Coronavirus in Oklahoma: Artist collective Factory Obscura lights up downtown OKC with mobile attraction Downtown Starlight
A version of this story appears in Friday's Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman.
Creative sparks: OKC artist collective Factory Obscura on the move with Downtown Starlight
In a typically quiet corner of downtown Oklahoma City, neon lights are flashing in intricate patterns accompanied by otherworldly music and optimistic poetry.
Even escorted by two nimble circus performers, the Downtown Starlight - the latest project from Oklahoma City artist collective Factory Obscura - was the sparkling center of attention on a recent Saturday night in Kerr Park.
"People are enjoying it. And it's nice to be outside and be with people but have lots of space to spread out. Feels good," said Kelsey Karper, Factory Obscura co-founder and director of logistical creativity.
"We thought, 'People really need experiences with art,' and part of that is a reason to be together. Art brings people together ... and it's a real human need. And I think people are recognizing that after they have been isolating this year. ... We knew it was important to create those moments, but we just had to do it in a way that was safe - and bringing it outside is part of that."
Created in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Downtown Starlight is a mobile light experience that measures 6 feet across, is double-sided and boasts more than 1,200 individual points of light programmed to respond and react to original sound in real time. Designed to be transported in a pickup truck bed, the portable attraction also comes with a soundtrack of hypnotic original music and spoken word verse.
Since debuting its latest artistic creation last month at the Scissortail Park Night Market, Factory Obscura has been using the Downtown Starlight to brighten up various downtown locales, with plans to let it shine this weekend at Final Friday on Film Row and Saturday in the Alley in Automobile Alley.
"One of the things that we're always trying to do is to take people ... out of their day-to-day lives to experience and feel something different and kind of be reenergized. Hopefully, they take something positive from it to reenter the current timeline and feel more hopeful about going forward. That's what we're always trying to achieve," Karper said.
"I think, especially if you listen to the soundtrack that was created to go with the light experience, it's really about hope and joy and what does it take to create those feelings."
Factory Obscura received funding for its new Downtown Starlight through a micro-grant from Downtown Oklahoma City Partnership and Urban Land Institute Oklahoma.
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Downtown Oklahoma City Initiatives has awarded nearly $40,000 in micro-grants to help fund projects devised by individuals or organizations to lift the spirits of the community through placemaking and public art. The projects are intended to bring people back to downtown's districts and businesses, which have suffered during the COVID-19 crisis.
"We are in a time where the term 'pivot' has become a buzzword. Businesses and organizations are having to change how they operate to continue in a COVID climate," said Kristen Vails, director of placemaking for the Downtown Oklahoma City Partnership, in an email.
"The beautiful thing about these grants is they really just pivot us back to the basics: Small, interesting experiences that surprise, engage and delight. Festivals and events certainly matter, but the ease and simplicity of sidewalk activations, murals and performances will make downtown more interesting on a daily basis."
In June, the Downtown Oklahoma City Initiatives partnered with Urban Land Institute of Oklahoma to release a call for project applications. More than 40 applications were received totaling in excess of $100,000. The organizations had planned to fund up to $20,000 in micro-grants, but after receiving so many compelling applications, the Downtown OKC Initiatives board approved an additional $20,000.
The micro-grant projects range from the “Hope Flags” at Elemental Coffee, which local artist Jarica Walsh printed using plant materials collected the “corona gardens” Oklahomans started during lockdown to a "Stronger Together" mural planned for the side of Shop Good. A drive-in documentary screening in Deep Deuce, a day of one-on-one artist performances around downtown and a COVID-theme hopscotch game off Sheridan Avenue are some of the projects that have already made their debut, with several more planned.
"Seeing Downtown Starlight bring people to Kerr Park to gather safely was so refreshing," Vails said. "As a place manager, the anxiety of how to bring people downtown but keep people safe is a daily struggle. The beauty of Downtown Starlight is that people can feel like they are doing something normal, and at the same time be taken away by the vibrance of Starlight."
The concept of the Downtown Starlight was something Factory Obscura was already developing as a potential addition to its planned expansion and performance space, a project that has been shelved due to the pandemic.
"That was a really great opportunity, and I think, of course, there are so many projects that were funded through those micro-grants. There's a lot of really cool things that are happening," Karper said.
"We had developed this concept as a sound-reactive light installation in our performance space, so we had already started building some prototypes and working on this idea of this kind of starburst light piece that would be installed
So, we just took what we had already started working on and adapted it for the scale and purpose of bringing it outdoors. So, we were able to still make the idea happen, but in a very different way than where it started."
Working on the massive mobile attraction during the pandemic was challenging since the artists had to maintain social distance and protect against COVID-19.
"There's artists of all kinds on the Factory Obscura team. It's visual artists - sculptors, painters - but also poets and musicians and dancers and all kinds of performing artists. So, all of those artists contribute to everything that we make, and that really, I think, is where the magic happens. It really becomes a fully immersive experience when you can engage all those different art forms and all those different senses," she said.
"The sound artists were meeting over Zoom and recording things and sending them back and forth. There were so many Zoom meetings. ... But we made it work."
Although Factory Obscura was able to reopen its Automobile Alley headquarters and its interactive permanent art attraction "Mix-Tape" earlier this month, Karper said the collective is happy to offer an outdoor experience, too. More than 100 people turned out in Kerr Park on a recent Saturday to see the Downtown Starlight's hypnotic glow.
"Of course, we didn't know what to expect. ... a lot of people told us that night that they'd never even heard of Kerr Park before. So, it was really great. It was a lovely evening," Karper said.
"While the weather's nice, we want to bring it out as much as we can."
Final Friday on Film Row
What: Downtown Starlight, live art show by Chelsie Kilburn, vendors, pop-up shops and food trucks.
When: 6 to 10 p.m. Friday.
Where: Parking lot of the Paramount Building, 701 W Sheridan. s
Saturday in the Alley
What: Downtown Starlight, live music, art demonstrations, free caricatures, balloon art, pop-up family-friendly programs, short film screening and more.
When: Noon to 11 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Automobile Alley.
For more on Factory Obscura's Downtown Starlight: www.facebook.com/factoryobscura.