Leni Schwendinger is an international artist and designer working with the medium of light. Her early ventures included lighting design for theatre and music venues. But propelled by her commitment to community activism, she turned to creating art for the public sphere. Her works in the U.S. and overseas range from lighting up the Coney Island Parachute Jump to illuminating underpasses and bridges in New York and Glasgow, Scotland, to creating public art in New York and Tokyo. Her most recent projects involve nighttime design.
Terry Stoller spoke with Leni Schwendinger via Zoom in August 2020 during the pandemic. That conversation covered Leni’s early work in painting on slides for theatre and concert scenography, and her subsequent move into public art, both in the U.S. and overseas, including a gala at the James A. Farley Post Office, a site-specific event in Glasgow, the illumination of underpasses at the Port Authority Bus Terminal and her involvement in a pilot program for El-Spaces in New York, her concentration on nighttime projects, and her lighting redesign for the Westbeth Gallery.
Terry Stoller: How did you get into lighting design?
Leni Schwendinger: I have to say, first of all, I have parallel identities in lighting design and community activism. Those two things I have developed as an intersecting practice. I started as a filmmaker in high school in California, and I went to film school in London. I came back to California in the ’70s. But becoming a cinematographer then was not happening for girls. I was 23, 24. Then there was a segue into lighting design for theatre and music.
I’m self-taught. I don’t have credentials in the sense of various degrees. I have learned from mentors all along the way. In terms of lighting, music was my first passion, so I did work for concerts. I was working in big rock ’n’ roll venues, like stadiums, and also very small nightclub venues. Around 1981, I was selected to work at the San Francisco Opera, but that year the company lost its Opera America internship. That was a terrible blow. Prior to that, I had gone to Bayreuth and got myself a job at the Bayreuther Festspielhaus. And there I learned my trade, which began to move into the artist’s realm of hand painting on glass slides to project scenography for the stage. Bayreuth was 1980, the Chéreau-Boulez Ring. I was in the control room creating the fire cues, which were optical illusions.
When I moved to New York from California in 1982, I got some jobs painting projected scenic backdrops for ballet. I also did a painting for Ozzy Osbourne, a gothic haunted house and floating candles.
By 1984, I turned the hand-painted projections into an art form. And I made a big decision. I no longer wanted to do my work in a confined space like a theatre or a gallery. I wanted to do my work in a public space—to take on the biggest challenge. Light is a malleable substance. The idea was using this malleable art form, superimposing that onto the urban environment and actually making some points as I was going along.
In 1985, I did a projection onto the Limelight tower for a twentieth anniversary celebration of the 1965 Northeast blackout. At that time the decommissioned church was a nightclub. My project, “Tower of Alpha Babel,” transformed the stone tower with projections and smoke. My next public project was sited at the Holland Tunnel. The visual concept questioned public and private issues with paintings of fences, windows, and windshields. Here I brought forward my film experience as each projected frame dissolved into the next, creating an illuminative narrative.
In an interview, you described creating the lighting design for the Coney Island Parachute Jump  as working on a canvas.
The idea is scenographic, transformation over time. The most intuitive point for me is that light changes over time.
My biggest early project was at the James A. Farley Post Office across from Madison Square Garden. The Brooklyn Academy of Music invited me to create a projection artwork for the facade. It was called “Public Drama/Passionate Correspondence” . That was about the forecourt of the McKim, Mead & White building as a public space for public discourse and the idea of letters going back and forth, public discourse through letters.
The commission by BAM was a gift to the public walking by and for invited guests to a gala dinner inside the Post Office. The outside projections included theatre curtains opening—when they caressed the columns, the columns seemed to spin. And there were other images of postal workers, letter bags, and love letters.
In later big projects, you work with a team. Did you work with a team on this one?
Absolutely, and I’m still in touch with all those wonderful designers.
So you have to know how to work collaboratively.
I have a theory about artist/designer and what the difference is. The artist has full authorship of the work; the designer, at the very worst for lighting designers, basically picks out lighting fixtures. At the bare minimum, a designer says use that and that product. When I do my artist/designer gradient, I say collaboration is right in the middle. Artist as author and designer as picking products come into the middle, and we collaborate with the various other disciplines.
Collaboration is part of your credo. Even when you’re thinking about a project, you bring in the community and official organizations.
