2016 preview: Local artists ready, eager for Light City Baltimore

An idea sketch for "Diamonds Light Baltimore," a light installation by the water for Light City Baltimore.

In early 2015, local artist Nisha Ramnath liked what she had heard about the coming Light City Baltimore festival, but she was curious how the proposed intersection of art and technology would be executed.

After learning more details at planning meetings, the Station North resident was relieved to hear the first-time event would not be "just another festival."


"Artscape is a fantastic festival. The [Baltimore] Book Festival is a great festival. They're all great and a lot of artists get involved," Ramnath said recently. "But this is going to give the spotlight to the technology artists."

That distinction is timely, as Baltimore has emerged in recent years as an up-and-coming technology hub. That, in turn, has attracted more tech-minded artists, whose mediums go beyond traditional canvases, to live and work here.


Now, the city aims to showcase these multi-disciplinary talents and their well-lit art from March 28 through April 3 via Light City Baltimore, an interactive, 1.2-mile art walk in the Inner Harbor being billed as the first large-scale, international light festival in the country. Modeled after Australia's 18-day Vivid Sydney festival, the free Baltimore event was first conceptualized by Brooke Hall and Justin Allen of What Works Studio, and is now being organized by the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts.

Thirty works of light art, two stages of live music and performances of dance, theater and puppetry will all converge to create an event the city hopes will help local businesses bounce back after the unrest following Freddie Gray's death, said Kathy Hornig, BOPA's festivals director.

"There isn't a lot going on before [Orioles'] Opening Day, so we really are looking to Light City to kick off the tourism season in a big way," Hornig said. "We want Light City to not only be an amazing, creative experience for our festival-goers, but [we want it] to drive traffic into the restaurants and bars and businesses along the Inner Harbor and beyond, to try and help in the recovery. They've all taken a hit."

The artists involved intend to transform the Inner Harbor into an amorphous, wall-less gallery. Ramnath, 27, said she's approximately "70 percent through the design phase" of her planned aluminum frame sculpture, a collaboration with Brian Gonzalez. Using laser lights, the sculpture — which will likely end up being close to 20-feet wide — will resemble a lotus flower that will fully open and close each night, she said.

"We're going to surround the area with touchpads that, through collaboration, you can change the color of the sculpture," Ramnath said.

Along with her husband, Morgan State University professor Gabriel Kroiz, Mina Cheon will install "Diamonds Light Baltimore," a series of 15 hollow, diamond-shaped sculptures along the Inner Harbor's Pier Five. Cheon, who is also a professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art, said the duo began installing similar sculptures in 2007, which have since been featured at MICA's Brown Center and South Korea's Sungkok Art Museum. Those attending the latest Baltimore version will be able to walk through the diamonds, some of which will be as large as 16 feet by 16 feet.

Cheon said working with Light City Baltimore has allowed her and Kroiz to expand the scale of their art, but it is not the main reason they got involved. The event, to her, sounded like a chance to present the city in a new light.

"We wanted to participate in the sort of healing aspect of our city post-Freddie Gray and the civil unrest," Cheon, 42, said. "Artists, our cannons fire change. There's so many different ways that artists, architects and culturists could be really active in participating in community development and progress. It's just coming together for a good cause."


Local music will play a significant role throughout the festival, too. Two stages — one at Harbor East and a DJ-focused "Club Light City" area at West Shore Park — will feature acts like the pop-rock outfit Clear for Takeoff, rappers Dunson and Wordsmith, and the Baltimore Rock Opera Society, among others.

Hornig said the festival is also working with Paul Manna, the veteran independent concert promoter behind Baltimore's 24-7 Entertainment, to book nationally known music acts. Additions to the lineup will be announced soon, she said.

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Dan Deacon, who is scheduled to perform on April 2, said it's too early to tell how he will incorporate lights into his set, but the electronic musician — who helped develop the concert-atmosphere app Wham City Lights — is excited to try.

"Light art is something that really interests me," Deacon said via email, "and I really enjoy performing at festivals where music isn't the focus."

When it came to booking art and music talent, the key was to keep it "authentically Baltimore," Hornig said. Approximately two-thirds of the selected visual artists are from Baltimore, she said, while a local panel of musicians (including songwriters ellen cherry and Maysa Leak) helped choose the music acts.

Ramnath said artists recognize and appreciate the organizers' attention to thoughtful detail.


"They seem to have really picked a lot of Baltimore and local East Coast artists," she said. "They brought in some outside people, but it wasn't like, 'We're going to go get the top people from around the world and just show Baltimore what the world does.' It's backwards: The world will come see Baltimore."