Cities That Locate Art In Odd Places

Anna McCambridge interacting with a Storm Water piece.jpg

The city sidewalk today is pretty empty, with online shopping and social media having replaced shoe leather on pavement. Restrictions in the name of safety have also become more common since 9/11. One result of these trends is a movement called Art in Odd Places : the work of artists that use public space itself as a huge, blank canvas. Orlando is the most recent city to experiment in this fashion. This month, more than fifty artists there reasserted the right to an unfettered exchange of ideas in public space, reinventing the sidewalk. It was an interesting experiment that led to some bigger questions about the relationship between public space and civic involvement.

Art in Odd Places was started by New York artist Ed Woodham in 1996 during the Cultural Olympiad in Atlanta, which coincided with the Olympics. With the media focused on sports, few recall that the Olympics is a celebration of mind and spirit, as well as of the body. Olympic cities host poets on the street reciting verses, and painters and sculptors exhibiting their pieces. Woodham struggled with officials to bring performance art to the event, and went home determined to keep the town square in its rightful place as the unfettered medium of exchange for art and ideas.

All the way through the nineties, movies and television documented sidewalks thronging with people, parks full of activity, and public plazas alive with protests or festivals. Despite popular rhetoric that accuses the car of killing public space, something different was happening. Sidewalks and plazas have continued as the arena for public encounters in our cities. They reached capacity, but as cities spread out the car had little effect on, for example, Times Square, or on any other city’s sidewalk.

Something funny started happening however; something only a few like Ed Woodham noticed. “In Atlanta, we were placed in a designated ‘free speech zone,’ which I found odd,” he commented to me while preparing for Orlando’s event. “I wondered when the city was no longer a free speech zone in its entirety.” Woodham noted, in particular, the clampdown after 9/11. Any sort of organized activity on the sidewalk was more and more regulated, in part due to a heightened sense of security.

Today the value of public space is open to debate. Nicolett Mall, a pedestrian zone in downtown Minneapolis, is hardwired into the city’s soul and is being rejuvenated. Meanwhile, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is considering removal of the plazas in Times Square that have attracted a lively crowd and the presence of costumed characters and street performers, many of them seeking tips.

In 2013, Greensboro, North Carolina hosted Art in Odd Places, and the director of downtown Orlando’s Gallery at Avalon Island art curator Pat Greene visited. Two years later, Greene successfully co-curated the Orlando show, along with Voci Dance Director Genevieve Bernard. Between September 17th and 20th this year, Orlando became a host to dozens of artists on the street. The theme in Orlando is “Tone,” which is interpreted by each artist individually; pieces have been created around audio tones, color tones or other meanings of this word (I reviewed the work in a recent critique for the Orlando Weekly).

For example, Forrest MacDonald’s subtle water pipes, inserted next to actual storm water pipes, were sprinkled down Magnolia Avenue, with hands reaching out of the pipes to stroke tufts of grass. Nathan Selikoff fed a microphone into a computer, and then onto a giant screen, projecting an “Audiograph” that mapped the soundwaves of the city like a huge EEG.

On the more ethereal side, performance artist Masami Koshikawa created “Self Portrait as Butterfly Woman,” posing in white while an assistant invited passersby to place gold origami butterflies on her body suit. This gesture broke the barriers between strangers and the taboo of touch, and represented a sublime moment in the festival. Koshikawa eventually collected hundreds of butterflies.

Arvid Tomayko paraded up and down Magnolia Street in his “Wearable Tentacle Horn,” a suit with trumpets coming out the ends of various sleeves. And Chris Scala pulled a wire mesh camper into a parking lot and slept in it, LED lights washing over his sleeping form, in a piece entitled “X-Ray Camper”. These are only a few examples of artists using public space to make a spectacle in a traditional manner.

I visited Art in Odd Places at the height of the lunch rush on one day. A few scattered pedestrians wandered in and out of restaurants, and a preschool teacher led her little ones back to school from a library trip. The artists and their supporters comprised the largest single population group. (More people came by in the evening, according to Greene.)

In the last ten years, the number of people living in downtown Orlando has actually increased, with more and more residential housing available in and around the city’s core. What has sucked the life out of sidewalks, it turns out, isn’t the suburbs; instead, it's the tiny screen and the big screen that have occupied more and more of our lives, taking over the social space that was once reserved for the street. Casual shopping encounters, mixing social and economic activity, walking to business appointments, encounters on the once-active courthouse steps: all of this has become the archaic activity of yesteryear.

Art in Odd Places did interrupt the tiny screen focus of the average pedestrian who braved the sunny weather that day. Some of the artists deliberately sought to enter the cell phones of bystanders: Sound artist Jeff Knowlton created an app called “Sonify: Orlando” which, when downloaded, provided an acoustic narrative with sounds triggered by the immediate location. A new art form, which Knowlton describes as “locative media,” is born. And overall, Woodham, in an optimistic manner, has aroused artists in city after city to reinvent the sidewalk. In Orlando, the event was a success.

The darker issue of the regulation of the sidewalk, has, however, remained unaddressed. Woodham feels that well-meaning but overly stiff regulation has turned people out of their public space, and is working hard to reinvigorate the streets with art. Where a vacuum exists, artists often rush in, and the result reflects our contemporary culture. This type of activist art is not seeking to right a gross injustice or advocate a cause, except for that of free speech. It is spurred by open conjecture about the future use of the sidewalk, and asks pedestrians to re-invent the nature of our public space in the twenty-first century.

Richard Reep is an architect with VOA Associates, Inc. who has designed award-winning urban mixed-use and hospitality projects. His work has been featured domestically and internationally for the last thirty years. An Adjunct Professor for the Environmental and Growth Studies Department at Rollins College, he teaches urban design and sustainable development; he is also president of the Orlando Foundation for Architecture. Reep resides in Winter Park, Florida with his family.

Photos by the author: Anna McCambridge interacting with a piece of "Storm Water;" Koshikawa, right, with butterfly assistant.

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Tentacle Horn by Hannah G. Thompson

The Tentacle Horn is actually designed by artist Hannah G. Thompson. The actual performance piece was accomplished in collaboration with Arvid Tomayko, who was mentioned in the article.

Richard T. Reep, AIA, LEED-AP
Adjunct Professor, Rollins College
Senior Designer, VOA Associates Inc.