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Transformation and Rediscovery: Illuminus Boston 2015

Arts & Culture | November 3, 2015

On an average evening, the only bright LED light illuminating Boston’s Fenway Park is the iconic Citgo sign. But when the sun went down on October 10th, the neighborhood came alive with countless LED lights, projections, and the occasional beat of music. Surprisingly, this whirl of activity had nothing to do with the Boston Red Sox. This time, Landsowne Street was filled not with baseball fans, but with art lovers and performance artists. Illuminus 2015 caused this transformation. Organized by a team of local artists, Illuminus is “a free nighttime festival of creative innovation,” and this was the second year it has taken place in Boston.

Illuminus is Boston’s first and only “nuit blanche” art festival—all the exhibitions and performances start after sundown and continue throughout the evening. Although Boston museums periodically stay open to visitors after hours—with events like MFA College Night and Isabella Stewart Gardener’s Third Thursdays—Illuminus is Boston’s first true “nuit blanche.”

Coined by French artistic director Jean Blaise in 1984, “nuit blanche” translates to “white night” in French. Blaise organized six different festivals in six cities around the world including Barcelona, St. Petersburg, and Cairo. Since its humble beginnings, countless cities around the world have joined in to organize their own nighttime arts festivals. Despite being a newcomer compared to festivals in other cities, Illuminus has already garnered attention. In 2014, over 10,000 visitors attended Illuminus, and this year large crowds of art lovers flocked to Fenway Park again to see about 30 installations by local artists and performers.

What Illuminus does best is the act of transformation. The festival reimagines the city landscape as a playground for artists and visitors alike. There are no limits to what can be used as a canvas, an instrument, or a stage. The first view as one enters the street is of people in dark clothing perched almost invisibly on the “Green Monster,” or the left field wall of Fenway Park. The performers have turned the entire metal carcass of the Green Monster into an instrument capable of producing an exhilarating and rousing beat with nine artists “playing” the metal beams like a percussion board.

Down the street and further into the “exhibition,” buildings on both sides are transformed into art pieces by large-scale projections and installations. The bleak brownstone facade of the Red Sox souvenir shop is now a technicolor entrance to a casino and arcade, while the inside of the shop itself is devoid of any Red Sox paraphernalia. Instead the shop has become a post-apocalyptic and slightly disturbing installation piece called “i want to sox yuO” by artists Yassy Goldie and gjyd. The installation featured eerie informercials of Red Sox products projected on walls and surreal statues made by stacking clothing racks on top of one another.

The transformative nature of the festival invites its guests to reimagine familiar surroundings and have fun with installations. For example in “Ovation” by Heather Kapplow and Liz Nofziger, guests are invited to run or saunter down one of the entrances to the stadium where a series of blinding lights await them. As visitors go down the opening into the stadium, a prerecorded sound of a crowd cheering and applauding is triggered through sensors on either side. The result is an opportunity most people don’t get in their lifetime: to be showered in a crowd’s love and adoration by a crowd. Most visitors go along with the illusion and greet their imaginary fans, sending out winks and posing for nonexistent photographers. The installation not only transforms its surroundings, but also its participants in a fleeting moment of intense admiration.

Intentional or not, the interplay between the familiar and the strange was a recurring theme throughout Illuminus this year. The relocation of the festival to Fenway Park from SoWa district of South End inevitably contributed to the theme. The fact that Illuminus takes place in the beloved Fenway Park forces its spectators to reimagine a familiar landscape and interact with it in different ways.

The festival feels almost like a continuation of the famous Citgo sign’s LED-illuminated legacy. Upon first inspection, there’s nothing particularly impressive or eye-catching about the oil company logo, but, because of its appearance in the background of most televised Red Sox games, it has become synonymous with Boston Red Sox over the years. The sign is loved and accepted as part of Boston to such a degree that the possibility of it being taken down led to public protests in 1983 and 2008.

Similarly, Illuminus 2015 was not only a reflection of the vibrant and diverse artistic community in Boston, but also of the city’s openness to accept the new alongside the old. Throughout Landsowne Street one could see all the quintessential components of a baseball game at Fenway incorporated into this strange little festival: the hot dog stands serving hungry spectators, the souvenir shop doubling as an installation art piece, and hoards of people bustling around taking in the sights. Based on this surreal mixture of the traditional and the innovative at this year’s festival, we can only hope that Boston will take to Illuminus in the following years as it took to the Citgo sign almost half a century ago.

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“Between the Doors” by Labspace Studio: another interactive piece where visitors are asked to go through a set of doors labeled with options like “Truth” or “Fiction;” “I can change,” “I can’t change,” or “Nothing changes.” After the final set of doors (“Lost” or “Found”) the spectators are faced with a screen showing which doors were selected the most and least often. “I can change” and “Found” were the most preferred doors; while very few chose “Nothing changes.”