Public art for our high-tech times

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“Aurora Organ,” an interactive light sculpture by Camille Utterback, in the “Shops at West End” complex in St. Louis Park.

When someone utters the words “public art,” I admit the first image that comes to my mind is generally a bronze sculpture. And often times those sculptures, commissioned and approved by a group of government employees, seem pretty bland.

But public art is getting some new life, and some new energy, thanks to our love-affair with technology.

This coming Monday, St. Louis Park will be dedicating a work of public art at the new “Shops at West End” complex. Located in the atrium, “Aurora Organ” consists of six 17′ long columns of light hanging from the ceiling. There are six places on the hand railing that correspond to the six light columns; each one responds to the touch of a hand. A quick tap will result in a short band of light; hold your hand down for several seconds, and the color bar gets longer and longer.

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Camille Utterback is the artist behind the piece. Based in San Francisco, she received a MacArthur “Genius” grant shortly after she was commissioned by St. Louis Park, and she’s seen as an “up-and-comer” in her field. Utterback says she’s always created interactive pieces.

I really enjoy giving people their own space to have their own discovery. I was always interested in science as kid and in college and that process of figuring of something out – I think that’s why I’m an artist also – a lot of what artists do is pose questions to themselves and then try to figure out how to solve them. And so by creating these situations in my artwork, other people get to have that same experience.

Utterback says this latest piece, “Aurora Organ” marks a new direction for her. Up until now she’s worked on light projections that respond to human movement. But this is her first large-scale light sculpture. She says it’s a rhythmic piece, designed to take the small gesture of a tapping hand and turn them into something big and beautiful.

I think a lot of times art – especially contemporary art – people feel alienated by it or don’t have a personal connection to it. But this work really lets people create that connection because it’s responding to them.

The piece has no instructions, so Utterback attempts to draw people to the work with its beauty, and then, once they realize it reacts to their touch, allow them to explore how it works on their own. There are even some hidden surprises that people may discover if they experiment with it long enough.

The project was facilitated by Forecast Public Art. Executive Director Jack Becker says he’s excited to see a city commission something as bold and creative as Utterback’s work.

It is important to note that high-tech permanent projects are a rarity, especially in this region. It is a risky venture to spend $100,000 on a piece that depends on computers and technology these days, as it evolves and changes so fast. Will the components become obsolete? Who on site knows how to fix or maintain this kind of art? But the City and the developers wanted to raise the bar and create a “first” for St. Louis Park, and I think they have.

While Utterback acknowledges her piece will not last as long as a bronze sculpture would, she thinks there are trade-offs that cities are beginning to recognize.

I think that some cities understand that the purpose of public art is to engage the public. You know, we’re so used to dealing with technology in our lives that a bronze sculpture has a certain kind of appeal, but it’s very different from something that’s interactive or made out of lights. I think in the end if you can commission a work that people love and something that people talk about in your city than that’s a really huge success. In a number of years it may need to be replaced or updated, but it’s still a worthwhile investment.

Camille Utterback’s “Aurora Organ” will be dedicated in a public ceremony on Monday, January 11th at 4pm.

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