The People’s Projector: David Moke on Night Lights Denver

DNF Tower night lights
Photo Courtesy of Night Lights Denver

If you’ve wandered through downtown Denver in the last four years after the sunset, there’s a good chance you’ve been captivated by the light projections of Night Lights Denver. As a permanent projection-based art installation, Night Lights Denver has transformed Denver’s architectural landscape into a canvas for local, national and international artists to showcase their digital art displays — with their audience being the general public. Behind this remarkable project stands the creative force of Denver native, David Moke, who affirms Night Light Denver is more than just art, it’s a testament to Denver’s vibrant arts scene and community spirit.

DNF tower "night lights denver"
Maya Dite Shepard, Photo courtesy of Night Lights Denver

In 2013, David Moke joined the Denver Theatre District (DTD), an organization distinct from traditional theatre companies. As David clarifies, “We’re not the theatre companies. So we don’t do the Broadway plays. We are a signage overlay district with an associated nonprofit.” David now holds the positions of Director of Night Lights Denver and Director of Programming and the Denver Theatre District. A graduate of CU Boulder, David’s career began with managing bands and producing music festivals. He then dove into the “do-it-yourself” (DIY) art scene in Denver, a movement rooted in self-made creativity that challenges mass production and consumer-driven art. This ethos of supporting artistic movements and facilitating opportunities for artists has become a cornerstone of his career. 

Since the 1970s, there had been a moratorium on billboards and outdoor signage, but as Denver began hosting more conventions in its downtown area, companies sought opportunities to advertise their products and events. The city responded by allowing billboards with a caveat—they must serve a “public benefit.” Thus, the Denver Theatre District was born in 2009, and funded by 15% of the revenue generated from LED screens and billboards in downtown Denver. The Denver Theatre District and Night Lights Denver remain actively involved in city planning efforts to contribute to downtown Denver’s economic and artistic growth. 

16th Street Mall Spark Projections
Photo courtesy of Night Lights Denver

In 2017, the DTD unveiled Understudy, a contemporary art gallery, followed by Night Lights Denver in 2019. Although Night Lights formally launched in 2019, its roots were established nearly five years earlier. This new chapter, under a new permanent name, provided additional resources to expand the program significantly. Night Light’s mission involved partnering with local organizations and schools to amplify the visibility of the arts through their large-scale projection system.

Using projection-based art installations, Night Lights Denver has unique advantages over traditional gallery or museum spaces. David notes, “If I’m just projecting from the inside onto a window, I can still create activity, I can still create light that makes people feel safe, without having to deal with the other challenges of actually hosting people in a space.” NLD features multiple artists simultaneously throughout the year without making permanent architectural changes — unlike murals or traditional gallery installations. It also highlights landmark architecture in Denver that might not always be accessible to the public. The D&F tower, for example, is an iconic landmark in Denver, that has found a new life through Night Lights’ permanent projection installations.

The project’s relatively low overhead, combined with its use of the entire city as its canvas, aligns perfectly with Night Lights’ mission to fund artists effectively. Unlike traditional gallery spaces or large-scale art installations, the costs mainly involve software and tools, ensuring that artists can directly benefit from the funding. David says, “Ideally, unlike going in doing a painting or a mural or building a sculpture, their costs are just the Adobe Suite, or whatever software they already own are paying for. So hopefully a lot of that money gets to go physically in their pocket. And not just to materials.”

Street view of DNF tower
Photo courtesy of Night Lights Denver

The role of Night Lights Denver goes beyond illuminating Denver’s architecture and entertainment for the public—it is a vital part of the Denver community. Night Lights Denver is actively fostering partnerships with local schools to provide opportunities for students to explore digital art. A large part of The Denver Theatre District and Night Lights Denver’s mission is partnering with local schools and local organizations to create opportunities and open doors for students that might not be readily available, or “open,” otherwise.

One partnership is Art Streets, a program funded by the Denver Housing Authority. According to their website, Art Streets, “uses the creative arts to empower youth to pursue future education and employment opportunities. It harnesses their talents, provides them with real-world experience in creative industries, and helps them build valuable skills for the future through our arts-based programming.”

Night Lights has offered students the unique opportunity to feature their artwork since it started in 2019, with a strong introduction to graphic design, projection mapping, installation art, and building portfolios. David says proud moments in his career at Night Lights are seeing the development of young artists, whether it be them seeing their work on the D&F tower, or getting into the art school of their dreams. 

David Moke visiting classroom at Denver East
Photo courtesy of Denver East High School

Collaborating with schools and seeing the impact of art in the community fuels David’s passion for Night Lights, and incentivizes him to continue to grow the program. He emphasizes that the real value lies in nurturing individuals’ artistic growth rather than merely seeking broad public approval. In his words, “I care about the creative community because that’s where the real value lies, for these individuals, rather than trying to make 100,000-200,000 people a month happy.” 

In 2019, the concept of permanent projection art was relatively novel in the United States. While projections were widely used in indoor galleries and entertainment spaces, or perhaps temporarily projected onto the sides of buildings for special events, Denver was one of the first to integrate permanent projection into the city’s visual landscape making it a valuable template for other cities that are now looking to integrate a permanent projection project in cities across the country. 

Denver’s success in establishing a sustainable model for permanent projection installations has positioned it as an inspiration for other cities across the nation. David’s role has expanded to consulting on similar projects in different cities, receiving calls from various cities across the country, both big and small, to consult on other, similar, projects to Denver. This shift from event-based light festivals to permanent installations marks a significant transformation in the industry, one that the Mile-High City has found itself at the forefront of. 

Night Lights has just launched its newest projection installation on two sides of the historic Kittredge building in downtown Denver, as part of the organization’s mission to expand its reach and vision as it continues to foster community relationships, increasing visibility to artistic movements in Denver.

SPARK Projections 16th Street Mall
Photo courtesy of Night Lights Denver

Night Lights Denver is more than just a permanent projection installation, it’s a symbol of Denver’s artistic, and vibrant cultural landscape and commitment to nurturing local and international talent. As David says, “Here in Denver we can create something that truly is unique to us. That I think is special in a way that I’m not sure even I fully appreciate.”

While David has successfully taken on this role as Director of Night Lights, alongside his role as Director of Programming for Denver Theatre District, he says he sees himself more as a facilitator, not a curator. While he’s a proud Denver native, he says he’s excited to see the new energy of incoming artists and creatives who have left their mark on the city.

In that spirit, David is in charge of programming for about six months out of the year, then he turns over the reigns to others in the community to facilitate new shows for Night Lights, and bring further meaning to the D&F’s nickname “The People’s Projector.” As Night Lights Denver continues to illuminate the city’s skyline with captivating projections, it serves as an inspiration for other cities, demonstrating a new modality of projection art and permanent installations, with a mission to offer funding and resources to artists of all kinds. 

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