Sunday, January 13, 2019

Electric Desert: after dark at the Desert Botanical Garden

The Desert Botanical Garden (DBG) in Phoenix, AZ likes to light up the night. When I was there in December 2013, they had a large-scale exhibit of Dale Chihuly glass sculptures which attracted crowds both during the day and at night (a record-breaking 631,000 visitors). In December 2015 they hosted Bruce Munro's Sonoran Light installation (318,000 visitors). This year, it was Electric Desert, created by video artist Ricardo Rivero and Klip Collective.

Electric Desert

On each of these occasions I went in December, which allowed me to experience both the special exhibit and Las Noches de las Luminarias, a beloved holiday tradition at the DBG combining 8,000 luminaria bags (hand-lit every night by volunteers) and holiday entertainment in nine different spots throughout the garden.

Luminaria bags in the Desert Terrace Garden

Cardons (Pachycereus pringlei) at the Webster Auditorium; notice the luminaria bags on top of the building

Palo blanco (Mariosousa willardiana)

Eliot Patio at the Webster Center; luminaria bags line the edge of the flat roof

Mesquite Forest on the Sonoran Desert Loop Trail

Sonoran Desert Loop Trail

Even without special events the DBG is a wonderful place to experience at night:

Saguaros (Carnegiea gigantea) and Agave franzosinii seen from Ullman Terrace

Saguaro against the evening sky


Palo verde and organ pipe cactus

Aloe flowers look pretty darn awesome at night, too!

This year's Electric Desert (running through May 12, 2019) may be the DBG's most ambitious installation yet. According to the DBG web site:
[...] desert, light and sound unite in a mesmerizing display like never before. Cactus and desert become a living canvas in this nighttime experience, taking visitors on an immersive journey through the Garden using light and original music. This is Klip Collective’s second garden installation; the first was at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania. Electric Desert includes seven site-specific locations, with each experience inspired by and related to the Garden.
The largest site is the butte behind the Webster Center. Lighting an entire hillside with intricately programmed effects synchronized to original music has got to be darn challenging. This is about as far removed from randomly flashing lights as a symphony performance is from a preschooler trying to play the recorder. The entire sequence is long, maybe 10 minutes, requiring quite a bit of attention and patience from often restless visitors. Still, it's worth it.


In a sense, photographing constantly changing light effects is an exercise in futility because it's virtually impossible to convey what it's like to be there. I'm adding a few video clips that, while not great, at least make the experience a bit more immersive. In the clips, click View on YouTube and select the highest-resolution for best results.


Be sure to check out the animated GIFs on the Klip Collective's web site to see more patterns projected onto the butte.




My favorite installations are in the Sybil B. Harrington Cactus and Succulent Galleries. These range from simple color changes:



...to jaw-droppingly intricate patterns on individual plants:


To create these projections, Philadelphia-based Klip Collective performed 3D scans of the plants and programmed LED lights down to the pixel. Whether you love this or think it's gimmicky, you have to admit that it's impressive.


The Queen Victoria agaves (Agave victoria-reginae) were entrancing—quite literally:




This display was hypnotic:



And the golden barrels were pure psychedelic fun:






Anticipating concern from visitors, the DBG issued this statement concerning Electric Desert:
Garden plant scientists can assure that the lights used in the Electric Desert will not damage the plants in any foreseeable way. Specifically, the lights used in the exhibit will not heat the plant tissues above normal nighttime temperatures, do not use light sources that are harmful to plant tissues (such as ultraviolet radiation), and are not intense enough to interrupt circadian rhythms of plant metabolic processes.  
Garden staff have consulted with animal experts at partner affiliations, which have confirmed that there are no biological concerns about the exhibition in regards to the well-being of the animals. 
It was quite cold on the night of my visit so I only made one pass through the garden, but I left strangely energized. That surprised me, considering it had been a long day. Maybe the lights have a subliminal effect on humans...

Dale Chihuly's Desert Towers at the entrance to the garden seemed like a fitting way to end an evening that had almost too much visually stimulation:




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10 comments:

  1. How gorgeous! I will have to make it out there one year. Thank you for sharing your pictures. I expect it's much like Nightbloom - hard to capture in photographs but so amazing in person.

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    1. I wasn't sure whether I would like it, but it really was amazing in person.

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  2. Fantastic! Some of those vignettes brought to mind undersea landscapes.

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  3. I read Jan's post on this a couple of days ago, and now yours. I suppose anything that gets people out to support the garden is a good thing. Would I go if I were there? I'm not sure. I do like the Agave victoria-reginae display, but I'm not sure about the others. One question: in your photo 181228_electric_desert_015 the clouds appear projected on the cactus, I'm confused! Were the clouds part of the show as well?

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    1. The installation does draw you in. It's kind of hypnotic. Before you know it, you've been staring at the lights for a lot longer than you had anticipated.

      The photo you mentioned was a multi-second exposure. I think one tripod leg slipped, causing that weird cloud artifact. That's the only explanation I have.

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  4. I like the simplicity of the luminarias. The colors on the Electric Desert seem unnatural. Reminds me of those little succulents that are spray-painted bright colors. :( Must be stunning in person, in intense ways--perhaps too intense?

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    1. I would have liked to have seen Electric Desert separate from the luminarias. The two didn't go together well in my mind. The luminarias, as you said, are simple, quiet and contemplative. Electric Desert is all about movement and energy.

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  5. The Chihuly glass structures are so simple and elegant. All the lights are reminisent of coral reefs with all the beautiful colours.

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    1. It's amazing how many succulents there are that are reminiscent of undersea flora and fauna.

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