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Lights in the Night makes Grand Rapids glow

An estimated 20,000 paper lanterns were released downtown as part of ArtPrize performance "Lights in the Night."

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After years of being inspired and intrigued by ArtPrize, Mark Carpenter decided to take a swing at his own entry this year, and it was nothing if not ambitious. In collaboration with Dan Johnson, his plan was to engage as much of the Grand Rapids community as possible to assist in a mass paper lantern lighting and launch, using Ah-Nab-Awen Park as the hub and downtown Grand Rapids as the venue. Mark doesn’t define himself as an artist, but knew he could find a meaningful way to participate in the event nonetheless.

“He began a mash-up of all the things he liked, things he had an affinity for, things that could be done using his current skills,” says Dan Johnson. Lights in the Night is ArtPrize’s first performance piece that has hinged so completely on viewer participation.

When the idea for “Lights in the Night” did strike, it seemed tentative at best and fragile at first. Carpenter realized it would be largely dependent on community support and involvement to reach the scale he hoped for. No one could single-handedly pull off a performance piece on this scale, so Johnson slowly began to reach out. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and the event materialized into a reality.

“If we are to see our dreams come alive we must engage others and ask for help,” says Carpenter.

On Friday, September 28 at 7:45 p.m., thousands of people had gathered along the riverfront, each equipped with a lantern and a lighter. The launch was scheduled to take place at 8:00, but by 7:50 the anticipation had clearly overwhelmed the crowds as rogue lanterns began to float toward the rooftops. By the time the airhorn signalled the start of the launch the bridges and sidewalks lining the river were already starting to glow and Ah-Nab-Awen Park was alight with thousands of lanterns.

Once the launch was really underway, the sky above the Grand River appeared to be speckled with thousands of teetering stars, soaring up above the city before the wind came up and swept the entire fleet toward the south. With every passing minute more lanterns were being lit and released and each one, according to the project’s stated goal, was carrying a wish or a hope.

“This event might inspire every person that participates in it [to] be moved [and] experience a scene of awe and tranquility,” adds Johnson.

Within 15 minutes of the project’s start the bulk of the lights had been carried away and fewer and fewer lanterns were being released, lending an even more cosmic quality to those that still were. The final tiny stars floated up until they became small pinpricks, barely distinguishable from the actual stars that were starting to appear in the night sky.

“[Mark] does dream big,” says Johnson. “He’s a survivor of cancer and has four kids.”

Mark wants them “to have a first hand experience in dreaming and doing.”

Lights in the Night was a one-time performance piece, but also includes a collection of photos that will be displayed for the duration of ArtPrize at The B.O.B at 20 Monroe St NW.  

The B.O.B. is offering a reward for any recovered lanterns. Though the lanterns themselves are biodegradable, if someone returns a lantern to the B.O.B. they will be eligible to win one of a few larger prizes, including a seven-night stay at The Redstone Inn in Redstone, Colorado.

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