Birmingham Lights is the collective name for a series of kinetic color light art projects installed in the four downtown underpasses crossing the Railroad Reservation.
The project was initiated with a $247,000 Community Catalyst Funds grant from the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham to REV Birmingham in April 2013. Although the underpasses are owned by the railroads, the City of Birmingham is responsible for maintaining them. With the city's support and no objections from the railroads, REV commissioned San Antonio, Texas-based artist Bill FitzGibbons to design the initial installation and to participate with REV in the creation of a master plan for other downtown lighting projects.
LightRails was FitzGibbons' first work, which he installed inside the 18th Street underpass, adjacent to the east end of Railroad Park and the entrance to the Birmingham Central Station. It was unveiled to the public on June 27.
The installation consists of several rows of "Color Kinetics" color-tunable LED fixtures manufactured by Philips. They are connected to a central "iPlayer3" controller, which provides both power and control signals to each fixture via a 4-conductor DMX network. The lighting washes the interior surfaces of the underpass with brilliant colored light, constantly changing according to the artist's pre-programmed sequence. The 17-minute program is set to loop from dusk to dawn. For the month of December the rainbow-colored program was reduced to red and green. Other special programs can be installed by SD card and triggered at specific times by a built-in clock. The project was designed to use about a third of the energy of the high-intensity white lights that had illuminated the bridge (albeit inconsistently) since 2008.
In December 2013 REV announced that additional funding had been secured to allow the other railroad underpasses, at 14th Street, 19th Street, and 20th Street to also be illuminated in early 2014. Although FitzGibbons had been asked to begin planning to light up the other bridges, REV Birmingham had informed him on November 1 that he would no longer be involved. Mayer Electric was awarded the contract to complete the remaining installations.
FitzGibbons subsequently filed a lawsuit against REV Birmingham, Mayer Electric, and Mayer CEO Nancy Goedecke, who sits on REV's board. The suit claims that Goedecke and REV encouraged him to purchase equipment from Mayer for LightRails, but he preferred to buy directly from the equipment manufacturers. He believes that he was terminated because he did not comply with what he considered an unethical request. In addition to monetary damages, he seeks to have the court prevent the use of his design or any deceptively-similar design in any future installations.
Positive Disruption (2014)
The first of the later installations, collectively dubbed "Positive Disruption", was created by local lighting designer John Gill for the 14th Street underpass. It debuted following the Birmingham Barons vs. Chicago White Sox exhibition game at Regions Field on March 28, 2014. Gill's design incorporates interactivity, with the color patterns disrupted when pedestrians enter the site.
The 20th Street underpass had its new lighting installed concurrently with 14th Street's, but the lights remained all-white until the unveiling of the art installation during a benefit dinner for Desert Island Supply Company on April 25. For this installation, John Gill created a seasonally-changing palette.
Birmingham Lights for Causes
In 2015 REV began offering sponsored color schemes to help "bring awareness to causes" and to offset maintenance costs. The custom installations were limited to one per month in order to "protect the integrity of the existing artistic designs."
- "An interview with Light Rails artist Bill FitzGibbons" (June 26, 2013) Community Foundation of Great Birmingham blog
- Wright, Maury (October 2013) "Birmingham celebrates railroad history, connects city center with LEDs" LEDs Magazine
- Tomberlin, Michael (December 5, 2013) "Birmingham viaduct lights offer holiday flash with more projects to come." The Birmingham News
- Tomberlin, Michael (December 20, 2013) "Lawsuit claims unethical REV Birmingham, Mayer Electric conspiracy to shut artist out of LightRails projects." The Birmingham News
- Bruce, Bri (January 7, 2014) "'LightRails' lawsuit." Weld for Birmingham
- Reid, Bryna (March 20, 2014) "REV, Community Foundation to unveil ‘ Birmingham Lights: Positive Disruption’" REV Birmingham. press release