The Empire Lights Back

Using the world’s most iconic skyscraper as his canvas, a high-tech LED artist turns New York City’s nightscape into an eye-popping rave.

The Empire Lights Back

It’s Super Bowl Sunday in America, and the stakes are high. The Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos take the field at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, as hundreds of millions of viewers tune in to watch from barstools and living room couches around the world. Marc Brickman is one of them. A few miles away from the game, across the Hudson, his eyes are glued to the television for something more than fandom, fun, or that appetizing office pool.

This is his time to shine. No, literally.

It happens fast: The ball breaks the plane of the end zone, the referee’s arms rise, and the announcer roars “Touchdown!” That’s Brickman’s signal. He quickly presses down on a button, and now almost every person within at least a twenty-mile radius of New York City on this comfortable February night will know the Seahawks scored a touchdown — because the Empire State Building is flashing blue and white.

Be it postcards, movies, commercials, or any other Big Apple advertisement, the Empire State Building is New York City. A 1,250-foot, 103-story tower of magnificence in the middle of Midtown, stacked with 1,200 LED light fixtures, each capable of producing 256 colors and infinite possibilities. And Marc Brickman has this immaculate canvas of light at his disposal. It’s his job to keep it lit, and us in awe.

The Empire State Building light show for this past Super Bowl with Marc Brickman at the controls.

It’s one of those days in early March when life in the northeast returns to a vibrant normalcy at the tail end of a rough winter. Even from eighty-six stories up, you can feel the change. The Empire State Building’s observatory deck is filled to the brim with a mixture of tourists and first-timers, like myself. Selfies abound. Attendees search their pockets for two quarters, eager to feed the mechanical steel binoculars and stalk the ants below on Fifth Avenue and beyond.

Tourists look out at the city view from the Empire State Building's 86th floor observation deck. (Photo by Jessica Bal)
Tourists look out at the city view from the Empire State Building’s 86th floor observation deck. (Photo by Jessica Bal)

Brickman and I meet in the lobby and take an elevator nearly a fifth of a mile up to the eighty-sixth floor. A short man with thinly framed glasses and a laid-back disposition, Brickman flew in to New York from Malibu, California, where he lives with his wife and four-year-old daughter. He’s here to attend meetings and catch up with old friends over the course of the week, but, most importantly, today is his wedding anniversary, and his wife, Catherine, is with him.

Born in 1953, Brickman grew up in Philadelphia, but would occasionally take trips as a child with his parents to New York and sometimes visited the spot where we’re standing now. Little did he know then that he’d return years later as the building’s artist-in-residence. “It holds a really special place,” he says, looking around at the scenery. “To be able to have that memory and then come here and do what I’m doing is really something else.”

Like many kids, Brickman had no idea what he wanted to be when he grew up. He certainly never thought he’d have an interest in lighting. But that all changed, as did most things for teenagers going to college in the late 1960s. Brickman bore witness to the counterculture movement — a time when light shows soared in popularity as optic psychedelics for the tripped-out rock of the time. He fell into something that started off as a self-taught hobby.

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A view of downtown Manhattan from the Empire State Building's 86th floor observation deck. (Photo by Jessica Bal)
A view of downtown Manhattan from the Empire State Building’s 86th floor observation deck. (Photo by Jessica Bal)

“It just kinda happened,” Brickman recounts. “I was going around doing light shows on weekends with a couple buddies of mine.” At the time, his friends were busy buying 45” vinyl LPs and scoring gigs as DJs, which inspired Brickman’s initial taste in lighting, as he helped establish their performances’ basic visuals. “So somehow I built a light show from the DJs,” he continued. “And that was my first project, it really was.”

Brickman was expelled from school soon after, he says, for not attending gym class. “My dad said lovingly, ‘You know, you gotta find a job.’ And so I said, ‘If I’m gonna do lighting, I’m gonna do lighting.’”

One day, Brickman received a phone call from a local Philly radio station to do lighting and production design for the station’s sponsored concerts, which featured famous artists of the day, like Johnny Mathis, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Wayne Newton. “I was eighteen years old, and it kinda ushered [on] from there.”

Marc Brickman stands next to a viewfinder on the Empire State Building's 86th floor observation deck. (Photo by Jessica Bal)
Marc Brickman stands next to a viewfinder on the Empire State Building’s 86th floor observation deck. (Photo by Jessica Bal)

Any classic rock fan would bow down like Wayne and Garth at some of Brickman’s stories. Like that time he met a little-known rocker named Bruce Springsteen in 1972. Brickman toured the country with Springsteen’s E Street Band for years while providing the lighting for the star’s storied concerts. Brickman became especially close with both Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt, the E Street Band’s rhythm guitarist, and, later, Tony Soprano consigliore. “My rock ‘n’ roll career started from there,” he says.

Or that other time he got a phone call the night before Pink Floyd’s The Wall tour launched and was told to fly to Los Angeles immediately. “They were having problems…I had less than twenty-four hours.” Brickman still works for Roger Waters and David Gilmour on their solo tours, and calls them by their first names. “David’s birthday is tomorrow, actually,” he mentions nonchalantly.

Decades later, Brickman still works with the likes of John Mayer, Keith Urban and the Blue Man Group. At any given time, he’s usually juggling three or four different projects. When we spoke in early March, he had just finished work for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., and was wrapping up installations for two tours, both of which he kept a secret. But the Empire State Building, Brickman says, “is all my all-time favorite project. I look at this like [it’s] a rock star, I really do.”

The biggest thrill of all, the force that really pulls Brickman to this particular job, is the risk factor. Because unlike The Boss and Pink Floyd, this rock star doesn’t get a dress rehearsal.

