Sint-Veerleplein, a square in Ghent, is lit by three very ordinary-looking sets of lampstands. They're a bit more ornate than your average bulb on a pole, but this is the historic heart of the old city, so you'd likely not give them a second look. Castle Gravensteen across the square is much more impressive, and the bars, chocolate shops and restaurants around the remainder of the perimeter might well draw your gaze instead. But keep your eyes peeled, because if these lamps ever light and flash an important message is being transmitted, in a truly engaging work of public art.
It's called Ai Nati Oggi, or "For Those Born Today", and was devised by Italian artist Alberto Garutti. In 2011 he had a special button installed in every maternity hospital in Ghent, linked here to Sint-Veerleplein, which parents are encouraged to press immediately after the birth of a new baby. If they choose to press, all the lamps in the square brighten slowly, shine, and then fade away, over the course of about thirty seconds. The square thus acts as a population beacon, alerting citizens to each new life, in a tangible but temporary way.
A stone engraved alongside one of the lampstands explains all, in three languages, should passers-by choose to stop and read.
The streetlights on Sint-Veerleplein are connected to the maternity hospitals in the city of Ghent. Every time the light slowly flashes, a child is born. This work is dedicated to the newborn and to all children who are born today in this city.
I stood in the square for a while and nothing happened. I went up on the roof of the adjacent castle and looked down, and nothing happened. Then I went away for a long walk and came back, and spotted with a smile that the lights were now on. They shone brightly, broadcasting the birth of a new Belgian citizen, somewhere in an anonymous hospital room far from public view. Then they faded away, too swiftly for me to catch the event on camera, but gracefully enough until the LEDs were once again inert.
In a conurbation of half a million you'd perhaps expect 15 births a day, or no more than a flash an hour. In London, by contrast, the rate might be one every five minutes. The rarity of the occurrence in Ghent certainly adds to the emotional impact... and perhaps has even greater presence after dark (however precisely the flashing sequence works then).
Who's to say if the birth I experienced was girl or boy, white or black, healthy or physically challenged, potential hero or future criminal? But how heartwarming to have a public work of art that celebrates each newborn child equally, before prejudice sets in, sharing a moment of sheer parental joy with the wider populace.