Festival seeks to light up the night in Camden

Artwork by Jeremy Blake was photographed at a light festival in Brooklyn, N.Y. "Camden Night Gardens," a similar event, will showcase local musicians and artists. Photos courtesy of Nuit Blanche New York
Artwork by Jeremy Blake was photographed at a light festival in Brooklyn, N.Y. "Camden Night Gardens," a similar event, will showcase local musicians and artists. Photos courtesy of Nuit Blanche New York
Posted: April 17, 2014

The lights of restaurants and bars burn long after the sun has gone down, but streets elsewhere in Camden become eerily empty and quiet. Parks close, and neighborhoods stand still.

But on Thursday, spotlights will be turned on to awaken the night. "Camden Night Gardens," an outdoor event, will showcase local musicians and artists at a waterfront festival from 7 to 11 p.m.

Presented by the Cooper's Ferry Partnership at the site of the former Riverfront State Prison, the free event is the first in what the group hopes will become a series of annual "place-making events."

"We want to bring back life to spaces once thought of as dead," said Anthony Perno, CEO of Cooper's Ferry. The group, best known for neighborhood and waterfront development in the city, has spent $21,650 on setup, marketing, and operations for the show, funded by a grant from the William Penn Foundation.

CFP partnered with Nuit Blanche New York, a group that has organized similar large-scale evening-light festivals in Brooklyn. The name, meaning "white night," comes from festivals in France that run from dusk until dawn.

The group has rented spotlights that will cast shadow projections of performers onto a water tower.

"We see that these sorts of events and interventions made by artists can create new social spaces and interesting gatherings, and we find it to be not only an incredibly enchanting experience, but one that can start to make people feel differently about a neighborhood and feel differently about the community in which they live," said Ethan Vogt of Nuit Blanche, who has been working on the Camden production since December.

The night will coincide with the Third Thursday Arts Crawl, which Gallery Eleven One started three years ago and which continues to grow in size and participation.

The music and arts scene in Camden is decentralized - spoken word, dance, and musical events go on throughout the city - and there are few connections, save the arts crawl. Vogt said the event is an attempt to connect creativity citywide and bring the arts to an abandoned parcel.

"We've heard residents are afraid of going north of the bridge, they feel like, that's not our neighborhood, or that's dangerous," Vogt said. "We're saying, not only are we inviting you north of the bridge, we're inviting you north of the bridge at night, and you're going to see that great things can happen."

The Nuit Blanche initiative in Camden is a finalist for a grant from ArtsPlace, a federally assisted nationwide arts collaborative. The grant would help fund additional similar events.

The Kresge Foundation also has awarded Cooper's Ferry a two-year, $1.1 million grant for a pilot initiative to assess the impact of arts and culture on community revitalization for future events, said Joe Myers, vice president and COO of Cooper's Ferry.

Thursday night's events will include an illuminated BMX performance; a water-based light production; a display of historic record players and playing of recordings; a bike tune-up station; a bike parade, and food trucks and booths featuring cuisine from local restaurants.

David Benjamin Watkins, artistic coordinator of the event, will perform with his band, Rise Up Children.

"The whole idea is to get the community involved and engaged through the arts and in a way that's incorporated, cohesive," the Camden resident said.

Christopher Andrew Maier, a frequent performer at Third Thursday events, will play records on his antique Victrola and give attendees a history lesson on the player, along with a gramophone and other pieces borrowed from the Camden County Historical Society. Camden was where Victrolas were made.

Maier moved to Camden in 2013 when he started photographing the large, white water tower. He put together a YouTube video proposing a mural arts program for the city with a rendering of a brightly colored tower.

"I have high hopes," Maier said. "I can't foretell the future or anything like that, but Camden is a tremendous playground to exercise art, music, and ideas."


jterruso@phillynews.com

856-779-3876 @juliaterruso

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