For four nights this October, the streets and structures of Greater Cincinnati will be fizzing with illuminations, immersive activations and — if 2019’s event numbers are any hint — 1.3 million people during the third BLINK festival.
The large-scale event — back for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic — touts itself as “the nation’s largest light, art and projection-mapping experience” (projection mapping is a technique that casts computer-programmed light, color and animations across three-dimensional surfaces). And Oct. 13-16, BLINK will convert 30 blocks of downtown Cincinnati, Over-the-Rhine and Covington into a lineup of literally and figuratively glowing visual, auditory and kinesthetic encounters.
Justin Brookhart, who took over as the first executive director of BLINK for the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber in January, says his goal for the 2022 event is to “curate the balance between making sure that we’re always showing off the incredible local talent that exists here in Cincinnati,” while simultaneously making the fest “a true international event that stands up to some of the larger events like this all over the world, like Vivid in Sydney [Australia] and the Lumiere Festival.”
This will be Brookhart’s first time both directing and attending BLINK. With previous experience as the chief operating officer for the Chicago-based but internationally touring Renegade Craft series of arts and crafts shows, the freshly minted Cincinnatian says he’s been impressed by the city’s devotion to and collective excitement about BLINK.
“We’re a big spectacle light show, but at the end of the day, I really do think that we’re just a free public art event. And we do it at a grand scale and level of artistry that’s world-class and pretty amazing,” he says. “The fact that hundreds of thousands of people line the streets and come out in droves to enjoy community and culture and art and light is pretty special.”
While some details are still being finalized — more information will be released in the coming weeks, and Brookhart says specifics are subject to change — the core of BLINK is still made up of the same pillars attendees have come to expect: a kick-off parade, projection mapping on local architecture, interactive light sculptures, murals animated with projected visual effects and live music.
But some things have changed, including the loss of founding partners Brave Berlin, the local creative agency that originated BLINK out of its 2013-2016 LumenoCity projection mapping events in Over-the-Rhine. Brave Berlin helped produce BLINK in 2017 and 2019 with the Chamber, AGAR and ArtWorks with support from the Haile Foundation and ArtsWave (the Cincy Nice community collective came on board in 2019 and is a producing partner this year). But the group announced on social media in July that it had severed ties with the Chamber, writing, “Our presence at the leadership table was feeling to us more and more like an honorary courtesy than an active and collaborative partnership.”
In a statement to CityBeat, Brave Berlin owner and partner Dan Reynolds said, “We are happy to see how BLINK 2022 is progressing and are sure it will be another great event for our city. We are curious to see how some of the changes announced by the Chamber play out in October. We remain proud and confident knowing a new iteration of BLINK is only possible because we thought to do it in the first place and led the effort to figure out how to make it a success in 2017 and 2019.”
Brookhart is quick to thank Brave Berlin for its vision and “everything that they helped make possible” and says he wants BLINKgoers to keep an open mind as they anticipate this year’s event.
“What I hope people understand is that there are lots of folks that are involved in making [BLINK] possible. We have a lot of our returning partners that are a part of that original founders group…and what we’re seeing is that so many artists and collaborators are making this event possible,” Brookhart says. “I just hope people understand that there’s lots of folks involved in bringing the event to life, and I want to encourage people to see what the creative opportunities are like this year. And please feel free to judge us after October.”
Brookhart does mention one big “philosophical change” that separates BLINK 2022 from previous events: widening the call for artist participation. He says the team opened up all disciplines, saying, “any artist that’s interested in being a part of the collaboration this year, raise your hand, let us know.”
“That way, we can just kind of see both what the local talent pool’s level of interest is, but then also see how far our reach has grown,” he says. “We’ve done this event twice before, BLINK’s kind of gotten a little bit of a reputation internationally now and we wanted to see, can we get folks from all over the world that say, hey, we want to come to Cincinnati and bring our work here.”
The first wave of participants that BLINK has announced includes 14 international artists from four continents and 18 local artists/institutions. And those are just the starting numbers — Brookhart says more artists will be announced in second and third waves over the coming weeks. They all will be variously contributing to the projection mapping experiences, activations and the creation of 17 new murals. This will be a blend of new faces, familiar events and novel installations, both in terms of artists and experiences, Brookhart says.
“We are bringing back some fan favorites like Architects of Air and Lightborne projection mapping onto the CAC,” he says.
The U.K.-based Architects of Air will be setting up a new inflatable luminarium at this year’s BLINK. It will be located in Ziegler Park and, similar to its installations at Washington Park in 2017 and 2019, will be the only ticketed BLINK experience.
“Some of our projection sites are familiar, like Memorial Hall, but have different artists assigned to them to mix it up and create some excitement,” Brookhart continues. “Some favorites like [South African artist Inka Kendzia’s] projection onto the Faith47 mural on Liberty Street will come back in a new form with new artwork/animations.”
But BLINK is also bringing unique pieces to Cincinnati, including the American premiere of “PULSE,” an immersive tunnel-like audio-visual experience from the U.K.’s This is Loop; a 20-foot inflatable sculpture of pair of manicured hands called “The Full Set” from art collective Mz. Icar; and a site-specific collaboration between international mural artist Shantell Martin and ArtWorks near Findlay Market.
Among the Greater Cincinnati artists participating in this year’s BLINK are Jason Snell, who will be activating the “Ezzard Charles: The Cincinnati Cobra” mural he designed with ArtWorks; Michael Coppage, who will be animating a new installation from his BLACK BOX exhibit (originally on display in the 21c Museum Hotel’s Gano Alley); and Jessica Wolf, who turned a Findlay Market alleyway into a glowing paper art installation in 2019.
