By B. Simm
CALGARY — It sounds easy enough… find an open building wall, set up an image projector, wait till the sun goes down, plug in the projector and cast a colourful image against the wall. Ah, if only lighting up the city could be so easy.
“How it all started,” begins Dan Harmsen, one of the founding members of Nite Gallery, “I was lucky enough to be part of buying a building on 1 St. SW which has an under-purposed wall. I always love to impact certain areas positively by having good imagery.”
Harmsen is a real estate broker who approached his friend, Barry Morrisette, a digital artist, and his wife Kim, also a visual artist, about painting a mural on the exposed wall. But when they assessed the cost of a large-scale 20-by-50 ft. painting that was of “any value,” they realized the price was too high and looked at other options as how to beautify the built environment. That’s when Morrisette suggested they “project” an image onto the canvas/wall they wanted to enhance.
Harmsen says they then looked into the technical logistics and costs involved with projecting digital images in outdoor environment and on the scale they were considering. Through the City of Calgary they were informed that the Beltline Investment Fund actually provides financial support for projects of this nature and the Nite Gallery received a bit of “seed money” to begin its initiative to light up Calgary.
As an organization, Nite Gallery is dedicated to enhancing the downtown core with its Illuminate the City Project. Morrisette explains, “I think the biggest thing is when you look at this part of the world, there’s a lot of graffiti art that landlords are trying to combat. With something like this, there’s an opportunity for graffiti artists to have access, anyone can submit their art and it changes on a weekly basis that’s what the plan is. A set of curators could designate a week of water colours. We’ve had video artists, and if someone wants to do some 3D mapping, have at it.”
“It’s like little stages,” continues Morrisette. “If look at it from an architectural aspect, ‘How much negative space is sitting there?’ Tons. So we want to beautify this city at night, and do something that turns it on.”
In doing so, however, there’s a lot of complications to getting the lights up and running. And because it’s not a clandestine operation, Nite Gallery has to go through all the logistics and formalities that legitimize their activities. One is leasing the space. Leasing the rooftops the projection equipment sits on, leasing the walls the images are projected on. Another is buying insurance.
“Call me crazy,” laughs Harmsen. “But when you’re setting up ladders to climb three-story buildings, you need insurance. And suddenly your insurance budget is four grand a year!”
Morrisette points out yet a bigger issue with public art installations. “When you start going down these paths, you’re faced with what can you actually show? While there’s a lot of great stuff out there, I can’t have a bunch of phallic images sitting on the wall when there’s children looking out their apartment building at night.”
Harmsen emphasizes that illuminating the city is largely a pilot project: “Our purpose is to have about six projection boxes set up at different locations, projecting from dusk to midnight, every night. We don’t know if the stakeholders being transportation, the apartment residents across the street, the landlords, or the signage people are going to object to this. Because this is art, and we don’t advertise, we don’t need a permit to do this. So even the City doesn’t know how this will turn out.
“The big unknown, the biggest question for a landlord is, ‘What are you putting on my wall?’ For residents across the street, ‘What are you putting on my neighbour’s wall?’ And for the City of Calgary, ‘What are you putting on the walls? Are we going to get complaints?’ because they’re helping to fund the project. It’s a fine line to ensure we’re putting up art that isn’t offensive, and who determines that? We’re going to have a group of volunteers to curate the art, and that will involve other people besides us.”
Nite Gallery is throwing a launch party for their Illuminate the City Project at the Blind Monk on Friday, Nov. 27 at 8 p.m. with The Venetian Blinds with DJ Kamil.AB, Alberta, Illuminate the City Project, Nite Gallery, public art