Lumen 2013.

My co-worker X told me about an art festival on Staten Island this past Saturday. He sent me a link. Here’s what it said:

Now, doesn’t that sound kind of interesting? And look at that neat picture in the article. Armed with this description, I headed out to Staten Island for the first time in my 36 years of living in this area and went to go hang out in an empty pool with a bunch of other artsy New Yorkers. I rode the ferry, which was delightful, and walked over to the pool with my pal G. I should have been prepared for what entailed when, during the walk over, I noticed we were completely surrounded by hipsters. I have a real problem with people who like things ironically. Either you like something or you don’t, but don’t pretend to like things that are terrible in order to appear cool. That should have been the tipoff. Shortly after arriving at the pool, we took a stroll around to get a sense of the place. I have to say, the facilities were beautiful. Here’s a bit of history:

Joseph H. Lyons Pool, the largest public pool on Staten Island, was built in 1936. Constructed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Lyons Pool was one of eleven pools that opened throughout New York City in a single summer during the Great Depression. The pools were among the most remarkable public recreational facilities in the country and represented the forefront of design and technology. The main pool measures 165 feet long and 100 feet wide, while both the wading and diving pools are 100 feet by 68 feet. The pool is designed to accommodate 2,800 bathers at a time; during the first summer, crowds averaged 5,707 people each day. The influence of the WPA pools extended throughout entire communities, attracting aspiring athletes and neighborhood children, and changing the way millions of New Yorkers spent their leisure time.


There were levels with gardens and round turreted brick buildings throughout. We got there before the sun had set, so many people were still setting up.

pool2 pool3

Now, here’s the deal, and hate me if you want to, but this is how I feel. I’ve complained about the word “artist” and this was a prime example of that precise point. Everyone wants to be interesting and creative, but not everyone has talent. There were maybe forty exhibits and almost all of them were projectors projecting odd movies onto walls. One was a movie of a woman in a room filled with balls holding a birthday cake in front of a goat. Later in the movie she was brushing its fur.


I was mostly disappointed. There were so many missed opportunities. First, let’s talk about what the word “lumen” means. According to Wikipedia, a lumen can be thought of a measure of the total amount of visible light in some defined beam or angle, or emitted from some source. Okay, so within the concept of light, this excludes fire, so no fire-breathers or fireworks or anything like that. It would probably be dangerous with the public all over the place anyway. So that leaves bulbs and LEDs and glowsticks. So aside from projectors, why was there no one doing something in the style of Indonesian shadow puppets? And there was such limited use of LEDs, or Christmas lights. I would loved to have seen a flock of something lit up wandering around in a group, like a group of snails with glowing shells, instead of most of the pieces being so sedentary. We live in New York, for crying out loud, there are costume designers, fashion designers, window decorators, set designers, sculptors galore. After going to Burning Man and seeing the truly amazing things there*, it was difficult to see such a limited palette of styles within a subject.And then there were performance artists. God almighty, I hate performance artists. They’re often unnecessarily naked, they use food as part of the performance, and the food never goes in their mouths. I remember the first time I encountered performance art. When I was about eight, my mother took me to see Urban Bush Women. They were a company of African-American women who did all kinds of authentic African dance as well as other kinds. It was all going well and good, and then somewhere near the end one of the dancers came out alone on the stage and said she wanted to do a piece on her feeling on slavery. She stood under a single spotlight topless with a carton of eggs. And then, in complete silence, she smashed the eggs on her breasts and rubbed them all over. For twenty minutes. In complete silence. When she finished, she was crying and everyone clapped. I slowly turned to face my mother and she looked at me in abject horror and said, “I am so sorry.” Ever since then I don’t care for performance art. My hackles, they rise. And this didn’t change my feelings. There was a large man in his underpants wearing smeared white face paint yelling and throwing individual slices of bologna.

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Then he lay on the ground alternately shrieking and woefully singing “Vacation, all I ever wanted, vacation, had to get away…” I wanted to punch everyone in the world.

There was also a man wearing a wig, a hazmat suit and a ladies’ bathing suit crawling laps slowly in the pool. Back and forth for six hours.


There was this woman sitting perfectly still in an uncomfortable position for a really long time at the top of a flight of stairs.


And there was a woman in a tub full of foam scooping it up with her hands and blowing it around. Also for six hours.


Not to belabor the point, but just because you shine a light on yourself doing some weird stuff doesn’t make it relevant to the Lumen concept. I’m sorry, I’m done complaining. There were a few things that were actually really well-done and well-designed. For example, the cicada. The cicada had a bicycle hooked up to an electrical thingie underneath it, and if you pedaled, the wings went up and down and the legs lit up.

cicada1 cicada2

And there were men laying like a clock. They had a sound system that clicked off sixty seconds and then made a soft “ding” and the men knew to move ever so slightly over. I checked my iPhone a bunch of times and these guys were right on the mark.


There was a projector into the pool showing a blobby water pattern and a small girl was running around in it, utterly delighted by its perpetually changing shape.

kid-light-1 kid-light-3

Then the pattern changed to something more square, and the little girl was devastated. She just crumpled up into a silent sadness pile in the middle of her former beloved light source. It was very dramatic. Her mother, standing next to me bemusedly watching all this go down, said the quote of the night, “That is some Tilda Swinton sh*t.”


There was a pool of what appeared to be milk, and a projector shone down on it with geometric patterns in fun colors. The children were splashing around in it with glee. These photos were taking before the glee-splashing commenced.

milk-color1 milk-color2

There was one station that used 3D glasses.


And there was a deep pool that hasn’t been open for 28 years (“too many floatuhs” said the security guard) and there was about a foot and a half of stagnant water with algae and weeds growing in it. A bald man with a flowing red robe spent a good while slowly crossing this deep pool using two white stools. It was quite hypnotizing.

deep-pool2 deep-pool

And someone made a crashing wave sculpture out of chicken wire and gauze, then shone a blue light on it from two angles. It was ethereal.


I do not regret going, there was enough cool things to experience and the weather was sumptuous. I would go again if it was better curated, less projectors and more alternative approaches. And, I got to ride the ferry, twice! I loved it. I found it humorous that the pillars of the ferry port on the Staten Island side was painted like the pillars in Sephora. The black and white striped pillars are the iconic look of Sephora. I don’t know who the ferry folk thought they were foolin’, but I knew better. This was no Sephora. The dumpsters is what gave it away. That, and the complete lack of eyeshadow.

sephora-pillars sephora-stores-stripes


*Like these.

gate-animation leaves-changing-color turning-sculpture donut5  donut4  donut1

2 Responses to “Lumen 2013.”

  1. Gemma says:

    Your story of the Bush Woman reminds us of our trip to see Gulliver’s Travels with your parents…I think they said sorry for that one too. It is one of my fondest memories, though.

  2. Rothbeastie says:

    Ah yes, the one with the bishop with the inflatable penis, I believe. 🙂 There was also the time my mother took me to see the story of the Little Mermaid told as a Mexican folk tale and it looked like someone was ripping out her voicebox onstage. My parents are great believers in alternative culture-y weirdness.

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