Collaboration is a through-line for BLINK. Coppage and Snell — a repeat BLINK artist — are working together on Coppage’s 40-foot animated installation, slated to be projected onto the facade of the Aronoff Center. Called “CARE BEAR,” it’s an extension of Coppage’s BLACK BOX mural series, devoted to “positively highlight[ing] Black men, promot[ing] understanding and empathy, and foster[ing] education and healing,” per an exhibit description from the 21c.
“We plan on a really vibrant, colorful and entertaining offering. There will be lighthearted sequences that reflect the city and the state — like the state bird, flower, fish, spider and snake all making appearances,” Coppage tells CityBeat. “The animation will cycle through the four seasons and will be full of Easter eggs that touch on lots of current social topics like COVID, the social unrest of 2020, Roe v. Wade, LGBTQ and more. It’s important the project ties back to my studio practice but still be [rated] PG, family-friendly, fun and representative of the city.”
Local artists and members of the community will also be on display during the BLINK kick-off parade on Oct. 13. This year’s glowing procession — produced by Cincinnati’s ish Jewish and Israeli arts and culture group — will march through the Central Business District and feature the theme “Together: a constellation of shared cultures and unique identities; we illuminate joy through creative expression.” Parade participants will be utilizing light to celebrate their “unique attributes, symbols or cultural traditions,” per an event description.
International names taking part in BLINK 2022 include Portuguese illustrator Add Fuel, who will be “incorporating elements influenced by 140+-year-old The Rookwood Pottery Company” into his work, per a release; London-based Afro-surrealist Vince Fraser, who worked with local Napoleon Maddox on a large-scale projection installation on the history of Little Africa; and Australia’s Wendy Yu, who is producing a dance-based projection in collaboration with local hip-hop arts center Elementz.
“Wendy is one of those international artists that raised her hand and said, hey, you know, BLINK looks awesome, I’d love to come and be a part of it,” Brookhart says. “And from our very first conversations with Wendy, she said, ‘I really wanted to capture some breakdancers, some hip-hop dancers, but I don’t want to use my friends here in Australia. I’d love to collaborate with some local dancers in the Cincinnati area.’”
Yu’s completed work will feature five different Elementz performers, animated in her style, projected somewhere on Fourth Street.
In addition to the expansive slate of artists taking part in BLINK 2022, the festival is expanding in literal size. The scope of the event necessitated more room, but Brookhart says organizers also wanted to adapt BLINK to reflect the way people attend large-scale events in a post-COVID world.
“We’re organizing this year’s event with the understanding that social behaviors have changed since 2019. Just due to public health concerns, people may want a little bit more space between them and their neighbors,” he says. “We’re thinking about ways that we can kind of widen that footprint a little bit, but also go a little bit bigger with some of our installations. So we’re going to be projection mapping onto much larger buildings than we have in years past, just allowing people to view those from a little bit farther away and creating certain designated viewing areas for some of those installations.”
He mentions illuminating downtown’s American Building, “which I believe will be [the] tallest projection installation that we’ve ever done before,” he says.
BLINK’s main zones will include the urban core of Overthe-Rhine, downtown and The Banks/Smale Riverfront Park with events spreading across the river into MainStrasse in Covington. But BLINK will move “further west,” potentially near City Hall and Plum Street, and “a little bit further east” to Ziegler Park and along Liberty Street, Brookhart says. The Findlay Market mural district also will be expanding by a few streets this year.
Brookhart says BLINK took different “cultural, community and architectural assets” into consideration when planning this year’s festival map: “beautiful public spaces, historical buildings, dense walkable areas, and [playing] with the idea of discovery — discovering streets you may have not walked down, buildings you may have not noticed, alleyways that you discover anew under the lights of BLINK,” he says.
He says the team also considered logistics, like where people will walk from or how they can utilize services like the Red Bike bike share. Dedicated anchor experiences and projections in each zone will help navigate people throughout the pedestrian-friendly event, but so will a handful of live music stages.
“We like to joke internally that BLINK is secretly one of the largest music festivals in the Cincinnati area,” Brookhart says.
Rob Mason, operations manager at AGAR (a BLINK executive partner), handles all of the talent booking for BLINK and has done so for both 2017’s and 2019’s events. With co-bookers Justin Haley of Over-the-Rhine Bar Ghost Baby and Kick Lee of the Cincinnati Music Accelerator, Mason put out an open call for bands interested in playing BLINK and assembled a lineup of mostly local musicians across six stages (there may be some national headliners determined at a later date). Bands like Carriers, Freedom Nicole Moore, Jess Lamb & The Factory, Leggy, Mol Sullivan, Multimagic, Vacation and Siri Imani are some of the 60-some-odd artists slated to play over the four-day festival, with stages located in Covington, The Banks, Fountain Square, Court Street, Washington Park and Findlay Market.
“I think that [the bands are] kind of beacons that say, hey, there’s something happening here. And it’s good to kind of guide people in different directions,” Mason says. “You might be comfortable in The Banks, but you might not be willing to walk from The Banks to Findlay Market. But if there’s different things going along the way that are kind of pulling you there, I think that can just add for a lot of different discovery and excitement and the kinds of memories that only can be made during that kind of experience.”
Like Brookhart, Mason relishes that idea of curiosity and natural discovery that BLINK engenders, as well as the positivity it brings to the city — a sentiment that seems to be shared by the Cincinnati community at large.
“I think that’s why BLINK is so fun — because the city just fills with happiness,” Mason says. “I love the fact that there’s just so much opportunity for discovery throughout the city that whole weekend.”
BLINK 2022 takes place throughout downtown Cincinnati, Over-the-Rhine and Covington Oct. 13-16. Info: blinkcincinnati.com.
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