Here's an early Easter-egg hunt for you (or a belated one): Americans for the Arts just released the Top 40 list of their favorite United States public art projects, and we in the Bay managed to impress the judges enough to have three projects nominated: Language of the Birds, Signs of the Times, and Downtown Mirror. I tried to contact Janet Echelman at Harvard (judge the first) and Mildred Howard at SFAI (judge the second) for information on why they chose these pieces in particular, but Howard did not respond, and the response I got was from Echelman was a little too generic (something about choosing the 'best quality art'), so this is my slapdash version.
Actually, I'm going to borrow an adjective that Echelman uses for her own work: "immersive." Starting with the maxim that we tend to like our own reflection best, it doesn't surprise me that 'immersive' also describes the nominated works, which are at their most interesting when attention is paid to how each work occupies -- and is influenced by -- its surroundings.
Brian Goggin and Dorka Keen's Language of the Birds, captures this quality on a lot of levels at once. In fact, if you haven't seen the work, it's probably because it blends in so well with Bill Weber's mural (at the intersection of Broadway and Columbus in San Francisco). From a distance, the work looks like part of the mural, but closer up it becomes a tangle of telephone wire, blank white books and words. The text is scattered all over the pavement, and you move between the books and their former content as you cross the sidewalk. At night -- if the solar panels are working -- the books light up, and your shadow obscures the text. Like I said, immersion on many levels.
This adjective works for the next project, too -- Emeryville's Signs of the Times, a collaboration between Seyed Alavi and a small cadre of students from Emery High. The boxes are all over Shellmound, Hollis and 40th Streets in Emeryville; if you've passed a bright yellow utility box with a DOT pedestrian figure on it doing un-DOT-pedestrian-figure-like things, then you've seen Signs of the Times. Alavi is an installation artist who typically uses a lot of material to surround his viewers, so at first I was surprised that each box appears so singular and individual. As I got involved with the piece, however, I realized that the installation was the sum of all its parts, including every gesture that a pedestrian might make. Much like with a real community, we influence and are influenced by our neighbors, whether we realize it or not.
The final piece, Downtown Mirror, by artists JD Beltran and Scott Minneman, is no longer available for viewing, but luckily I found some San Jose residents who'd seen it and were able to describe their experiences. Beltran and Minneman set up video displays showing contemporary and historic footage of San Jose, as much as possible "mirroring" external circumstances -- including a shot of the downtown light rail arriving at the station which would often sync up with the real-world occurrence and startle pedestrians. While I didn't have a chance to see the project, Ruben Guerrero (the property manager for the Globe, which manages one of the storefronts), told me that he liked the artists' play on the idea of mirroring, and seemed particularly excited about the moments when the 'reflections' were made up of archival images and texts.
After a few days spent hunting down and experiencing these works, which I found totally enjoyable, what I've gleaned from Howard and Echelman's choices is this: the trend is the same everywhere, whether you want to call it participation or immersion. Thanks to minimalism, 1970's institutional criticism, and the internet, nobody's interested in commemorative sculpture, particularly not in heroes on horses. And what I like best about this is the fact that we now have a new way of looking, able to be applied to everything that came before.