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Boston’s Illuminus Festival lights up the Financial District with socially minded art

Just in time for the holidays, high-tech installations tackle everything from gender to criminal justice.

Each year, the Illuminus festival lights up the buildings of downtown Boston for two special nights.Michael J. Clarke

New Yorkers have their Snowflake Spectacular, when dramatic LED lights twinkle from the Saks Fifth Avenue facade. Parisians have their Nuit Blanche, an all-night festival beloved for its glowing sculptures and building displays. Here in Boston, for the fifth consecutive year, the Illuminus Festival will brighten some of the city’s most high-profile addresses with large-scale digital and video art projections.

Previous iterations of Illuminus brought pop-ups of abstract and cheerful high-tech art to the South End, Downtown Crossing, and even Fenway Park. But this year, organizers tapped more than a dozen artists (all from New England) to tackle important social issues, from gender to the artificial lives we construct for social media. “This year’s experience will hopefully make a lot of people stop and think,” said Illuminus curator David Guerra, who is also the founder and director of the Area Gallery in the South End.


Another change for 2019 brings Illuminus to the Financial District for the very first time. Look for it Dec. 5 and 6.

Allison Maria Rodriguez’s “Legends Breathe: Divine Night” (at 100 Summer St.) promises a fresh spin on the old Christmas narrative. The projected video offers an alternative nativity scene that blurs gender while addressing the global climate crisis. “With this piece, I’m breaking down the dominant and traditional Christian narrative of a nativity scene, as well as critiquing the commercialization of nature,” Rodriguez said in a phone interview. “I’m making a parallel between the healing of the planet and the healing of the individual.”

A still from Allison Maria Rodriguez's “Legends Breathe: Divine Night.” The video project will be shown at this year's Illuminus Festival in Boston's Financial District.Allison Maria Rodriguez (custom credit)

Other installations experiment with audience interaction. Somerville artist and performer Catherine Siller pokes fun at social media norms with a piece called “#buynow” (at 133 Federal Plaza). The piece involves taking live photos of visitors and inserting them into virtual worlds where they swim in a sea of diamonds, fly through palaces, or dissolve into post-apocalyptic, industrial-chic landscapes.


Audience members will be “immersed” in these virtual worlds, Siller explained via phone. “And it will then quickly be juxtaposed with some things that are a little more complicated. So the shiny diamonds raining down on them will be related to diamond panning in Africa.”

While this year’s installations address social issues, Illuminus still intends to serve up cheer. Vendors will be scattered throughout the area, selling hot cocoa and other holiday goodies. Guerra predicts the proceedings will match the national mood for 2019.

“I came into this with the goal of adjusting the tone of the festival to the current times that we live in,” he said.

As for the new location, organizers are confident the Financial District will be a good fit.

“This festival presents such a special opportunity to really look at some of the city’s most beautiful, diverse, and famous architectural buildings in new ways,” said Rosemarie Sansone, president and CEO of Illuminus co-presenter Downtown Boston Business Improvement District (LuminArtz is the event’s other presenter).

“There are 12,000 residents in that area,” Sansone added. “Plus, many of the workers in the area will get off the clock to witness the gorgeous art on their buildings."

At 100 Summer St. Dec. 5-6, 5-11 p.m. Free, all ages.

Chris Triunfo can be reached at