At sunset on Oct. 1, 2011, more than 15,000 people descended on the industrial waterfront of Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood to witness a transformed urban landscape.

Richard Serra

An enormous blinking eye stared down from the underside of a long-unused water tower. People disembarking from the NY Waterway Ferry were greeted by a soothing but slightly suspicious voice purring, “Hey, you….” Buskers performed under a twinkling canopy of sound-responsive light bulbs suspended from the 50-foot ceiling of a turn-of-the-century factory. Dozens of other projections and installations brought beauty, surprise, and a sense of community to a long-dormant area of post-industrial decay.

Bring to Light: Nuit Blanche New York 2011 from Nuit Blanche New York on Vimeo.

Bring to Light is an annual free public art event, an immersive nighttime spectacle on New York City’s waterfront that presents site-specific installations of light, sound, performance, and projection art. Occurring simultaneously with Nuit Blanche events in cities around the world, Bring to Light (now in its second year) activates underutilized spaces, creates imaginative outlets for civic engagement, and reconfigures public space to showcase possibilities for change.

The festival, which is co-curated by PPS’s Ken Farmer, lives on beyond this ephemeral evening of illumination. Organizers advocate for increased public space accessibility on the Brooklyn waterfront, work to reinvigorate historic warehouse spaces for public programming, and seek to expand the audience for this contemporary art platform.

At the intersection of art and activism, events like Bring to Light challenge visitors to reimagine the potential of their public spaces. Just as pop-up parks can transform abandoned lots into convivial gathering spots, Bring to Light illuminates the potential of underutilized areas and neglected historic structures, inviting people to imagine them as reanimated places.

A core element of Bring to Light’s mission is improving public accessibility and activating underutilized portions of the waterfront. New York, like cities around the world, is in the midst of rediscovering its waterfront. Mayor Mike Bloomberg refers to the waterfront as the city’s sixth borough — a frontier for which Bring to Light envisions a more imaginative future.

A panel at the New Museum called “Illuminating the City: Site-Specific Art as Urban Activator,” explored this potential through the eyes of curators, architects and city officials. When asked about the city’s perspective on events like Bring to Light at that panel, Stephanie Thayer, NYC Parks Department supervisor for North Brookyln and Executive Director of the Open Space Alliance, had this to say:

“Our waterfront is private factories — abandoned and working — where the entire neighborhood is denied access,” said Thayer. “The city’s long-term vision is to create a public esplanade and piers, as promised with the 2005 rezoning. In the meantime, the community is cut off from that waterfront…. Bring to Light brought our neighborhood into these very private spaces, creating a sense of adventure and ‘lighting up’ spaces that are in the dark for our neighborhood.

“More than that, they pushed through a lot of very challenging barriers. For example, we have been fighting with developers since 2004 to create public access on the India/Java street waterfront. Bring to Light wanted to activate this space for the event, which I felt was impossible on their timeline. But they were committed to making this happen, and after negotiating what needed to be negotiated, they were out there with shovels and rakes themselves — physically making it happen….

“The neighborhood is surrounded on two sides by waterfront but has very little access. Bring to Light was able to blow that open for everybody.”

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