That’s the community activism thing, which I haven’t really talked about with these projects. In the late 1990s, I was asked to pick a site in Glasgow to do a project. I had to find the site and create the concept. I met the city planner, and I said I want an industrial site. The city planner made suggestions, and one of them was this very neglected area in Maryhill, the Maryhill Locks on the Forth & Clyde Canal. The project was called “Water Above Water”; it was a two-day event. It brought in all different community or stakeholders, including children, who walked down the towpath to their school. I brought young adults in their 20s who were studying community arts to the elementary school to create floats on the canal, and I brought in architects. I gave them a design brief, and everyone came up with what was appropriate for them. The architects made these architectural floats; the children made monsters and Neptune.
I created a story about the navvies. It was about the engineering feat of this 200-year-old canal, which had political overtones because the Irish emigrated to dig the canal. The story included the barges and the moving of freight and the social housing project that’s right on the edge of the canal. I brought it into a dramatic realm, like fiction and mythology, as well as the worker bee side of things.
Down the path is the Kelvin Aqueduct transporting water across the valley. The aqueduct is hand-hewn stones over a river. And the town emblem, when that little part of north Glasgow was a separate town, was Water Above Water. I added a subtitle to that: “Water Above Water, a Sublime Floating Landscape.” I illuminated the archways, and in the canal I created a fishnet of light.
What was the impetus for this project?
There was a festival, Glasgow 1999: U.K. City of Architecture and Design. It was a European Union–designated festival.
You’re American. How did you get that gig?
I got a fax out of the blue: Leni Schwendinger, we’d like you to propose a site-specific public art project with light in Glasgow for the festival.
Your reputation was preceding you. Had you done this type of project before?
I focused on international work. In 1991 I was awarded the most precious gift from the NEA, a six-month residency in Japan. I developed a relationship with some architects in Tokyo, and in 1993, I collaborated on a projection called “Urban Heart, a Homebody?” for their cast-in-place concrete Truss-Wall-House.
You’ve also done quite a number of projects in New York. They tend to take years from conception to completion, for instance, Triple Bridge Gateway  for the Port Authority’s Midtown Bus Terminal. You worked on the underpasses at Ninth Avenue between 40th and 41st Streets.
That’s a great example, and it’s extant. I’m the founder of Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Association—that was pre-Westbeth. We connected with the Port Authority because they own a number of small residual spaces, oddly shaped parcels that remain because of the layout of the Lincoln Tunnel cuts. As our relationship developed with Port Authority and Community Board 4, HKNA was invited to develop a request for ideas, or an RPI. Subsequently a team of architects, engineers, and lighting designers—my company, Leni Schwendinger Light Projects—designed, tested, and created documentation drawings, which finalized into the Triple Bridge Gateway. Transforming bleak environments under overpasses would become a guiding challenge throughout my art and design career. This was my first experience combining layers of civic and institutional engagement with a permanent architectural infrastructure design outcome.
The Port Authority requested proposals in the mid-1990s, and the project was completed in 2008.
It took so long because of the World Trade Center towers going down in 2001. Port Authority owned the towers. They put the project to bed for a number of years. In fact, we never knew it would be done. I’m very proud of the Port Authority project. I was tasked to pick the colors. They’ve got these beautiful spring green facades and different colors underneath that define the engineering form of the trusses.
When had you started your company Leni Schwendinger Light Projects?
It was incorporated in 1992. I had to incorporate because I was doing public works. I had it for 20 years. In 2013, I started working at Arup, a large-scale engineering firm. My company Leni Schwendinger Light Projects has reopened recently.
Was the El-Space project in Sunset Park, Brooklyn , with Arup?
It was contracted with Arup. I was selected as a lighting fellow for Design Trust for Public Space. There was also a landscape architect fellow and an urban design fellow. We were the team. We were working on a prototype for underpass spaces, or elevated structures (El-Spaces), all over the city for future consideration with the Department of Transportation. DOT is working hard on a topology for other underpasses. I could wax eloquent about the horticultural lighting and trying to grow things under them, but the most important thing is that underpasses are always dividers. In Hell’s Kitchen, the Port Authority underpasses acted as a divider of the more workable Hell’s Kitchen north of 42nd Street and the “other side of the tracks.” In Sunset Park, the Gowanus Expressway at Third Avenue is a total divider between the waterfront and the subway station. And this is true all over the U.S. For me, this project is creating a connector, stitching together two parts of town from what was once a divider. For me, that is the reason for being. That is the reason to love underpasses, which is to transform them.
You said that the Department of Transportation was involved in the project. You must have learned how to deal with bureaucracies over the years.
If you’re a public artist, you’ve got to deal with the public, and that includes agencies and property owners.
What did you contribute to the Gowanus Expressway design?
