R. Crown Hall on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.
Tichy said that Project Cabrini Green, developed with his partner Efrat Appel, grew from a complex question; “How do we capture the historic moment?”
Cabrini-Green was built in 1942. Over the years, other structures were added. At its peak, 15,000 people lived there. Its demise is part of new direction in public housing to eliminate high-density buildings that house the urban poor.
Tichy immediately decided against “imposing” light on the building. “It was clear that it had to come from inside,” he said.
Workshops for youth were designed to provide not only the history of public housing, but an overview of public art. Students built light sculptures and wrote poems that touched on ideas of home and community. Those poems are the engine of Project Cabrini Green. Tichy developed a software program that translates sound into light. “These kids will be the ones affected, they are the ones that should be heard,” said Tichy. On the eve of the demolition, viewers could see blinking lights coming from the 134 units in the concrete, window-less shell of the high-rise. Every day, a bit of the building is torn down taking the lights with it.
Tichy spent two days alone inside the building installing 134 steel ammo boxes, painted orange, containing LED light kits. As the debris from the demolition is sorted, Tichy will salvage as many of the kits as possible from the metal pile. Those kits will be sold as an edition by The Richard Gray Gallery and the proceeds will cover the cost of the materials as well as books for the kids.
Tichy spent every night at the site documenting the changes. Occasionally a coyote would wander by. A nearby video camera recorded the demolition in real time for the project’s website. At the MCA a couple miles away, a voice/light-activated, acrylic model of the high-rise goes on after 1 a.m. when the lights turn off at Cabrini. During the day, museum visitors can hear the poems associated with each unit.
The project has drawn visitors nightly. Tichy doesn’t always reveal that he is the artist. “You learn more by just listening,” he said. The lights have brought to mind gun fire —perhaps an obvious association to the projects notoriously violent past. “That wasn’t my intention,” said Tichy. “Like many works that deal with light, it’s very abstract,” he said. “Some say it’s like a party, for some it is poetic.” Tichy has heard people describing the lights as screams. “That is the way it is suppose to work—you bring your own perceptions, and sometimes your misconceptions,” he said.
A version of this story appears in an upcoming issue of The Art Newspaper