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July 24, 2013

Light Show Brightens Up Burlington's Gloomy Moran Plant

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Ever since its decommissioning 37 years ago, the Moran Plant has hulked lifelessly over the Burlington waterfront. And while the abandoned coal-fired power plant won't be revivified anytime soon, it's temporarily become a little less of a gloomy presence.

Burlington artist Sarah O Donnell has rigged up a light show at the top level of Moran's interior that blinks colorfully from dusk to dawn, readily visible to anyone looking at the southern exterior of the plant. "A Visible Night," as O Donnell titles her work, will remain in operation through September 21.

She's hung 18 silk sheets along a row of now-glassless windows just below Moran's roof line and above the "City of Burlington" inscription on the brick facade. A swiveling beam of light is powered via a 500-foot series of extension cords plugged into the plant's only functioning socket far below O Donnell's installation. Like a zoetrope, the light plays quickly along the row of silks arranged as a color spectrum — from cool blues and greens on the eastern end, to warm reds and purples along the part closer to the lake.

Moran appears to be sending out signals. Maybe it's trying to tell onlookers, "I'm not dead! See — I've got a pulse!"

O Donnell's aim, she explains, was "to show Moran a little love."

It sure can use it. The interior fills her with "foreboding," O Donnell confessed during a tour of the ghostly interior on Tuesday evening. That's partly because of the racoons — maybe rabid, maybe not — that lurk in the unlit space where she installed her work. With its many unfenced pits that drop to the lake or into some seemingly bottomless darkness, the place is also just flat-out dangerous. Graffiti sprayed on crumbling cement-block walls adds a sinister note. Plus, the plant is a toxic-waste site.  O'donnell 005

O Donnell, who moved to Vermont a year ago after earning an MFA from Ohio State University, says she's done a lot of artwork involving abandoned buildings, including a suite of photos of a ghost town in Montana. But there's a special discomfort to being in Moran, O Donnell adds.

It's not as though she hates the place, however. In fact, O Donnell says she hopes her show helps accelerate the move to redevelop Moran in some still-undecided manner.

Standing on a shaky walkway at the top level of the plant as darkness gathered, O Donnell said her status as a newcomer to Burlington allowed her to focus on the plant's architecture rather than on the politics that have produced the decades-long stalemate on redevelopment. And although city officials have been "amazing" in their assistance with the project, O Donnell noted she "didn't want too much information" from them about Moran. "I wanted to work from my gut."

The result puts a smile on a building that's been glowering at Burlington for a long time. And O Donnell's simple but ingenious project will likely have the same effect on all who see it.

"A Visible Night" was made possible with funding from Burlington City Arts. A show related to O Donnell's piece can be seen on the second floor of the BCA Center on Church Street.

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