As I said it was a team effort with the urban designer, the landscape architect, and myself to envision how we could capture the runoff water from the bridge. The landscape architect was an expert on this. Our questions included: How can we create a space that’s safe under the bridge and, from my point of view, how can we create a visual destination that becomes what we call place making, an illuminated artifact that will someday help people get to the waterfront. It’s a way finding. It becomes a landmark.
You talked about your early work of painting on glass. Now for your lighting work, you’ve got technology: the computer, LED lights. Do you find you’re more creative with those tools?
Years ago, I used surgical blades to cut images out of printing plates for theatre and rock ’n’ roll projections. Later I etched images in with muriatic acids. Then the technology enabled us to deposit a filter onto glass; then there was a move into technology and mass production. Then we were using different filters to mix colors (as I did when I worked for Laurie Anderson). Then the filters were inside the light and moved on a bicycle chain to create colors. And now we have LED color transforming within each little lamp.
I’m going to sound like an old fogey, but there’s something good about limitations, that you can only do this work if you do it by hand. What’s happened with LED is it’s too easy. It’s a fantastic thing, and, yes, it’s more creative. The question is, How are we going to use the tools?
Would you describe “Dreaming in Color” , which you created for McCaw Hall at Seattle Center?
The vision that drove “Dreaming in Color” from conception to actualization was offering a theatrical experience to all Seattle Center and McCaw Hall visitors, whether ticket holders or not, transporting the building’s meaning from inside to outside for all to experience. It’s a series of flat surfaces that divide a path attached to an opera house, and a light through each transparent surface onto the ground. So what do we have between curtains of light and the ground? People. It’s really about the city as stage. The people are immersed in light. “Dreaming in Color” seeks to build upon and extend the Color Field explorations begun by painters in the 1950s and continuing up until the present day.
Your latest projects have to do with nighttime. When did you begin focusing on night?
When I left Arup, I had done the most important project of my life, which was a pilot in Cartagena, Colombia. That brought everything together for me. It’s community, city. The thing I wanted to prove to myself was: How would we create better community cohesion with light? That was my opportunity. Arup, along with a lighting manufacturer and a bank, funded the pilot. I put together a team mostly from Arup, and we did a two-year study in 2015 and 2016, ending in 2017. That is really the culmination of what I needed to do. And the idea of nighttime design is a new discipline that I am creating with forty other people in an organization, the International Nighttime Design Initiative.
The point was, what do I really need to do after this experience in corporate life? And what is next is creating an understanding of nighttime in cities. Night as place. Night is poetry; night is fear; night is danger; night is spectacle; night is perception―and design needs to be different. Night should be designed with the idea of a dark canvas and the human beings: night workers, partygoers, cultural events, medical workers, transit drivers, delivery people. There is a world of night, and I feel that lighting alone is limited. I wanted to broaden the purview. So our interdisciplinary institute includes architects, social researchers, designers, mobility experts, landscape architects. It’s half practitioners and half academics. It’s basically pro bono. We’ve done a couple of projects where I could involve a few people to get paid for certain research.
In 2019 and 2020, I shifted my focus on livelihood. This has included increased development of the NightSeeing™ program, which raises awareness about night and light in international city districts through walking at night and workshopping future improvement visions for those districts.
You were asked to redesign the lighting for the Westbeth Gallery.
The gallery lighting system was very patchwork from a lighting fixture point of view. The tracks aren’t always optimal. I was asked to refurbish and update the lighting. You know I also designed the lobby hallway light, that tiny strip of light in the hallway corridor where art is exhibited. I helped them procure a thin line of a light; it’s what we call a wall washer. And it’s good to wash with a plane of light onto a flat surface. That’s an innovation that people will notice, that I’m really excited about. In the gallery, five walls will have that option of a plane of light, which is really going to distinguish it from the previous lighting design. As you walk into the gallery, when the curator chooses it, you’ll see an illuminated wall. Again, that’s my visual destination idea.
When did you move to Westbeth?
I moved here in 2007. I was on the waiting list for 14 years. Soon I will be here as long as I was on the waiting list, and I can’t wait to supersede that.
Any final thoughts?
I think my real contribution will be a new theory and discipline of night as place.
Photo credits: “Tower of Alpha Babel”: Leni Schwendinger; Coney Island Parachute Jump: ArchPhoto; “Water Above Water”: British Waterways, Guthrie Photography; “Urban Heart”: Schwendinger; Triple Bridge Gateway: ArchPhoto; El-Space: NYC Dept of Transportation; “Dreaming in Color”: AJ Epstein; Smart Everyday Nighttime Design (2): Don Slater/Configuring Light.
Terry Stoller is a Westbeth resident and author of Tales of the Tricycle Theatre.
Profiles in Art, Copyright 2021 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council