Casting an artistic light on social issues

Out of the darkness, the lighted images appeared like visions above a vacant lot in Reservoir Hill: saxophonists and jazz pianists, hip-hop artists and poets.

Men and women, bundled against the fall chill, gathered on the sidewalk to watch, cheering when friends or relatives appeared on the wall. Toddlers raced across the grass. Passersby stopped to watch, nodding to the strains of jazz echoing off brick rowhouses.


"This felt like what should be on this wall," said Michelle Antoinette Nelson, who created the piece from photos she had taken of fellow Baltimore artists. "This is my way of saying, 'Hey, we exist.' "

Nelson's piece was the fourth of seven installments of a series of nighttime projections organized by Luminous Intervention, a group of artists and activists who use a high-powered projector to call for social change.


They've flashed messages saying "We are the 99 percent" in Greenmount West, created short animated films protesting the incarceration of teens, and, last spring, highlighted a lack of female artists via a public mural project.

But this project, called HOT WALLS, is different from their previous works. They've handed the projector over to seven artists, giving them the chance to work with a new tool — light — and share their message with a larger audience.

"We wanted to create a space where local artists, especially those of very different backgrounds, could experiment with a new medium," said Luminous Intervention member Zoe Bachman.

Luminous Intervention grew out of the arts committee of the Occupy Baltimore protest. After the encampment at McKeldin Square was shut down in late 2011, the artists wanted to keep using art to get their message across. A benefactor — whose name they decline to disclose — purchased a high-powered projector for them to use.

And so the group began toting the projector to city streets at night, creating a sort of fleeting graffiti. The images range from simple text to short films. They are eye-catching and provocative. And, once the projector is switched off, they leave no trace.

The members of Luminous Intervention decided last spring to create a series that highlighted artists often overlooked by cultural institutions — women, people of color, and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. They also wanted to bring the art to neighborhoods outside of the city's central corridor.

It was a reaction, in part, to Open Walls Baltimore 2, a mural project launched by Station North Arts and Entertainment District in the spring. Organizers chose only one female muralist in the initial round of 15 artists.

Luminous Intervention protested the lack of female artists by projecting a film called "Sausage Party" outside Open Walls Baltimore opening celebration. The film spliced vintage cartoons of dancing sausages with facts about the lack of female artists. The organizers of Open Walls Baltimore later added several more female artists to the project.


When soliciting proposals for HOT WALLS, the group made an effort to get the message to diverse groups of artists. Six of the seven artists who were chosen are women; all but one are African-American, Latino or Asian-American.

"We're not just going to protest," Luminous Intervention member Olivia Robinson said of HOT WALLS. "We're going to provide an alternative."

DJ Blaqstarr, the Baltimore Club music pioneer, kicked off the series with an outdoor dance party that accompanied a montage of his music videos and other works.

Video artist Michelle Faulkner's musings on food deserts came next, projected on a white wall above the door for Gatsby's Night Club in the 1800 block of N. Charles St. in Station North.

The 32-year-old graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art's graduate community arts program projected several humorous films about the difficulties of finding healthy food in the Greenmount West neighborhood in which she lives. In one clip, a stalk of broccoli with fangs pummels a piece of fried chicken. Another shows Faulker shoving junk food in her mouth, Cookie Monster-style.

"I work in the school system," said Faulkner. "A lot of the stuff I was munching on in that video, my kids eat every day."


Another participant, Emily Chow Bluck, created a piece on a similar theme: the role of corner stores in urban neighborhoods. Upcoming projections will explore issues related to Latino-owned businesses, the concept of machismo and water conservation.

Nelson, whose projection was shown last week, is a musician, actress and poet who performs under the name LOVE the Poet. She hosts several open-microphone poetry events, including one for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

She chose to do her projection near her home in Reservoir Hill. Robinson and Bachman, two of the Luminous Intervention members, scouted sites with her in the neighborhood a few weeks before the event. They visited a small park and the Whitelock Community Farm, but settled on a vacant lot at Whitelock Street and Linden Avenue. There was plenty of space for onlookers to gather and, most importantly, it was a good wall.

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What is a good wall?

"We have a whole slide show on that," said Robinson. It is light-colored, free of windows, and mostly smooth. A good wall will minimize distortion of the projected images.

On the night of Nelson's show, the wall proved to be a good one. Her crisp, evocative photos glided across it. Some audience members lied down on blankets on the lot to watch — giving the vacant lot the feel of a college quad, at least for an hour.


After the show, as Luminous Intervention members rolled the projector into a van, Ken Brown, a fellow open-mike poet, reflected on the event.

"I like the idea of getting art into the community," said Brown, 50. "It shows people that the arts are real and they're not just for high society."