Sparse updates today
BCR's Daily Fishwrap Report for October 31, 2008

Radio/telescope advocates fret over Plensa art exhibit

The N&O noted earlier this week a grassroots group calling itself "Stop the Light Sculpture," formed to oppose the Jaume Plensa art exhibit we've talked about here for some weeks now.

As Barry noted at his place yesterday, the group's web site states it is an "operation funded by the citizens of Durham, NC" -- though it appears the two founding members, Mark Gibson and Chris Waldrup, are residents of Raleigh and Apex, respectively. Update: As Ross points out in the comments, their page may be more appropriately interpreted as stating that the operation of the artwork (not the opposition group) are being funded by Durham citizens.

Both are ham radio and radio astronomy enthusiasts -- check out Mark's web site to see what I mean -- and Gibson noted in an interview Thursday that the presence of a 7,000 watt light emitting energy into the sky played a factor in their interest and concern.

Gibson repeated his concern that the "fast-tracking" of the item -- it was voted on at a City Council work session agenda, not a Monday night Council meeting -- were of concern to them. "I think that if it was a normal process, we might not have ever thought about it," Gibson said.

To our understanding of the matter here at BCR -- though we welcome a correction if we're wrong about this -- a work session vote requires a suspension of normal rules but remains a valid and legal vote, as long as a public hearing is not required on an agenda item.

As I suggested to Gibson, this art exhibit has been in the works for some time, with the building permit listing the City of Durham as the property owner having been filed weeks before the public hearing, making the Thursday Council vote really nothing more than a formality.

A more intriguing argument, though, has come to Gibson and Waldrup from an unnamed (to BCR) Durham resident, who noted that section 7.4.3 of Durham's Unified Development Ordinance has some intriguing language on light displays:

H. Accent Lighting
Lighting fixtures used to accent architectural features, landscaping or art shall be located, aimed or shielded to minimize light spill into the night sky.

So, if you're planning to illuminate a statue, be careful that your light beams don't create too much light pollution. But if you're going to make the light art, hey, point that sucker towards the moon and let 'er rip!

According to Gibson, Durham officials he spoke with about this part of the UDO noted just that. Section 7.4.3(H) is intended to apply to illumination of buildings and art work, but if the art work itself is comprised of the light, then it doesn't apply.

Which sounds right to a literal meaning, though it gives the few critics of the project something to show what would look on the face of things to be a double standard.

Will the opposition matter? I wouldn't bet on it. This thing is moving forward at light speed, and we here at BCR think it's still a terrific addition to downtown and something for Durham to be proud of.

Gibson noted that their group has contacted the International Dark Sky Association, which is "following this" -- but we wouldn't expect anything to change between now and the December 1 power-on of Jim Goodmon's gift to the Bull City.


Ross Grady

Hey Kevin, since you can't stop being snarky & dismissive of these folks, how about this: *I* live in Durham, and I think that adding more light pollution to our skies is bleeding stupid, and a poor substitute for actual well-conceived art.

I moved here from rural Chatham County, where I could actually see the Milky Way from my front yard, and a clear view of the night sky is one of the things I miss the most. Obviously we're likely *never* gonna get to that point here in Durham, but there *is* a lot more we could be doing to cut down on the light pollution we currently have.

Adding public art that makes the problem *worse* is exactly the wrong message to send.

Here's a recent article from the NY Times about what more progressive cities (like, you know, that bastion of liberalism Tucson) are doing to reduce their light pollution:

As far as the timeline goes, you say you've been talking about the sculpture for "some weeks now," but your first post -- a self-proclaimed "BCR Exclusive" -- was on October 14th, just 2 and a half weeks ago. That post was certainly the first I'd heard of the thing. I have to agree with the opponents that this thing has been ramrodded through rather too quickly, though I'm not particularly surprised by that, given the involvement of Our Saviour Jim Goodmon.

Finally, I just checked out the website of the protesters, and while it's difficult to parse, I *think* they're attempting to dub the *artwork* a "Sleep No More Operation, Funded by the Citizens of Durham," not *themselves*. It doesn't make a ton of sense either way, but it makes marginally more sense that way, than the way you & Barry are trying to read it.


Initially I was excited about a public art sculpture in Durham by a world famous artist. But the more I learn about it, the less I like it.

First there was an article on the recycled nature of the sculpture. Meaning he'd done the same beam of light before in other cities so it would hardly be unique.

And now I find the light pollution concerns valid. Most children learn about the Milky Way in school and have never actually seen it. Granted it's way too late to go back to dark skies over Durham, but at the very least we should not contribute to more light pollution than is absolutely necessary.

Don't get me wrong, I fully support public art in Durham. It just seems we just need to put more thought into this one.


*I* for one think it's a *great* idea. You can *still* see a lot more of the night sky from central *Durham* than you can in most *Midwestern* cities that have less than a *quarter* the population of Durham. To compare the night sky of *rural* Chatham county with that of Durham doesn't *make a ton of sense* either.

And honestly, how does the light from Durham affect someone in Raleigh or Apex? Do those towns turn off all their lights when the sun goes down, making Durham the only source of light pollution for hundreds of miles?


I love the night sky, and I agree, being able to see the milky way is a very humbling experience. However, the light will NOT be on all the time, everyone please keep this in mind. Only for a couple hours a time during performances at the Performing Arts Center and for the occasional special event. I think these two goals can coexist.

Kevin Davis

Ross: I think you may just be right and that the web page is referring to the art, and not the opposition group, being funded by Durham residents. Like you said, the site is hard to parse, but I think your reading is correct. I'll correct that on the post.

I take exception to the idea that I'm being "snarky and dismissive" of the opponents as individuals. Mark was quite pleasant to talk to. I happen to disagree with them (and am up-front about that) but their opinions and actions are worth noting.

Not that I'm above snarkiness (see the post on the flat screen at the ATC for an example) but I was trying to put their thoughts out on stage. I happen to think they have less than zero chance of succeeding given the politics of the situation but that doesn't mean it's not worth hearing. The UDO question is also intriguing.


National Geographic landed in my mailbox this week and the cover story is "The End of Night" about light pollution. More here:

Chris Waldrup

The "operation funded by the citizens of Durham NC" does refer to the sculpture, not the web site.
Again, we are not against the sculpture, just the light beam that can be seen for miles. To the person who asked how the light from Durham will affect Raleigh or Apex, it will. As mentioned on WRAL news, the beam from the 7000 watt light source will be seen for miles. So Durham's light will be seen by many local communities which might not wish to have their skies ruined.
Part of our group helped establish the City of Raleigh Lighting Ordinance in 2001.

Tar Heelz

And we thought we were somehow more enlightened (pun intended) than Raleigh.

Art naysayers are common everywhere. I truly thought Durham was a beyond the pedestrian concerns that hamstring Raleigh.

PS - How will this supposed light pollution compare with the major light sources in the Triangle? DBAP? County Stadium? RDU? Each Triangle high school on Friday nights? Streets at Southpoint? Northgate? I-85 and I-40 steet lights?

Let's put this in some perspective.

Dr. Bonner

I am somewhat amazed that, given the plethora of choices for an art exhibit that do NOT involve light pollution and gratuitous use of electricity, the city council has chosen to deceptively and with no notice to the public (Gee, I wonder why) fast track a sculpture that manages to involve both. I am a musician and a strong supporter of the arts but this sculpture is, at a time when global warming and carbon footprint are topics of great concern, ecologically inane. Now if you could just figure out a way to irrigate the sculpture with a few thousand gallons of potable city water every day you would pretty well have the spectrum of mindless waste covered.

The comments to this entry are closed.