At its most accessible, art can’t be ignored—especially if it’s something you can’t avoid while walking down the street. The nonprofit Denver Theatre District knows this, and has succeeded once again in placing accessible art right in front of Denverites’ faces—well, this time, up in the sky—with the launch of a new permanent art installation, Night Lights Denver. The monthly rotation of curated art, a collaboration with the Downtown Denver Partnership and Orange Barrel Media, will be projected onto downtown’s Daniels & Fisher Tower to transform the iconic piece of architecture every weekend after the sun sets.

Using the burgeoning technology of projection mapping on the Arapahoe Street side of the clock tower, Night Lights Denver will feature repeating animated art shows of brief creations from artists all over Colorado and the world for roughly an hour-and-a-half every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night, starting about 30 minutes after sundown (possibly one of the few benefits of having the sun set so begrudgingly early during the winter.) The first show will launch Thursday, November 7, and will highlight work from local artists Sofie Birkin and Joel Swanson, as well as international art collective Limelight, until December.

The Theatre District has been creating space for and promoting art in Denver for nearly 10 years with projects like the Understudy—the art incubator inside the Colorado Convention Center—among others. And the new, arguably much-needed, refresher to the 16th Street Mall made sense as a next step in their goal to break down barriers for Coloradans to experience (as well as share) art in the community.

“Downtown is far more vibrant than it was 10 years ago, but the mission is the same: to provide a platform for a local art and culture downtown that entertains people and kind of makes it a more interesting, fun place,” says David Ehrlich, executive director of the Denver Theatre District. “We’ve grown to the point where we can create our own platform and basically gifted back to Denver, and allow local artists, international artists, and national artists to show their work and entertain people with these kind of cool 10-minute shows.”

Projection mapping itself is an innovative art method that’s still arguably fledging—at least on such a large scale—within the United States, having only been seen a few other places domestically so far, like the Merchandise Mart in Chicago. The initial cost for the projection setup of Night Lights Denver rang in at a little more than a half a million dollars, but as a long-term investment, the platform will drastically cut costs for artists to participate, compared to other places around the world where projection mapping is more popular (for example in Europe, where Ehrlich says you can spend hundreds of thousands on one piece of projection mapping art). This also makes it easier for the Theatre District to compensate artists fairly, and Ehrlich is hoping artists will take the new canvas and run with it.

Test image art by Mitchell Pond. Photo by Third Dune Productions

“We’re not joking when we call it ‘the people’s projector’” Ehrlich says. “If East High School wants to take some of their kids and do some digital mapping, we can give them the tools and they can go. They could never do that before because it’s just too expensive. Well, now they’ve got a platform,” Ehrlich says, mentioning that it should hypothetically only cost a few thousand dollars for any artist to create and show a piece with Night Lights Denver. “Given that range, you really can go to East or to [George Washington High School] or to any of the schools and give them a stipend—and you could actually pay the kids and they can have their work shown in the middle of downtown.”

While the project is still in its early stages, the Theatre District has already put some of its annual improvement budget to use getting the bell in the Daniels & Fisher Tower working again. And Ehrlich has plenty of ideas for other civic programming that will be possible with Night Lights Denver after they lay the groundwork this year: anything from partnered concerts with the Denver Gay Men’s Chorus, coordinating with the Parade of Lights, or even installations for Denver Pride.

About this month’s artists

Limelight is a Hungary-based art collective that was in the projection mapping business before the art form even had a name. Known for its massive, 3D-animated installations around the world, Limelight will use Night Lights as its first large-scale piece in the U.S. The piece it’s using for the launch, titled “Incunabula,” will be an ode to the now ever-present theme of change and new beginnings happening in the Mile High City, starting in a black-and-white world and transitioning to a more vibrant experience to reflect on the diversity of Denver.

Sofie Birkin
Birkin is a British illustrator based in Denver who’s colorful artwork explores the world of daydreams, imagination, and queer visibility, and has been found in the pages of Cosmopolitan and Playboy. With the help of Vincent Comparetto to animate her creations for the tower, Birkin’s piece “Queen City” will feature all of these themes, but will also serve as an abstract love letter to the city of Denver—the city that drew Birkin in five years ago and that she has grown to adore.

Joel Swanson
Swanson is a local artist and writer whose artwork has been shown nationally and internationally, and through a mix of mediums like sculptures or interactive installations, examines the connection between language and technology. Swanson also teaches courses on creative coding, typography, and media theory at the ATLAS Institute at the University of Colorado Boulder. His piece “Choreographies” will depict typography and punctuation symbols that will play on the relationship between motion and symbolic meaning.

If you go: Night Lights Denver will debut on Thursday, November 7 from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. on the Arapahoe Street side of the Daniels & Fisher Tower, 1601 Arapahoe Street. Complimentary hot drinks and cookies will be available at the Woody Creek Bakery and Café at 1001 16th Street for anyone attending the first night of the launch. Find more information on the artists and showtimes online

Madi Skahill
Madi Skahill
Madi Skahill is 5280’s former associate digital editor.