In light : of the time: Q&A with Brandon Stirling Baker

(Laying Man, Photos by Libby Stadstad)

Kaatsbaan Cultural Park in Tivoli, N.Y. has created a summer festival in a season where the cultural drought is palpable. In addition to live dance performances (with appropriate social distancing of course), lighting designer Brandon Stirling Baker, a Kaatsbaan residency artist, has co-curated an installation, In light : of the time, a collective collaboration of poets, choreographers, playwrights, visual artists, and designers in the world of dance. It features the drawings of Jamar Roberts, with text by Carl Hancock Rux and Hope Boykin, and lighting design by Alan C. Edwards

A light and sound installation, In light : of the time considers the realities of police violence and the impact COVID-19 especially on minorities, with a series of images projected onto the interior surfaces of a barn. The property was once a farm that belonged to Eleanor Roosevelt’s grandparents, giving it a historic perspective. In light : of the time is open to the public now through September 27 on weekends. 

Live Design: Can you talk about the project, how it came about and its evolution to the final version?

Brandon Stirling Baker: Soon after COVID-19 hit the United States, and it became clear the entertainment industry may not be moving forward as quickly as we all hoped, I began searching for new opportunities to develop original work outside of the traditional theater space. Sadly, my work in the world of dance, as a lighting designer and lighting director for the Boston Ballet was placed on hiatus.

In an effort to remain creative and curious, I began to conceptualize new independent projects all surrounding the medium of light. When George Floyd was tragically murdered, and Minneapolis was on fire, I found inspiration to join a march for Black Lives Matter in New York City. This life-changing experience inspired me to not only support change, but to personally create change in my immediate community. To dissect the artistic process is challenging, but the combination of the pandemic, and a landscape of inequality, racism and injustice was the incentive for this important and timely artistic endeavor. My intention as a designer and co-curator was to use the medium of light to inspire change and hopefully make a difference. 

In early June, I reached out to Sonja Kostich, executive director of Kaatsbaan Cultural Park in Tivoli, New York, to see if I could create a visual artist residency for their upcoming inaugural summer festival. Kaatsbaan was immediately supportive in this endeavor, so I used this opportunity to work as a co-curator on a special long-term installation that would project the voices and illustrations of BIPOC artists. One of the first artists I reached out to is my phenomenal longtime collaborator Jamar Roberts, who is the resident choreographer for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and also an incredible visual artist and illustrator. I reached out to the brilliant lighting designer Alan C. Edwards who has been a close friend for many years and hired him as the official lighting designer for this project. My early discussions with Alan deeply shaped the journey of the project and inspired me to move forward. After bringing Jamar and Alan into the collective, I commissioned gifted poet Hope Boykin (formerly of Alvin Ailey) and Carl Hancock Rux (Playwright and Poet) to create text and poetry that directly speaks to the world we are living in today. For this project, it was essential that all of the poetry, illustrations, amplified voices, and theatrical lighting was created entirely by BIPOC artists. My involvement in this project was primarily as a co-curator to create a new opportunity at the Kaatsbaan Cultural Park that had never been seen before.

LD: What were the challenges in terms of social distancing, and doing an installation open to the public at this time?

BSB: Kaatsbaan Cultural Park has a very strict health and safety protocol in place that made this summer festival and light installation possible. I believe that the Kaatsbaan Summer Festival is the only live dance festival to happen in the United States since March. Every artist, performer, and designer were asked to quarantine for two weeks prior to arrival and show proof that they had been tested negative twice prior to arrival on campus. All artists, staff, and audience members were required to wear masks at all times. Hand sanitizer stations were setup throughout the campus, and a daily health questionnaire had to be filled out every morning or prior to arrival on the property with a temperature check.

For this installation, the only collective members working on-site were Alan Edwards and myself, so the testing process was relatively simple and narrowed down to the bare minimum of artists working in person at the park. The other artists in this collective worked remotely from home. 

LD: Any specific challenges in the park or historic venue?

BSB: Creating a light and sound installation in the remote village of Tivoli, New York required our collective to be extremely specific for all of the sound equipment, lighting equipment, accessories, patterns and cable. Because of the distance to New York City, short production timeline, and delicate safety protocols, we could not afford to forget any items. The canvas of this installation takes place inside of the iconic Stanford White Barn, built in 1895, and designed by the famous architect of the same name. This farm was the summer home of Eleanor Roosevelt's grandparents, so the history always felt alive when working in this space. The Stanford White Barn has a total of 40 amps of power available, so for practical reasons the lighting had to be lit entirely with LED fixtures.

LD: Did you have sponsors for this project?

BSB: This project received major support from Rosco, Strand, Firehouse Productions, and 4Wall Entertainment. Rosco provided all of the custom glass templates and template holders. I worked closely with Anne Hunter and Chad Tiller at Rosco to make this important project possible from the very beginning. Rosco was an incredible partner in this collaboration. Strand Lighting provided SL Par 15 Zoom fixtures to illuminate the iconic wooden ceiling with rich color, Firehouse Productions in Red Hook, New York sponsored us with a complete sound system to amplify the voices of poets, and 4Wall Entertainment provided an additional lighting package.

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