The Wabash Lights Want to Come to Chicago!!!

posted in: Art, Chicago, Family 1
The Wabash Lights, imagined.
The Wabash Lights, imagined.

My brand new brother-in-law is making something wonderful.

Jack Newell (that’s the brother-in-law) and his partner in this project, designer Seth Unger have been working for four years on a public art project. They are very close to making this big, big, BIG idea happen and I’m shaking my head in wonder. Jack is cooler than Paul Newman speaking French while riding a motorcycle up to a valet guy at the backdoor entrance to a Rolling Stone (circa 1972) concert. Something like that. I recently spoke to Jack about The Wabash Lights.

Let’s talk about Wabash Avenue. What’s it like?

It embodies Chicago. It’s gritty, hardworking, overlooked, sometimes avoided, but crucial. It’s not touristy Michigan Ave or State St. It’s a place in a very segregated city where you find people from all over converging. Students from one of the seven colleges that touch Wabash, restaurants, bars, hot dog stands, jewelers, hotels and residences. If you were to walk down Wabash, you would find it dark, dreary and loud. We want to make it less dark.

I love Wabash Avenue because the el tracks run over the top. You get to walk around underneath — but I love the idea of transforming it. So give it to me: what’s The Wabash Lights?

The Wabash Lights is an interactive light installation on the underside of the elevated train tracks on Wabash Avenue in the heart of Chicago’s Loop. Designed by the public, this first of its kind piece of public art will give visitors to The Wabash Lights’ website and future app the ability to log in and design the lights, making it entirely interactive.

That is so great. It’ll be great for the street, obviously, but also civic pride and local business. And tourism! This wouldn’t be that far from The Bean. Wow. You’ve traveled all over the world with my sister Rebecca. Thanks for keeping her safe, by the way. You’ve seen a lot of public art in all these places. Talk to me about public art for a second.

There’s two types of public art, broadly speaking; temporary and permanent. Each of these can evoke a different experience. Sometimes the beauty of a piece of public art is the ephemeral nature of it.* The permanent pieces of public art need to do something different — they never change, but you do. Each time you interact with them your experience might be different. It can be an interesting experience in reflection.

Jack, I’m sorry. I have to ask. You say in the video that you’ve been getting permits and city clearance for four years. Did you have to engage the mob to get this kind of thing done in Chicago?

Funny question and we get questions in this vein quite a bit. We’ve found city government and the agencies we’ve been working with to be full of passionate, hard working people who have very difficult jobs. These organizations are most of the time underfunded and overworked. People usually only know of the CTA or CDOT when there’s something broken; they’re perceived one way, but our experience has been the opposite. They get what we’re trying to do and have been incredibly supportive and honest throughout the whole process. 

Do you ever wake up in the morning and go, “When did I become an adult who does huge, ambitious, city-changing projects?”

You either do stuff or you don’t. You are defined by the stuff you do and by the stuff you don’t do. I want to be defined by having done this.

You’re so close to funding the huge, ginormous first step for the Lights. The videos about it are amazing. There are four days left in the Kickstarter campaign. What’s the website?

The main website is right here; the Kickstarter campaign is here.

Will you engrave my name on one of the lights? Don’t tell me you can’t do it just because the thing is made of thin glass with gas inside it! If you can dream it, you can do it, right, Jack? 


The point of this, and one of the reasons we wanted to get the public on board before corporations (and in our corporate partners we will be looking for folks who agree with this) is that we want to maintain the artistic integrity of The Wabash Lights. The Wabash Lights is an art installation. It’s not a way finding installation or a commercial digital billboard. It’s a piece of art that is created by the public. 

Fine. Thanks, Jack. I’m so glad you’re my brother-in-law.

*Google “Pink Balls in Montreal” or anything by Christo.