TROY, N.Y. — It’s after dark when Adam Frelin, an artist and college professor cruising through one of the worst sections of the capital region, pulls over. The lights are out in an abandoned bungalow on Fifth Avenue.“Sorry,” Frelin says, jumping out of his gray Subaru. “I’ve got to go in there.”Nobody lives in 2435, which is padlocked and set back from the street. But Frelin has the key. He’s wearing a headlamp that pushes back his curly hair, and he’s clutching what looks like a doctor’s bag in his right hand. It contains a 12-volt battery.
“Hello, hello,” he bellows, checking to make sure nobody is squatting inside.
The white house is one of 200 empty properties that make up “Breathing Lights,” a $1.2 million art project created by Frelin and architect Barbara Nelson in the browned-out, former manufacturing hub of Albany, Troy and Schenectady, N.Y. Using LED strips, portable batteries and programmed Arduino boards, they have built light panels and had them installed inside window frames. They’re looking to draw attention, through art, to abandoned spots once called homes.
The lights don’t just go on. They rise and fall in eight-second waves, from dark to glowing to dark again, creating a “breathing” effect. The glow is hard to miss. It radiates over beaten-down brick and peeling clapboards in the region’s hardest-hit neighborhoods.
“I thought it was some kind of electrical surge,” said Deryck Barker, who pulled over recently when he first saw the light coming from a crumbling brick building on Clinton Avenue in Albany.
Barker, 37, just paid $25,000 for a two-family home he’s renovating down the street. He views “Breathing Lights” as more than an art project. For him, it’s an illuminated for-sale sign, a potential beacon in a place where you can buy a brownstone for less than a used car.
“What it’s really about is bringing light to a place that’s underdeveloped,” he said. “It’s an opportunity. The amount of money it costs to light up these houses is not much compared to what it can actually do.”
Nelson and Frelin met for coffee and doughnuts late in 2014 and came up with a plan.
They knew the concept would have local connotations, with General Electric having once been headquartered in Schenectady, and the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Lighting Research Center being in Troy. It was Nelson who made the suggestion.
“Why don’t we just light up all the buildings,” she said.
Easy enough, until the pair encountered the same issues faced by residents in these blighted neighborhoods. Ownership records are spotty, making it hard to determine who has authority to sell empty houses or let in artists. In the end, the duo partnered with the Albany County Land Bank, a nonprofit organization formed in 2014 to help people sell and buy vacant properties.
The ever-shifting property rolls require Frelin and Nelson to remain flexible. Sites for “Breathing Lights” can emerge at any moment or be lost to demolition with little notice.
Frelin has been particularly sensitive to another challenge. As part of the project, “Breathing Lights” organizers have held building reclamation seminars and handed out fliers to give the public information about the Land Bank. But that can draw attention away from the key purpose of “Breathing Lights.” It is supposed to be art.
Frelin was reminded of that in March, when Bloomberg Philanthropies held a workshop for grant recipients. He remembers the words of guest speaker Maya Lin, the artist famous for designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
“Don’t let your project be more about the social good it may bring than being good art,” she told him. “Once it flips, we all lose.”
Work on a recent weekday started about noon, when Frelin and Judie Gilmore, the project director, make their rounds. They check in with contractor Matt Montesano, a retired city police officer, about the progress being made on the 5,000 square-foot building being outfitted on Clinton Avenue. Inside, they gingerly stepped over crumbling plaster and holes in the floor boards. Frelin pointed out where inside walls had been smashed open to steal copper pipes.
Montesano tells Frelin that he’d recommend skipping one of the houses they had planned on in another section of town. When Montesano visited it that morning, there was a dog barking, and it looked as though the house was a hangout for drug users.
They are met with a variety of reactions.
Some of the locals admit they find it insulting that so much money is being spent — even if it is private money — on an art project in neighborhoods that have been so long neglected.
“I mean, I don’t know,” said James Tucker, 60, who was sitting outside talking with friends on Albany’s South Side. “Turning on a light. Anything is good. But there’s so much that’s been ingrained in people here.”
When the white outsiders started showing up at the abandoned buildings on Elizabeth Street, Gilmore and his friends figured they were real estate speculators.
“Thanks for coming,” said Tucker, who works as an inspector for the Albany Housing Authority. “That’s all that I can tell you. Hope it works. But when you’ve been somewhere for so long, you’ve seen so much bulls--- for so long. They’re here now. But later on, they’re going somewhere nice. They’re going to get a nice meal tonight and a nice warm bed to sleep in.”
That might be true, but “Breathing Lights” is, at the least, drawing new eyes to a problem that’s existed for decades.
“Money will only go so far to fixing individual buildings,” says Kate Levin, the former New York City cultural affairs commissioner who oversees Bloomberg’s arts program. “This is potentially of much greater use because it’s creating a high level of conversation and focusing interest on something.”
On Colonie Street in Albany, Frelin checks the batteries inside a house in which the living room walls are covered in black mold. Outside, a neighbor noticed activity and approaches to explain why.
James McKenzie, 71, has lived next door for more than 30 years, raising four children with his wife. But he’s been frustrated by the empty house, unoccupied for years. He’s called the city, and a number of banks over the years. Nobody has been able to help, he says. At one point, the pipes burst, causing water to flood out of the house and into his basement.
“Before that, the house could have probably been saved,” McKenzie says. “Now, it’s cheaper to knock it down and rebuild it.”
Gilmore gives him a flier with information about the Land Bank, which has just taken ownership of the house.
On Fourth Avenue in Troy, Frelin and Gilmore encounter something they haven’t heard a lot during the day: praise. Jill Testa, 63, says she was thrilled to see the lights go on in the empty house next to the apartment she recently began renting.
“It doesn’t look like a run-down abandoned building, and that’s the end of it,” she said. “It looks like somebody’s there.”
The sun has gone down, and the moon hangs over the house, which will remain lighted until 10 p.m. Frelin has taken off the semester at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany to make sure he can make his rounds. He’s tinkered with the brightness of the lights and the locations of the batteries. The concept of the piece, he said, has been influenced as much by light master James Turrell as Anna Halprin’s 1960s piece, “Ceremony of Us,” which brought black and white dancers together in response to the Watts riots.
On Seventh Avenue, as he finishes his rounds, Frelin stops at 3036. He unlocks the door and walks up the stairs. And there, under the roof, is a scene that could pass as a Joseph Beuys installation. Soggy floor has given way to a blanket of ankle-high plants, organic growth mixed with crumbling plaster. The green is illuminated, in waves, as the panels glow.
“Don’t walk too far in,” Frelin cautions, noting the floor’s weakness.
Then it’s back into the car.
The night will end on Fifth Avenue, at the bungalow set back from the street. Frelin checks and determines that the batteries are dead. There’s a simple solution. The battery team will head back the next day to recharge the pair of six-volts wired into the light panels. As Frelin and Gilmore walk back to his car, a neighbor arrives home with her two little girls.
The smallest one, holding a doll, sees there’s activity in the lot next door and says, loud enough for everyone to hear, “Look, they’re going to buy the house.”