Illuminating the Jump: A Conversation with Leni Schwendinger

The artist discusses lighting the Coney Island landmark and its potentially brighter future.

For anyone who remembers the Parachute Jump’s decay over the years since Coney Island’s Steeplechase Park closed in 1964, Leni Schwendinger’s lighting scheme signals the start of a whole new life for the 277-foot steel tower. With the flip of a switch, the world’s most famous retired amusement ride added “public art project” to its impressive resume: 1939 New York World’s Fair attraction, Steeplechase Park’s sole survivor, New York City landmark, Brooklyn’s Eiffel Tower, symbol of Coney Island’s revitalization.

The illumination caps a $5 million structural refurbishment of the city-owned tower by engineers and architects from STV that began in 2002. The team had to dismantle the structure to work on lead paint abatement before using specially formulated paint to restore the Jump’s landmark colors of red and yellow and to protect it from the elements. When Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz’s idea of returning the ride to operation proved too costly (an estimated $40 million, according to his office), STV commissioned Leni Schwendinger Light Projects to illuminate the tower.

Calling it “a luminous leap for Brooklyn” at the July 7 premiere, Markowitz said, “The Parachute Jump will be a beacon of light for this and future generations, harking and heralding Coney Island as a place where legends are made and dreams come true.” The initial “light performance” previewed six different electronically programmed sequences themed to the season (on-season weekday and weekend, off-season), special occasion (“Americana” and “Kaleidoscope”) and lunar cycle (full moon, waxing and waning moon). Recently we talked with Schwendinger about the aesthetic and technical challenges of the project, the public reaction, and future possibilities for the Jump.

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In addition to evoking the rise and fall of the parachutes with rings of red LEDS on the Jump’s stalk, what were other influences from Coney Island’s history?
The Luna Park images in Charles Denson’s book Coney Island: Lost and Found or old postcards. Every nighttime image is about light and little light bulbs, arrays of what we call marquee lights. This whole idea of outlining things with lights as a symbol of progress, and also entertainment and fun, is embedded completely into the concept.

The lighting schemes have a subtle and mysterious quality. Viewed from up close, the tower emanates light and looks very majestic. But people had the expectation that it would be brighter. As you walk farther away, you can see the red sparkles, but you lose that bathed-in-color effect.
We use the absolutely brightest lights that exist in terms of the floodlights that also had the life cycle that we needed. Ironically, there are floodlights that double the brightness just going on the market now. The LEDs manufactured by Phoster Lighting are a very complex design which has a tri-focus specifically pointed to the Verrazano Bridge, which we were asked to do, to some of the highways like the BQE, to various roads out to the other side, and also to the water and beach and the boardwalk. This funny looking wonderfully wacky little light is rotated on its axis very deliberately all around the structure and that’s where you get the sparkle. You move in and out of focus if you look up at it and if you’re walking. And so that’s how the sparkle is derived. Literally each light is pointing in three directions.

Secondly, we are lighting a filigreed structure. Technologically it’s the hardest thing to do—to light a framework rather than a surface. Not only that, this framework is red, so we’re painting with light, which is difficult to do in the first place. We’re casting light onto a red canvas, not a white canvas. Even during the full moon sequence, it never looks white, it looks somewhat pink. You can’t turn a red canvas white. Maybe we should’ve used just white light? Then we wouldn’t have the sequential, varied look that we have with the colored floodlights.

What are some of the aesthetic considerations?
There’s the high versus low art discussion, but there’s also the kitsch versus the future and innovation discussion. I find myself squarely in the middle of it in every single project.

For me one of the premises about the nighttime environment is fluidity and change and I think lighting of the future will reflect that. It’s important to me that my work is not a one glimpse project. What we’re doing is activating a structure that’s absolutely inert and trying to evoke different rhythms, times, colors, periods of the year, ways people live, the occasions, the moon. Maybe this goes against the grain of the popular imagination, but I just think it’s great if it looks different on different nights. But it’s also not cheap to do. You need certain kinds of equipment to do that.

How do you negotiate the technical challenges?
The technology is a race of how can we make these things work. They’re not made for this kind of action. I have to hold back on the number of color changes so as not to wear out the lights. We had to calibrate, so in other words, we’re pushing the technology to the limit.

We put floodlights at the base of the tower so they can be accessed. Now if some more money comes along and we can upgrade to these double brightness ones it would be great. There’s a real push-pull with the technology and what we can do. We didn’t want to mount thousands of light bulbs though it would have been delightful again because of the expense and the operation.

The advance press mentioned that the lighting schemes changed and could be viewed from afar. Some people expected it to be like the Empire State Building that you can see from any part of the city.
My response is the Empire State Building already does what it does. It’s a fantastic model. Why do that? We have our own calendar: we have the Coney Boardwalk season, in pinks and magentas that also celebrate the historic fires with smoldering amber LEDS at the very end. We have something that’s soft and hypnotic for off-season in keeping with the winter. We celebrate the full moon three nights in a row for the waxing, the full, and the waning. The parks department is the owner of the Jump and they were very interested in the full moon.

Lighting a filigree surface and seeing it from faraway given the level of light in the city is very hard. So if you have the money to put lots and lots of LEDS on, you would see the whole form, but would that really be that interesting? No, maybe not. It might be, depending on the way you designed it, but it’s very literal.

When the lights turn off for a moment, it evokes all this history of when you couldn’t see it all!
Exactly. It will go black certain times and it’s so important. I remember being absolutely stunned when I first saw it at night and you really could barely distinguish it against the sky. There are nights when it’s foggy and you can’t see it. Everyone is just so hyped up with expectations of Vegas. Look at it black, and then simply light it up with any of those colors, and it’s there.

Coney Island is a different place than it was during its heyday with the “Electric Eden” of Luna Park and Dreamland’s million lights. Is this something you think about—-how the lighting is going to affect people and future development in the area?
All the time. My work is a kind of dynamic between concerns with historic and current issues and contexts, the inhabitants of a place, and technologies that we can bring about, modify, use. And also maintenance—what about the life span of these lamps, who owns it how can it be taken care of, how can it be maintainable, can we reach the lights?

Then on the other hand, how can we make a variable project that’s interesting all the time, its not always the same. Something that’s fluid like the environment is like the seasons are like a place is. And how, yes, does it fit future development and current realities. These are the dynamics that we have to deal with and how the decisions are reached.

What’s next for the Parachute Jump?
Our first concept that everyone really wanted was beyond budget and it’s still a possibility. During the day, you see the big round spheres where the parachutes went up. Right now the LEDS actually ring half of that scallop shape on the canopy. The original idea showed the rings studded with LEDs floating down theatrically on computer-controlled winches. They would come down 12 or 15 feet. That would have made it more recognizable. Imagine these lit up rings going down and you can control them, the speed and everything, floating up and down!

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