Nights along the Congaree River, between the Gervais Street Bridge and the Blossom Street Bridge, are going to look a lot different for the next 10 years.
A host of entities — including What’s Next Midlands, One Columbia for Arts and History, EngenuitySC, the Vista Guild, the State Museum, the City of Columbia and others — are collaborating on a unique installation called Southern Lights, one that will use lasers and mirrors to create colorful beams of light above the Congaree every night for the next decade.
Southern Lights, which will be the first laser art installation of its type in the United States, will formally begin Aug. 19 in association with Columbia’s Total Eclipse Weekend ahead of the Aug. 21 solar eclipse. According to a release from Southern Lights organizers, the laser art installation “is slated to light up the night for three hours every evening for the next 10 years, or as long as the equipment holds up.” The times the lasers will beam over the Congaree each night will vary, depending on what time the sun sets during a given time of year.
The installation is being designed by Chris Robinson, a professor in the University of South Carolina’s School of Visual Art and Design.
“My installations create a sculptural structure, draw attention to interesting aspects of the surrounding environment and illuminate the distinctive quality of laser light,” Robinson said in a statement. “The Congaree River is special and unusual in that it is relatively dark in the middle of an urban environment and the beams can go both under and over the bridges and the viewers.”
The installation will come at a cost of $120,000. Organizers say a mixture of public and private dollars are being used to fund the project, including hospitality tax dollars from Columbia, West Columbia, Cayce and Richland County, and funding from BlueCross BlueShield, among others.
Southern Lights will include the installation of two lasers near the Congaree River, one on top of the city’s pump station near Founders Park, and another at EdVenture. Several mirrors will be placed on the Gervais and Blossom bridges, as well as on other structures, like the Bridgepointe condos in West Columbia. The laser beams will be blue and green and will reflect off the mirrors in patterns that will be visible above the waters of the Congaree.
The City of Columbia, through One Columbia, is committed to the ongoing maintenance of the laser installation, with the help of the State Museum.
Lee Snelgrove, executive director of One Columbia, says the lasers will be positioned in such a way that they won’t interfere with the eyesight of any motorists. He also says the beams will not be some strobing light show.
“These aren’t flashing, they aren’t moving,” Snelgrove says. “My understanding is that it is interesting to look at, but not such that it’s distracting.”
Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler says, when he first heard about the laser art installation, he had his reservations. But he eventually warmed to the idea.
“I was really concerned at first,” the river advocate concedes. “What it sounded like, when I hadn’t talked to the artist yet, was a laser show in the river. That didn’t vibe with me and that’s not the atmosphere our rivers create and that’s not what people around there wanted. But I talked to the artist and he talked about it being a much more static, contemplative display, and I saw some drawings and images. That really resolved a lot of my concerns about it. I think it could actually work very well, hand-in-hand, with our river the way they are discussing it. We’ll have to see how it all ends up. But this is not some Pink Floyd, Las Vegas laser light show.”
Stangler says he doesn’t envision the laser display having a negative impact on river wildlife.
Columbia City Councilman Howard Duvall says Southern Lights will be “an interesting piece of art.” The councilman says the decision to have the installation light up the river for a decade was not made by any one entity.
“It was a collective decision and there was always a desire to have a piece of art for the eclipse weekend that would be a permanent piece of art,” Duvall says.
EngenuitySC has been a key partner in bringing Southern Lights together. Executive director Meghan Hickman says the installation will be a regional draw for years to come.
“This will be a signature piece for our community and a must-see for tourists, and we’re proud to be formally introducing Southern Lights as part of the Total Solar Eclipse Weekend,” Hickman says.