Winter light shows have evolved from creative displays of twinkling Christmas lights and carolers to upscale, kinetic artist installations and everything in between. These short-term attractions constitute a lucrative use of public gardens during their winter slow season, and bring in guests to enjoy the gardens in a new way at night, traditionally downtime. Because they are experiences perfectly suited to sharing through social media, they attract new awareness and new audiences for some of the country’s oldest botanical gardens.
For instance, Las Noches de las Luminarias is a 39 year tradition at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix featuring Mariachi, white lights and 8000 hand-lit luminaria. Winter Lights at the North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville, a holiday celebration produced in collaboration with Jerry Stripling, opened in November 2014 and welcomed 22,000 guests in its first year.
A Longwood Christmas at Longwood Gardens outside Philadelphia includes fountain displays and a half-million lights. Their Nightscape: A Light and Sound Experience by Klip Collective opened in the summer of 2015. Bruce Munro: Winter Light at the Arboretum is running for 5 months this year at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, featuring six large-scale installations plus a series of immersive, sensory audiovisual animations by the artist.
In 2016, lighting and visual design firm Lightswitch produced Illumination for the Morton Arboretum near Chicago. Their secular, interactive light and music installation focused on “seeing trees in a different light” and boosted winter attendance at the gardens. This was Lightswitch’s fourth year at the Morton, work that brought them to the attention of Descanso Gardens outside Los Angeles.
Enchanted: Forest of Light
Descanso Gardens is located near Pasadena within 15 miles of two other public gardens: the highly endowed Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens and the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, which is smaller than Descanso. Descanso was looking for an event that would draw visitors at night and raise the overall profile of the gardens, according to Somer Sherwood-White, development manager at Descanso. It also had to compete with the upscale holiday light installations and shows that abound in shopping destinations and theme parks across the region.
“Lighting up our botanical collections in a really artful way is quite magical… literally looking at Descanso in a new light,” she said. The secular approach placed the emphasis on the collection and invited a diverse audience.
“Everybody, especially in the Los Angeles area, is looking for that Instagrammable moment,” Sherwood-White explained. Enchanted: Forest of Light received a good response on social media, with thousands of images and video posted by visitors, promoting the gardens both locally and globally. “We did see a slightly younger audience here at the gardens, which is always nice to see…. An audience that maybe uses social media more heavily than our normal daytime visitor would.”
Sherwood-White believes that skew is persisting, with higher attendance this spring. “Partly because Enchanted did introduce Descanso to a new audience.” (Although the end of the Southern California drought is likely helping.) The self-guided, 1 mile–walk attraction will be reprised, with improvements, during the 2017‑18 holiday season.
Lightswitch’s LA office came on board as creative directors and project managers back in the spring of 2015, according to Chris Medvitz, principal designer. Medvitz acted as creative director and lighting designer with Lightswitch’s Chris Herman as lighting director and programmer. 4Wall Entertainment was the main installation contractor, providing lighting and sound rentals, custom-built components and turnkey systems integration.
“About half of what we did at Descanso utilized readily available theatrical lighting systems, technology and techniques. And then about half of it was stuff that we had to design and engineer and build, custom for this show,” Medvitz said. “The whole project was really about utilizing existing technologies and techniques in artistic ways.”
Lighting about the gardens
Lightswitch invited artist Jen Lewin to bring her interactive work The Pool as one of the primary experiences. Two iterations of the work, connected on a WiFi mesh network, created swirling splashes of colored light in response to visitors interacting with the individual “pads.” During the day, this open area invites children and the young-at-heart to run and gambol. The Enchanted experience follows that programming. “All the experiences were designed to introduce an audience who was maybe unfamiliar with the botanical gardens, to them. Or audiences that were familiar, to see them and experience them in a different way,” said Medvitz. “It’s an abstract, theatrical and fantastical activation of the what’s already there.”
According to Medvitz, the equipment was visible during the day, but the appearance was clean with minimal visual and environmental impact. “Nothing was attached to any trees or any plants anywhere. Some of the trees and plants have root structures that are close to the surface, so we couldn’t place things near plants that are valuable or that that could be damaged.”
Because of the 12 week run and 50 acre footprint, the installation was more robust and elaborate than most temporary installations. “There were certain areas where ducks and geese would nest that we had to stay away from. But for the most part, the concern with wildlife was just making sure that our stuff couldn’t be damaged by them.”
Including The Pool and large glowing orbs at the Luminous Lawn, Lightswitch designed ten experiences. Two were transitional spaces, with minor experiences. Four were passive walkthrough experiences, and four were interactive with guests actuating lighting and sounds.
“We took care, as part of the design process, to create opportunities in every location, in every experience along the route, to encourage guests to share on social media. To share pictures of themselves and pictures of the experiences. And that seemed to really pay off. You see on Instagram, thousands upon thousands of photos. Just looking at the comments and looking at the feedback, the overwhelming way that people got introduced to the event was through free media and word of mouth.”
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