A new constellation emerges over an abandoned island in the Hudson River: 50 miles north of New York City, Melissa McGill’s public art project transforms a castle ruin.
Constellation started as the vision of Beacon (NYC) artist Melissa McGill and grew into a public art installation that united a community and connected it to its history and sense of place. The acclaimed project attracts audiences from all over the world, but most importantly it has transformed its town.
One of the inspirations for the project comes from the indigenous Lenape people’s belief in Opi Temakan, in which the Milky Way forms a white road in the sky connecting our world with the next. As Joe Baker, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Lenape Center and tribal member, states:
This project will be among the first in the region to honour an Indigenous perspective, illuminating a part of American history that has been sadly overlooked. The Hudson Valley has many contemporary assets, but few that celebrate first person voice. By calling attention to this rich legacy, Melissa McGill will build a bridge to a more complete history.
Joe Baker and Curtis Zunigha (Co-Founder and Director; tribal member) have collaborated in Constellation’s programming, and engaged with the work to share more about Lenape culture with the public. These stories are passed down primarily in the oral tradition, so it is essential that they continue to be told.
Community has been a central focus of the project right from the get go. McGill is interested in creating art where she lives and is committed to fostering and facilitating community through public art. She finds it most interesting and rewarding to witness a community engage with art in their space – and engage they did. Locals contributed over $17,000 to the project’s crowdfunding campaign; local artists, videographers, lighting designers and other residents donated their time and expertise; and the project received support and assistance from Bannerman Castle Trust, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and other government and environmental organisations.
McGill recognised that the first step in collaboration is communication, saying, “I had to be able to explain to people what was in my head for them to be able to help me”. She developed a number of different communications strategies including a series of very clear and concise grant applications, a portfolio of letters of endorsement, and a project website. She even created a postcard to illustrate what the project would look like by showing the castle at night with 17 tiny laser cut holes which, when held up to the light, simulated 17 tiny stars.
The work itself consists of 17 solar-powered LED lights suspended over the Hudson River like a low-lying constellation of stars. Every sunset, the stars of this ‘new constellation’ appear one by one over the Bannerman Castle ruins. Constellation is visible for two hours every evening starting at dusk, triggered by a sensor that measures the fading light. McGill determined the artwork’s duration so that Constellation would act as a meeting place and time for the community to come together and share the experience in their beautiful local landscape on the Hudson River. Constellation boat tours were organised in collaboration with the New York State Office of Parks and Bannerman Castle Trust, who runs historical tours of the island during the day. The new story of the public artwork has become part of these tours and has reinvigorated the local community’s interest in engaging with their history. The artist has worked with Storm King Adventure Tours to organise Constellation kayak tours. Other local organisations, including Storm King Art Center and Clearwater, have invited the artist to present Constellation-themed programming, which is popular with locals and tourists alike. Prior to Constellation, many locals had never visited the island, let alone participated in a historical boat tour. Now many of the town’s people have paid a visit.
The project was installed in June 2015 and will remain through October 2017. McGill would be happy to see the work terminate in 2017 as it has already exceeded all expectations – but there are those in the community who want to make the work permanent.
Constellation has transformed the town of Beacon and all who have been involved with the project, as well as those in surrounding towns Cold Spring, Garrison, Fishkill, Cornwall-on-Hudson, Newburgh, and others. Whether Constellation becomes a permanent installation or not, the projects legacy will stay with these communities well into the future.