Public Art and the Urban Experience

Dean Saitta
July 15, 2015

The Biennial of the Americas kicks off this week in Denver. The Biennial was launched in 2010 by then Denver mayor (now Colorado governor) John Hickenlooper as a grand forum for talking about politics, education, business, the arts, and other subjects of interest to citizens. This year’s Biennial theme is NOW!.  It’s billed as an analysis of the present in light of the history that got us here and our plans for going forward. The three main organizing topics are Leadership, Business Trends, and Infrastructure. Several of these topics will be considered by a special panel of mayors (Denver’s Michael Hancock, Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi, and former Bogotá mayor Antanas Mockus) who will address “The Return of the City-State.” These civic leaders will discuss how cities are operating on the frontlines of many contemporary global challenges including growth, security, and trade.

As usual, many artists from throughout the Western Hemisphere will showcase their work at Biennial venues, challenging us to look at cities and the world differently. They will be hard pressed to match the 2013 Biennial‘s very intimate connection of public art to commentary about the urban condition. A retrospective of that still-timely exhibition is the subject of this post.

The 2013 Biennial, organized to the theme of Draft Urbanism, featured billboard pieces by more than 30 artists, poets, and philosophers, covering a 10-square-mile area of the city. Each billboard was annotated with a museum label. The outdoor exhibition, mounted under the auspices of Executive Curator Carson Chan, was intended to re-sensitize citizens to the metropolitan experience. It sought to turn the city into a “space of inquiry” in hopes of prompting the public to examine it with “fresh, discerning eyes.” It provided an opportunity “for a communal reckoning of our shared environment, and to ask everyone to be alive to their surroundings.” The word “Draft” in the exhibition title implicated the city as always in a state of becoming, and the power of citizens to shape it through human agency.

Denver’s billboard artists reflected on many dimensions of the contemporary urban condition that continue to be salient today. In his review of the billboard exhibition David Hill of the Architectural Record opined that the artwork felt “scattered, both geographically and thematically.” But this really depended on how you interacted with it. As an anthropologist I found some compelling themes to connect the various pieces. And, in my experience, these themes were often enriched by the remote location and immediate context of the particular piece.  The distribution of the art invited citizens to physically visit parts of Denver where they might not ordinarily venture. Indeed, that was one of the most important accomplishments of the exhibition. Visiting the art in relatively unfamiliar parts of town got me off the beaten track and out of my usual routine and comfort zone.

My retrospective begins with this billboard from Douglas Coupland that was located on what the Architectural Record called “a lonely stretch of road in an industrial area north of downtown.” That road is Brighton Boulevard:

Welcome to Detroit, by Douglas Coupland, 5055 Brighton Boulevard (Photograph by D. Saitta)

As described by the exhibition’s curators, Welcome to Detroit is a

“Reaction to Detroit’s long term deindustrialization and depopulation—as well as a chilling foreboding [of] new meanings for a city whose twentieth century raisons d’être have largely vanished. Coupland’s slogan functions as a welcome sign much like those one would find entering other cities of speculation like Las Vegas and Reno, as well as a welcome sign into a new and unmapped era in human history.  He says “Think of Detroit as one million primates needing 2,500 calories a day sitting on a cold rock in the middle of the North American continent, with nothing to do all day. It is an unparalleled crisis of purpose, and Detroit just happened to get there first—but sooner or later we’ll all be there.”

The piece worked pretty well given the increasingly dark and threatening day that I visited, and especially when framed against the backdrop of Denver’s remaining industrial center. That center is now experiencing a feeding frenzy of commercial property sales as developers seek to turn industrial buildings into apartments, offices, restaurants, and breweries.

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