On the first Friday night of every month, downtown Oakland is transformed from mildly populated business center to densely packed social scene. As the sun sets and neon signs blink to life, the Great Wall of Oakland offers an innovative public art program during Oakland Art Murmur, the popular gallery crawl on First Fridays. From 8 to 11pm, people line sidewalks and perch on medians to watch videos screened from around the world, projected 100' x 100' on the exterior of a building on West Grand, between Broadway and Valley Streets.
The audio is broadcast on 89.5 FM and amplified from boom boxes jerry-rigged in the parking lot below. A beam of light from an adjacent rooftop indicates the location of the 15,000 Lumens Eiki projector. It is a charmingly simple production and a great example of an innovative public art initiative, low budget and non-invasive. The curatorial philosophy, as articulated by curator Issabella Shields Grantham, focuses "on cutting-edge motion art appropriate for the whole family, with an emphasis on local artists whenever possible." Submissions are accepted on a rolling basis; selected artists receive a modest honoraria and documentation of the screening.
The outgrowth of a defunct project called the "Illuminated Corridor," the Great Wall of Oakland developed into its own non-profit organization in 2006. It is funded by various city funds and helmed by executive director Chris Curtis. Oakland Museum of California senior curator René de Guzman and Oakland Standard new media producer Stijn Schiffeleers, along with members of the City of Oakland Cultural Arts Department, serve as curatorial advisors.
In August the Great Wall featured A Celebration of Animation, a selection that explored various styles, from hand-drawn illustrations to cut-paper and computer-generated imagery. The work, compiled from submissions and public portfolios on Vimeo.com, hailed from disparate cities including Tokyo, Mallorca, London, Paris, Toronto, Lugano, Sarasota, and Austin. (Markedly absent was the inclusion of a local artist, which seems odd given the area's relationship to animation. Another recent program however featured the personal videos of Pixar employees.) There were twelve videos, ranging in time from 30 seconds up to nearly 8 minutes. The total program ran around 40 minutes and played several times throughout the evening.
A few resonating examples included Joseph Pierce's hand-drawn A Family Portrait, which depicts the emotional complexities in a family portrait session; and The Shore by Eric Power, a compelling cut-paper animated music video for a tune by Wiretree. Less engaging non-narrative work, such as Andreas Gysin's unfinished Anthem of Hearts, an abstract display of dot-like forms, created an interesting balance in the program, like breathing room. People took a break from craning their necks to look around and compare notes with friends and strangers. "Not so into this one," I overheard. "Really? I kind of like it," came a reply.
Many of the videos negotiated the ambiguous aesthetic terrain between artwork and music video, but this indeterminate distinction seemed to have no bearing on the viewers. Whether or not the works were visually compelling determined their success, measured only by the attention span of the audience. Either people stayed to watch or they didn't. Despite the uneven quality of the videos, or perhaps because of it, a fair number of viewers were intent to stay for the duration. Knowing that the videos won't exceed seven minutes means that you don't have to wait long to see the next piece.
Premised on the most basic criteria of public art -- does it engage people? does it animate the environment? -- without the usual pitfall of long-term commitments, either to the artwork or from the audience, the Great Wall is indeed a great success and, once a month, a very compelling place to see and be seen.
The Great Wall of Oakland screens a new program every first Friday during Oakland Art Murmur, 8-11pm. The next program is on Friday, September 2, 2011.For more information visit greatwallofoakland.org.