One chilly November evening each year, something peculiar happens in Richmond: all of the street lights go out. Artists from around the world descend upon neighborhoods like Monroe Park, the Broad Street Arts District, and Shockoe Slip to use the darkness as their canvas. Armed with lighting gadgetry of all sorts, these midnight rascals adorn brick facades, drab park benches, and deserted street corners with hazy projections, wild performances, and larger than life sculptures. It’s all part of 1708 Gallery’s annual site-specific light-based public art exhibition: InLight Richmond.
The ringleader of this carefully executed luminary circus is 1708 Gallery’s Executive Director, Emily Smith. I spoke with Emily inside 1708’s Broad Street exhibition space as she geared up for the final administrative push before free-falling into the happy chaos of InLight. “It’s bananas,” she said of the lead up to the event, shaking her head with a bemused smile.
Despite 1708’s modest staff, they’re able to pull off ambitious projects like this because of their structure. “We’re a non-profit contemporary art space, and that’s a different thing than a commercial gallery,” Emily explained, gesticulating matter-of-factly. Low, droning tones hung lazily in the background of our conversation, emanating from an experimental video piece displayed in a nearby corner. Founded in 1978, their mission has been to promote art for art’s sake. As she explains, they exhibit pieces that are “a little more creative, a little more experimental. We want to give a space for artists to be able to try new things without the pressure of a commercialized setting.”
Since 1708 Gallery works mostly with new and emerging artists, InLight Richmond functions as a unique opportunity for participants to push the boundaries of their craft by working in a light-based medium. The realization of these projects, writ-large in a public setting, is often breathtaking. “It’s always incredibly heartening to read these proposals for projects and to have some idea in your head of what they’re going to be like, then to see them realized by the artist,” she said with an awed hush in her voice.
Choosing the location that will play host to these works each year is arguably as integral to the impact of InLight as curating the projects themselves. “We try to think about places that have some resonance in the Richmond community,” Emily told me. In years past, she has driven through the city asking herself, “What is an interesting place? A place that people might know, that they might visit on a Saturday afternoon, but that they probably haven’t gone to at night?”
Following in that tradition, this year InLight has been invited to transform a venue that holds a particularly strong cultural heritage amongst local artists: the grounds of the Virginia Museum of Fine Art. Filled with minimalistic koi ponds, meandering paths punctuated by staircase waterfalls, and world-class sculpture, this space is nothing less than an outdoor gallery. “Needless to say, we were honored by their proposal to host the exhibition. Thrilled, flabbergasted, all of those things,” Emily enthused, her eyebrows raised in excitement. “That partnership brings a whole other layer of engagement and support. We’ve taken the opportunity to beef up the curated parts of the program.” As such, this year’s InLight experiment will be held over two nights instead of one. “InLight and the VMFA come from two very different vantage points,” Emily pointed out, “I’m excited about the interesting mix of the museum as a formal space that people know, and InLight as this slightly more ephemeral, temporary, atmospheric project.”
Part of the joy of InLight is just standing in the dark with friends and family while witnessing something gorgeous, making it perfect for large groups. To further build on that community aspect, they also host lantern-making workshops in advance of the exhibition. Led by Kerry Mills, 1708’s official Lantern Coordinator, these sessions are held in schools and community centers, allowing folks of all ages to take part in the creative process. The culmination of their efforts is the Lantern Parade which kicks off of the event each year. “It’s hands down one of our most successful parts of InLight in terms of engaging a wide audience,” Emily said.
At its heart, InLight Richmond is about providing an engaging contemporary art experience outside of the gallery walls. The pieces can be puzzling, silly, even frightening, but always memorable. As the hypnotic video installation reached its end, the room sat in complete silence when I asked Emily one final question: what does it feel like to be on the ground during InLight? A momentary look of contemplation passed over her face, then she said, “There’s this interesting balance. It’s a real intimate experience because it’s dark, but it’s also a spectacle.” She paused for a moment, her hands settling into her lap as the video resumed its dissonant background harmony. “So those two things come together to make it feel extraordinary.”
The eighth annual InLight Richmond event takes place at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on the evenings of November 13 and 14. For a full schedule, including the locations of community lantern-making workshops, visit 1708gallery.org/inlight.