Enlightened by Nightscape

Krista Connor

Longwood Gardens’ current featured installation is a psychedelic journey that is drawing big crowds. Ricardo Rivera discusses the inspiration and challenges involved in creating the unique visuals and sounds.

It’s 9 p.m., but the crowds are just arriving at Longwood Gardens. The atmosphere is filled with anticipation as spectators enter a familiar landscape that has taken on a new, fascinating personality in the dark. Ambient sounds fill the air, and the trees and shrubs have been transformed into canvases displaying spectacular colors.

Ignoring his parents, a young boy is drawn trance-like away from the crowd to the foot of a large tree, called the Legacy Tree. He stares up at the swirls, circles, and enchanting, fairy-like objects that flit about like something out of the film Avatar.

The child’s reaction epitomizes the desired effect of Nightscape: A Light and Sound Experience by Klip Collective. That effect: “Wonder,” says Director Ricardo Rivera.

Created via video installations scattered around the premises, “Nightscape is a very psychedelic journey, and a way to evoke the subconscious through psychedelic emotions, visuals and sounds,” Rivera says. “It’s about exploring, and I want people to do that, and to be transfixed.”

The journey that led to Nightscape, which runs Wednesdays through Saturdays, July through Oct. 31, took an entire year to visualize and implement, says the Smyrna native.

It started two years ago when Rivera, a video artist and co-founder of Philadelphia visual art shop Klip Collective, did an installation at Bartram’s Garden in West Philadelphia. Paul Redman, executive director at Longwood, happened to see the installation and was impressed. He contacted Rivera, and the Nightscape project began soon afterward.

The initial stages went something like this: “Okay, Ricardo, this is your palette, these are our gardens,” Redman said to Rivera. “Immerse yourself.”

Stunning visuals and sounds draw spectators into an enchanting world. (Photo courtesy of Klip Collective)

Stunning visuals and sounds draw spectators into an enchanting world. (Photo courtesy of Klip Collective)

“It is so different from what we have ever done before,” Redman says.

Rivera had gained a reputation doing visual installations at raves as an undergraduate at UD in the ’90s, and later at major festivals like Sundance, and for the Chamber Orchestra in Philadelphia. He approached this project with a specific philosophy—as he does with all his art, he says. “Everything we do is geared toward this idea that what we project on is just as important as what we’re projecting.”

Instead of trying to project “random stuff onto random things,” he worked with the space at Longwood to create a natural harmony between visual effects and objects.

An example is the Topiary Garden, which, in daylight, consists of a series of large shrubs trimmed round or as geometric shapes. During Nightscape, the angles and shapes are emphasized, coming to life as a symphony of animated projections open to interpretation. Redman says it gives him goosebumps.

“[The Topiary] and all other pieces were inspired by the space, by Longwood itself,” says Rivera.

The Topiary Garden is his favorite among all the installations, but, he says, Longwood inspired him with “8 million ideas.” He says he knew he didn’t want Nightscape to be a “literal piece or story,” but rather an emotional journey, drawing out the sense of Longwood’s aliveness. This explains the ethereal walk through Flower Garden Drive or the Conservatory, where bizarre, disparate sounds and shapes flood the senses, leaving the interpretation entirely up to the viewer.

There are one or two “literal” moments. One occurs when the trees behind the Large Lake function as a natural stage, coming to life with projected jumping fish and soaring dragonflies. An original orchestral piece builds to a climax alongside the visuals. Rivera admits this has—unintentionally—made guests cry.

“I think it’s the music,” he says. “It’s a very uplifting orchestral piece.”

Redman is awed by Rivera’s accomplishments. “The Large Lake is cinematography on a whole other level,” he says. “It’s breaking ground, and something that no one else has ever done before on a living canopy like that.”

Redman says that many guests return to Nightscape, and some relax on the lounge chairs overlooking the lake, absorbing the visuals and sounds.

The music was produced specifically for Nightscape. Electronic, ambient—and in the case of the Topiary Garden and Large Lake—orchestral sounds resonate throughout the installments. Among those who worked on the project are composer and musician Jon Barthmus of Sun Airway and composer and musician Justin Geller of Pink Skull.

Rivera says he's never spent so much time on a project as he has with Nightscape. (Photo courtesy of Klip Collection)

Rivera says he’s never spent so much time on a project as he has with Nightscape. (Photo courtesy of Klip Collection)

“It was very important to have music as a part of this process, and for them to create the work the way I was creating the work, which was in response to the garden,” Rivera says.

He met a few unexpected challenges during the installation of Nightscape. Among them: “Plants,” Rivera says, laughing. “We had to develop a whole other visual language [for them].”

Throughout his career and in the co-founding of Klip Collective in 2003, Rivera has projected on a variety of objects—cars, buildings, even people; but plants were a new undertaking. Longwood’s flora and fauna required countless hours of documenting, setting up, developing, leaving, coming back, and starting over. Rivera says he’s never spent so much time on one project, although he didn’t bother to keep track of the hours.

Now that they are finally established, Rivera says, the installations don’t require much human intervention. In fact, it’s not even a matter of flipping a switch, because his high-tech systems are monitored remotely and set to automatically turn on at the appointed time.

And then the technology—or magic, depending on perspectives —takes over.

“Ricardo is so visionary and innovative,” says Redman. “I can only imagine where this art form will be in another 10 or 15 years.”

Nightscape frequently sells out, and Redman predicts even more sellouts as the event gains popularity and autumn arrives. To purchase tickets and view schedules, go to longwoodgardens.org/nightscape. A beer garden and live music take place at 6 p.m. Thursday evenings, and Redman recommends stopping by prior to Nightscape.

The Director’s Recommendation

We asked Rivera the best way to experience Nightscape, and here’s what he said:

“I designed it from a specific perspective. Personally, I think it’s best to exit the Visitor’s Center and turn right toward the Rose Arbor. If you go that way, there’s a cascade of installations, which are their own act. Then go down Flower Garden Drive, which is a huge tunnel where I project on a canopy of trees, toward the Legacy Tree projection, and end up at the Large Lake. Circle back through the light and sound installation of the interactive Flower Garden Walk. Then you should go to the Topiary, which can be viewed at any time. It’s its own piece, in and of itself. Then go to the Conservatory, where you’ll find three installations.”

So, what do you think? Please comment below.