In May of 2012, Anthony Malkin, chairman, president and CEO of Empire State Realty Trust, the group that owns the building, decided this eighty-four-year-old skyscraper needed an upgrade. When Malkin’s company acquired the building in 2006, he promised to enact measures to trim the building’s carbon footprint, so a retrofit of the entire building was in order. By the fall, all 400 lights left over from the 1976 bicentennial were replaced with a web of LED lights.

The revitalization was a luminescent win-win. Not only was it a move that cut energy costs by a whopping seventy-five percent, but it also greatly expanded the building’s scenic potential come nightfall. As opposed to standalone lights, the LED fixtures can be programmed with text, music and video display, paving the way for a whole new age in the building’s history.

Malkin just needed a light man.

That November, Brickman got the job, but it wasn’t easy.

“Oh, there were a bunch of people in the race,” Brickman says. “And I don’t think I was the favorite horse either. I don’t come from the architectural world, and I think I was a long shot. But I had a different approach.”

His “approach” to each new program starts two to three weeks before the spectacle is scheduled to run. To get a feel for his surroundings, Brickman begins his process by listening to the music for the planned spectacle, then adjusts his lights in accordance with the style and rhythm.

Marc Brickman designing a light show at the Empire State Building. (Photo courtesy Empire State Realty Trust)
Marc Brickman designing a light show at the Empire State Building. (Photo courtesy Empire State Realty Trust)

The first light fixtures start on the seventy-second floor; the second set is on the eightieth and rises up to the mast; on the 103rd floor, is the antenna, which, as Brickman says, “is 200 feet of just light.”

His secret weapon, and what he believes got him the job, is a video-light display technique called pixel mapping. With the lights programmed, Brickman is able to feed video into the LED display, allowing him to use each pixel as a mini-screen to display, or “map out,” a larger image. Customized layers based on resolution are made for the side and mast — even the antenna has pixel-mapping capabilities — and once the lights turn on, the viewer experience quickly jumps from a simple 2-D display to more complex 3-D imagery. In other words, it gives Brickman the ability to turn the Empire State Building into the architectural equivalent of an LED TV.

The Empire State Building lights celebrate the holiday season during a December light show. (Photo courtesy Empire State Realty Trust)
The Empire State Building lights celebrate the holiday season during a December light show. (Photo courtesy Empire State Realty Trust)

In using pixel mapping in the Christmas light show last year, flashed bells were ringing and reindeers were jumping, all visible in the lights. “That’s really what has made the difference in what we’ve been able to do to the building,” Brickman says. “It wasn’t just on and off.”

On the night of a “performance,” the Empire State Building partners with Clear Channel to livestream the show on its website, simulcast the music on radio stations across New York City and promote the presentation on social media. But by then Brickman still has no idea what is really going to happen. “We have pretty extensive pre-visualizations that allow us to see what it’ll look like,” he says. But “we never actually see the building before it goes live; it’s just not possible.”

He remembers his first night on the job, in November 2012. To introduce the new technology, the Empire State Building was to pay tribute to its home in New York City. “We had Alicia Keys, who was down at the studios for Clear Channel in TriBeCa,” Brickman says, and then points downward to a nearby building. “And I was on a rooftop over here.” While Keys sang “Girl on Fire” and “Empire State of Mind,” which was intercut with verses from Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” Brickman was tuned in to the music, making sure every button was pressed on time. It went off without a hitch.

Marc Brickman’s debut Empire State Building light show.

“As a moment in what I do, to have the biggest thrill of my life, which this really was, there was nothing that ever equaled that,” he says.

Brickman is in year two of the job, and so far the Empire State Building has been an artist’s dream: An incomparable spot in New York City’s skyline, it is the ultimate venue, with an audience spanning states. “You can see it for miles and miles, like The Who song,” says Brickman.

“I think it’s more popular now than it’s ever been,” he declares. “Actually, on Jimmy Fallon’s new poster [for “The Tonight Show”], there’s the Empire State Building, only I realized they took an old shot. It kinda bothered me because it didn’t have the antenna lit.”

For Brickman, the ongoing project at the Empire State Building is a natural step in his career, especially as touring becomes saturated with easier-to-use lighting technology, a development of which he remarks, “I did that already.”

Brickman doesn’t call himself a technician or lighting designer. He prefers to be considered an artist, with the Empire State Building an unprecedented exhibit space on which he can create what he believes is the future of art: luminosity.

Marc Brickman peers through a viewfinder on the Empire State Building's 86th floor observation deck. (Photo by Jessica Bal)
Marc Brickman peers through a viewfinder on the Empire State Building’s 86th floor observation deck. (Photo by Jessica Bal)

“I think that light is just being recognized as an art form, more so than it ever has before,” Brickman says, citing the light-based works of peers like Christo, Robert Irwin, and James Turrell, all of whom have had recent shows in New York. “It’s going to continue, mostly because of the rise of video and light and LED, and then their convergence. And I think that convergence is how we live: We live by the image.”

“By using video and putting that through the lights, it’s actually communicating where we live,” he continues. “I come to the project wanting to really inspire people with what can be done with the building…Just to be inspired and to take light and use it in different ways is what I look to do.”

Brickman has since returned to his home in Malibu. But soon enough, he’ll be back here, ready to light up the night sky. And when his plane circles New York City, he’ll look out his window and see his proudest work below him, in all its glittering glory.

“Even when I’m gone two or three weeks, it’s always a thrill to see it coming into JFK. It really is,” he says, looking up at the Empire State Building’s mast and smiling. “Coming into the city at night and seeing it lit. For me, there’s nothing like it.”

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Jessica Bal hails from a two-stoplight town in Massachusetts and now resides in a city with too many lights to count, where she produces media for an arts education organization and looks for any excuse to write, photograph, and film stories that she’s curious about.