Lightmodal: public art that isn’t so public

Here’s art with no vision, goals, and of a doubtful legacy.

I stole those headings from the Necklace Project website (www.necklaceproject.ca/). Lightmodal is the Surrey contribution. As I write this (December, 2011) there isn’t yet a gallery page for this part of the project, which is “an inter-municipal collaboration for public art.”

Each contribution is supposed to reveal an “inner light of each community.”

So far, there’s little information available about Lightmodal.

The designers are Organelle Design. Unfortunately, they only have photos on their site. No explanation.

It was unveiled September 30, 2011, as part of Culture Days. Information is limited:

Lightmodal is a zero energy, environment responsive public artwork. Inspired by naturally occurring light phenomena like auroras in the sky and bioluminescence in the water, the artwork’s light patterns are generated in reaction to the surrounding motion, vibration, and sound of pedestrian and vehicular traffic.

Viewers were bussed in.

Architizer has a brief blurb, from before the opening:

Urban Visuals and Organelle Design were selected among a talented pool of artists and architects as winners of the Necklace Project Competition for the City of Surrey. As a public art piece, the project is conceived as an interactive, light-based installation along the elevated Skytrain line. The piece will be activated by the confluence of transportation modes by a series of vibration, acoustic and electrostatic sensors. The result is an organic, aurora borealis-like display of colors that celebrates technology and alternative means of transport.

And so, with very little information, we’re left to our own devices to interpret this piece. No problem. Let’s start with definitions.

Public art should be interpretable and able to be appreciated by the greater part of the taxpayers. It is, after all, public, and not everyone has a fine arts degree or an appreciation of whatever the latest conceptual trends are.

So, let me put forth my ad-hoc and totally arbitrary rules for judging whether a piece of public art is successful. Note that these rules don’t apply to art in museums, galleries or on your fridge – only art in public meant for the public to enjoy:

  1. It should be recognized as something other than infrastructure. It needs to be able to be appreciated and seen as something special, or different from, say, a sidewalk. In other words, people should be able to recognize it as a piece of art.
  2. It should be physically accessible. Since it’s public the public should be able to get to it and observe it without undue difficulty.
  3. It should be understandable. This is a tough one, since what is understandable will vary from person to person. Let me (once again, arbitrarily and without explanation) say it should be understandable by someone with (at most) some college education who is willing to spend some time thinking about it. The difficulty of comprehension should be similar to those crossword puzzles in the commuter papers. I hate those things, I’m not really a word person, but they’re designed so an ‘average’ person can get most of it done in half-an-hour.

I have a few further thoughts about public art. Public art is a public service, and should serve the public. Therefore it should have a function that helps the community. That function should fall into one (or more) of the following categories:

  • Commemorative (your classic bronze statue of a founding father on a horse)
  • Didactic (a piece that explains or teaches something)
  • Inspirational (your spirit soars and you dedicate your life to…)
  • Engaging (something for kids to crawl on and play with)

With this in mind, let’s look at Lightmodal:

I first noticed it on a walk up the Surrey Parkway Greenway, which runs from the river up the hill alongside King George, and under the Skytrain. It’s on what’s called Peterson Hill, just north of where 132 Street meets King George. That’s about level with 112th Avenue if you think that way. It was during the day and I noticed the metal arcs fastened to the underside of the the Skytrain, with solar panels on the ends. The area is rather isolated. A ravine crosses nearby. There are a few empty lots. Someone asked if I had a cigarette. The structure extends for about half a block and then stops.

Given Whalley’s reputation I assumed that it must be an experiment in lighting the sidewalk at night. They’d try it out here, and if successful they’d roll it out elsewhere. Maybe it was cheaper than real lights. There wasn’t any documentation that I could see.

Later, an email exchange with the City’s parks department informed me that it was, in fact, “part of a public art piece titled the ‘Green Necklace’.” They gave a link to the culture days’ site. I recognized the Necklace Project name from seeing the unveiling and subsequent head-scratching of New Westminster’s contribution.

My wife remembered seeing Lightmodal at night when driving across to New Westminster. There were coloured lights, she remembered. It looked pretty cool, she thought, but she was driving past and only saw it for a few seconds.

I walked back down to it after dark, with the camera. I got off the Skytrain at Gateway. I don’t think any buses stop near there. It took about 20 minutes, and through some areas where a few of the best minds of every generation were destroyed by madness, howling hysterical, if not naked. One asked for a cigarette, and didn’t believe me when I said I didn’t have any. Really, I didn’t.

Lightmodal doesn’t light up the sidewalk very well. Instead the lights go on and off and change colour depending on the traffic going up and down the hill. King George is a busy highway. It’s pretty neat, but the area is dark, isolated and lonely. I was concerned about that character who wanted a cigarette. So after a few minutes I headed back up the hill, past the crazies, and to the warm light and bustle of Surrey Central.

Time to critique! How does Lightmodal measure up to the standards I set out earlier?

It’s possible I have a few screws loose, but it’s not clear to me that this piece is recognizable as art, unless you walk underneath it at night. I would never have found out about it except as a result of an accidental correspondence. It does stand out as something special. The metal arcs are unusual, but without further clues it could be anything. Since it’s part of a regional project, shouldn’t there be some sort of sign or documentation stating what it is and how it ties into the project as a whole? Even if I had recognized it as something worthy of my vast art criticism facilities, how can I possibly be expected to tie it into the greater project?

The placement of the piece is also problematic. It’s inaccessible except by foot. There’s no place to park and no bus service. It’s in a noisy, uninviting area of the city. It’s on a highway for Pete’s sake. People do not stroll up and down this hill linked arm-in-arm on warm summer evenings. Bums lurk in the nearby ravine. People driving by may get a glimpse, but that’s about it. It’s just not very public.

If you do walk by at night though – perhaps you missed the last Skytrain, your ride disappeared and now you’re walking back to Burnaby or something – Lightmodal is understandable and enjoyable. I don’t think it’s a deep piece. It’s more of a technical exploration, a sort of big groovy light organ.

In terms of function, it’s a piece about engagement: watch the traffic and see how it affects the lights. You’re not going to feel inspired by this and you won’t learn anything.

And I really, really hope it’s not showing the true “inner light” of Surrey.

***

Born and raised in Surrey, Don Schuetze has returned to the land of his youth after about a quarter of a century elsewhere. But do you ever really leave? Don works for a media company in Vancouver as a production hack, schlepping together print and online products. Reach him through his half-done site http://www.southofthefraser.com which is all about, wait for it… Surrey.