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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

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All the Road’s a Stage

Artists Transform Public Streets into Outlets for Creative Expression

By Jessica Zimmer

Artists are remaking America’s roads into stages and galleries. Painted concrete barriers, puppet shows that take place in rush hour traffic, statues that utilize traffic signs, and roads that play music are just some of the individual expressions that are changing the experience of driving, walking and bicycling. As both sanctioned and renegade artists put their work on display, transportation officials are rethinking the purposes that street art can serve.

Art Imitates Life, Infrastructure

Artist Mark Jenkins livened up this Franch traffic sign.

Mark Jenkins, an artist who lives in Washington, D.C., has traveled to locations from Rio de Janeiro to Tokyo to install sculptures that he feels belong in cities. Jenkins is often assisted by arts organizations who secure permits for him to install his pieces, but occasionally puts them up without permission. A number of Jenkins’ pieces feature lifelike human statues in precarious situations or incorporate traffic signs.

Jenkins said that he started bringing his sculptures outside after his apartment became packed with them. “Once on the street, I saw how [my sculptures] came to life,” Jenkins said. “The street became a stage for the works and everything around it—the weather, people, pigeons, etc.—became a part of the event. I realized it was the ideal environment for my works.”

Jenkins said he usually doesn’t stay in an area too long after installing a piece. He also doesn’t typically take his pieces down because he wants “the scene to resolve itself” without him.

“Maybe it’s a homeless person who decides to take the clothes, a police officer who decides it shouldn’t be there and throws it in the nearest garbage can, or someone takes the sculpture in the night to have it for their house. Once a fire [department] removed a girl sculpture sitting on a roof that I’d hoped would last for a long time. I heard from someone that they kept her at their fire station sitting on the truck,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins has caught a number of reactions from observers. “With the hyper-realistic figures that are camouflaged as real people in abnormal situations or realistic illusions, people who notice [them] are generally perplexed and then they’ll take the time to investigate. Usually they will realize at some point that the sculptures aren’t real and then enjoy the experience, often taking pictures with their cell phones,” Jenkins said.

Getting the Show on the Road

Superclogger, Joel Kyack, 2010. Photo: Anthony Lepore.

Courtesy of the artist, LA><ART, and Francois Ghebaly, Los Angeles.

Joel Kyack's "Superclogger" puppet show performs to gridlock traffic.

Los Angeles-area artist Joel Kyack also believes people are extremely interested in art that can be found in public spaces. In the spring and summer of 2010, Kyack, with the help of Michael Hayden, another local artist, performed a series of four puppet shows called “Superclogger” out of the back of a small pickup truck. The shows took place on some of the area’s busiest highways during rush hour traffic.

The stars of the show were simple hand puppets that Kyack designed to be “the everyday puppet.” The soundtracks, which Kyack broadcast from an empty FM radio frequency, were professional “to the point where you could blare [them] without problems.”

Kyack said that even though the plots of the shows were “kind of sad…usually not [with] a happy ending,” audiences that ranged from day laborers to buses full of schoolchildren were entertained. “We never had a bad reaction,”
Kyack said. “The worst reaction was non-interest.”

Kyack said that the shows were not only safe to perform, but actually encouraged drivers to be more cautious.

“People … gave each other more space [when the show was going on than when it wasn’t],” Kyack said. “There was never even a close call. We talked over every worst case scenario, and never had to deal with any of them. It was a real testament to humanity.”

California’s Musical Road

City of Lancaster, Calif.

Grooves in a road in Lancaster, Calif., play

the Lone Ranger's theme when driven over.

Lancaster, Calif. is home to the Civic Musical Road, a highway with a set of rumble strip-like grooves spaced apart so they play a section of the finale to Gioachino Rossini’s “William Tell Overture”—perhaps better known as the Lone Ranger’s theme song—when a car drives over them.

Mayor R. Rex Parris likes the road because it is unique and gives the city, located north of Los Angeles, an artistic identity.  “I wouldn’t mind at all [if Lancaster had another musical road] as long it’s away from housing,” Parris said.

The Civic Musical Road, which was first built by Honda in September of 2008, was paved over soon after when it proved to make too much noise for nearby residents. In October of 2008, the city relocated it to a rural section on California State Road 138 leading to General William J. Fox Airfield. A handful of other musical roads have been installed around the world, including a Japanese highway that plays “Scarborough Fair.”

Parris recognizes that the road, now a tourist attraction, is traveled so much that it will eventually wear out. The mayor said he’s looking for new ways to bring art to the roads. “The philosophy of the city is, ‘look for reasons to say yes,’ especially to anything artistic,” he said.

“[I think] the reason there are renegade artists is because so many steps hold up the process. I think it’s a lot easier for us [as a smaller city] because we can speed up the process.”

Parris has arranged for two pianos to be situated on corners of Lancaster Boulevard, in the downtown area, for anyone to play. He is now working on proposals to commission banners for downtown light poles from local artists and art to put in empty storefront windows downtown.

San Francisco’s Painted Traffic Boxes

A San Francisco traffic control box painted

over by the arts organization Precita Eyes.

Bond Yee, director of the Sustainable Streets program of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), agrees with Parris that art has a place in urban areas. According to Yee, the SFMTA sets aside 2 percent of its total construction costs for art.

 “As traffic engineers, there are two things that we strive for: minimize the distraction for the driving public out in the street, and accomplish consistency and uniformity,” Yee said.

Yee said the SFMTA feels that art even has a place on its own equipment: traffic signal controller boxes. SFMTA contracted with a nonprofit arts organization, Precita Eyes, to paint images with Latino themes over two boxes in the Mission district.

“It’s important to be reflective of the culture and theme of the neighborhood,” Yee said. “I believe that’s why those two traffic signal controller boxes have remained graffiti-free.”

Using Concrete as Canvas

New York City Department of Transportation

Top, Jennifer Cecere’s “Antimacassars” design transformed a

barrier along FDR Service Drive North in Manhattan. Above,

colorful benches that turn on wheels were installed in

pedestrian plazas in Manhattan’s Lower East Side as part of the

“Mall-terations” project.

The New York City Department of Transportation has also taken an active approach to creating art that utilizes the road. Emily Colsacco, director of the NYCDOT’s Urban Art Program, said the city views many open areas—plazas, medians, triangles, sidewalks and bike lanes—as “opportunities for art.”

The Barrier Beautification Project, which involves painting concrete construction barriers, has drawn many people to the artistic process. As part of the project, an artist comes up with a design for a barrier and New York City Community Cleanup, a community service initiative to remove urban eyesores, primes the wall. After the artist stencils the design onto the barrier, “we have a painting day, where people sign up with organizations around the city to paint the barriers,” Colsacco said. Some of the barriers feature transportation-related motifs, such as the spokes of bicycles.

Colsacco said a number of other projects, including functional art created by the Hester Street Collaborative, have also delighted many residents. “They worked to produce [painted] benches that swivel around a tire and encourage interaction,” Colsacco said.

Although much of the art is directed toward pedestrians and cyclists, she said the Urban Art Program is about “enlivening the public realm.”

Jessica Zimmer is a freelance writer based in Florida.

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