Photos by Henrik Kam, 2019
Grace Light Illuminates the Human Experience in the Heart of San Francisco.
In the dark of a fall night, Grace Cathedral feels ancient. Inside, it is almost pitch black, save for a cone of diffused light shining down from the cavernous ceiling to the labyrinth embedded in the stone floor. Instrumental music echoes between the walls. A woman’s calm voice invites us to lie down in the labyrinth. Along with a few dozen people gathered here this Sunday evening, I settle myself on the floor, resting my head on a small cushion and pointing my feet toward the center of the circle. All I can see is a pinpoint of white light high above. At the same time, the way the cool stone meets my shoulder blades and hips makes me very aware of my earthly, corporeal self. Is this what it feels like to be born? Or to die?
This experience is actually an interactive art installation at San Francisco’s iconic Grace Cathedral, situated high on Nob Hill. Called Grace Light, it’s the brainchild of Berkeley artist George Zisiadis, who says the initial sensory deprivation is intentional. “We're spending a lot of our lives increasingly in places of distraction, stress and anxiety, and often disconnection,” he muses. “It was my hope at the outset of this installation to create a very special and profound place for contemplation, self-discovery and healing.”
Taking part in Grace Light forces people to slow down, put down their phones, and to focus all their attention to the present. I am aware of my son to my left and self-conscious about a perfect stranger just a few feet away on my right. As my eyes adjust to the dimness of the space, the light grows gradually brighter, evocative of a sunrise through the fog.
Although Grace Light is not bound to any particular religious tradition, the experience reminds me of the Biblical story of creation. But there’s no booming voice from above, just gentle waves of sound as the lights take on colors and change in intensity. The music was composed by San Francisco musician Gabriel Gold, Grace Cathedral’s 2019 Artist in Residence. Over the course of a year, Gold and Zisiadis spent many late nights in the cathedral, experimenting with light and sound to create an installation that plays off the landmark’s unique architecture and acoustics. “I drew inspiration from that emotional quality that this space has inspired in my music in the past and allowed that to kind of be a guide for something a little more grandiose,” says Gold. The 30-year-old musician has performed many concerts at the cathedral and also provides accompaniment for the popular Yoga on the Labyrinth classes.
Grace Light is open to all, regardless of religious affiliation. Twenty-nine year old Zisiadis is inspired by his practice of meditation, as well as a childhood immersed in the Greek Orthodox church in New York City. “When you can't understand the ancient Greek, it all just kind of blends together into an overall impression and experience and that was a really, really powerful thing for me to experience as a child,” he says. But mostly, Zisiadis — a Harvard graduate with degree in Sociology — is inspired by growing up in a city, saying, “It really built in me a lifelong love of the commons, the sheer joy of creating beautiful things that we experience together.”
The evening that I attended Grace Light, elementary school-aged children participated alongside senior citizens. A few wore jewels; most sported the San Francisco uniform of puffer jackets and beanies. There is an ecumenical element to Grace Light, something that feels especially urgent during a time when San Francisco is undergoing dramatic changes in demographics and culture.
Grace Cathedral itself has been a longtime supporter of public art, from the medieval style stained-glass windows to the Keith Haring triptych in the AIDS Interfaith Memorial Chapel. “There’s a struggle right now for the soul of the city,” says Ben Davis, founder and CEO of Illuminate, the San Francisco-based nonprofit that partnered with the artists and the cathedral to make Grace Light happen. Illuminate secured philanthropic funding, from the donation of a $100,000 projector by Vulcan Inc. (the philanthropic group started by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen), gifts from Eliza Brown, the Kelson Foundation and the Fong Family Foundation, and numerous other individual donors — many from the tech industry.
In fact, technology is behind both the sights and sounds in this 108-year old Episcopal cathedral. Zisiadis used computer software to program the lights; Gold used digital editing to create a variety of effects from recordings of piano, French horn, and his own vocals. The light and music play for just fifteen
minutes, after which we are invited to walk in the shadowy periphery of the cathedral and experience the 100-foot tall shifting curtain of light from a distance. When the final bell rings, it feels like a lifetime has passed.
Over 500 people have experienced Grace Light since it opened in October 2019. Participation is free of cost, although reservations are required and will open one month before each event. Information about 2020 showings of Grace Light can be found at gracecathedral.org.
→ November 2020
1100 California Street, San Francisco , CA 94108
Tickets available one month in advance of viewing dates.
Photos by Henrik Kam, 2019