A laser art installation over Columbia's Congaree River opens next month

Paradise by the blue green lights

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PROVIDED/ CHRIS ROBINSON
  • Provided/ Chris Robinson
Downtown Columbia? Just cross the river and head through the lasers — you can’t miss it.

Those directions will soon be reality with Southern Lights, the laser art installation coming to Columbia this August. Created by artist and USC Beaufort Art Department chair Chris Robinson, Southern Lights will span the Congaree River between the Blossom and Gervais street bridges.

“It is a beautiful dark natural environment in the middle of three bustling cities,” says Robinson, who has worked with light and lasers since the 1970s. “The bridges also allow me to have beams that pass both over and under viewers, involving them in the installation and making it more personal.”

Bolstered by mirrors at various locations along the quarter-mile stretch, the blue and green lasers will light up every evening for three hours. They will remain in place for the next decade, but could potentially stay even longer.

“The typical lifetime of the tube in an argon ion laser is roughly 10,000 hours,” says Robinson. “We plan for the installation to be on every evening for about three hours, thus the lifetime. After that, the city can decide if it wants to replace the tubes and continue the piece.”

Organized by What’s Next Midlands, the SC State Museum, One Columbia, and others, the $120,00 project celebrates the work of South Carolina born physicist, Nobel Laureate, and laser inventor Charles Townes. Sponsors include Blue Cross Blue Shield and other midlands-area businesses.

PROVIDED
  • Provided
Even though the lasers will beam across the river during dusk, they are expected to have no significant environmental impact and have been approved by the state Department of Natural Resources.

“The beam is very small and coherent, doesn’t spread out like ambient light, and tends more toward quiet and contemplative,” Robinson said. “If anything, it should help draw attention to aspects of the night environment that people haven’t noticed or focused on before.”

The lasers start up on August 19 as part of Columbia’s Total Eclipse Weekend celebrations.

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