Light is a reflection of public policy in Vancouver and Seattle
By ANN ROSENBERG
The March 16 morning news showed Mayor Gregor Robertson grinning happily as he activated a 45-foot tall yellow and red neon sign the previous evening emblazoned with the words Chinatown Plaza in English and Chinatown welcomes you in Chinese. Positioned on a city-owned brick building at the intersection of Keefer and Quebec not far from the hub of the second largest Chinatown in North America, this huge piece of noticeable signage is part of a strategy to ensure that pedestrians will walk more safely at night, and it is intended to increase evening programming and business opportunities for local merchants.
The sign was partly financed with municipal funds as part of the City's Chinatown Revitalization Plan and Vancouver's Great Beginnings program which celebrate the history, heritage and culture of one of the metropolis' oldest communities. As such, this landmark was the result of countless meetings and planning decisions.
It symbolizes Chinatowns long-standing value as a major resource for all local residents and tourists. The fact that its medium is neon was also probably a point of discussion. Neon signs are coming back into fashion these days, despite being criticized for polluting the atmosphere with coloured haze and for a heavy consumption of electric power topics that are now a special concern of Vancouver city council and the Engineering Department which are eager to embrace green energy.
Although totally white in hue and drawing less power from local resources, Ken Lums cruciform-shaped Monument for East Vancouver is another highly visible and equally effective marker of a long-lived-in Vancouver territory. Light-emitting diodes (LEDs), which are considered to be longer lasting and less expensive than other lighting systems, have been employed in this and in many other public art works commissioned for the 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympics. These world class events were promoted (because of the technology used in certain new public art works, the sustainability of the skating oval in Richmond, Vancouver's new Convention Centre, and the experimental Athletes' Village on Cambie) as the greenest-ever, green Olympic Games.
Few people know that Vancouvers widely acknowledged sophistication in public art owes a good deal to the example set by Seattle's adoption of the Public Art Ordinance in 1973. This policy requires that one per cent of eligible capital improvement project funds be set aside for the commission, purchase and installation of art in a variety of settings and in a number of mediums. The City of Seattle's website indicates that more than 350 permanently sited and 2,600 portable works have been commissioned through this public process during the last 30 years.
Vancouver began a similar highly successful method of art sponsorship and purchase in 1990 which seeks to incorporate contemporary art practices into city planning and development. It encourages the production of many different kinds of art by well-known and emerging artists by engaging them in civic and private sector projects. The immense photo-mural by Stan Douglas in the atrium of the recently opened Woodward's redevelopment project is an excellent example of a public artwork commissioned in the latter category (see story). In contrast, the pieces produced for the multi-faceted Olympic and Paralympic Public Art Program were made possible through a variety of government funding, public and private partnerships, and private sponsorships.
Another parallel that exists in the public art-making of Seattle and Vancouver in the last 15 years has been a relationship with public utilities and local history. An excellent example south of the border is Max Keenes 2006 interactive light-based artwork in the Seattle Public Utilities' Operations and Control Centre. As employees pass under the ceiling-mounted installation, lights trace their movement along its undulating form to imply the flow and environment of water.
A Vancouver example is Tania Ruiz Gutiérrez's 2010 enormous, elaborately-programmed vase called Garde-temps that is installed under the Cambie Bridge near the Olympic Village Canada Line Station. In addition to taking onto its skin an ever-changing sequence of images from video equipment set within the sculpture, it is also designed to react to the body heat of pedestrians walking by. Needless to say on either side of the border, the planning and installation of public art is a lengthy and complex undertaking. When reading about the commissions for 2010 before seeing any of them, I was skeptical of their worth and their ability to create an impression on visitors during the Winter Games and a legacy worth noticing when they were over. If there is such a thing as humble pie, I would gladly eat it.
What turned this Olympic Grinch into a fan? Mainly, it was the enthusiastic, red and white clad, generally well-behaved celebrants who mixed with guests from other parts of the world in the streets of Vancouver. The focal point of this energy was barely contained in the newly reopened, redesigned Robson Square at night during the long stretch of record-breaking warm weather in February, that compensated for an embarrassing lack of snow at the high altitude sites where skiing, snowboarding and other Winter Olympic sports were planned to take place.
Other visuals that are burned into my brain are photo-documents of the two-sided light sculpture of the Olympic rings situated on a barge so that it could be moved to various locations in the harbour. The rings were studded with thousands of programmed lights that could change hue when they did a spectacular dance to celebrate each gold medal win by a Canadian. The illustration in this article captures the marvellous effect of the colours reflected on the black night waters. It also shows the relationship of the rings with the sails of the Pan Pacific Hotels Great Hall and the lit-up windows of nearby high-rise buildings.
This unforgettable photograph reminds me of the impressive LED sign City Light. installed in 1998 at the Seattle City Light South Service Centre, through which one can look beyond to the glittering lights of the metropolis. The building shown here belongs to Seattle's Public Utilities where LED illumination is being strongly promoted as the contemporary, flexible and green method of lighting.
When art critic Robin Laurence previewed Vancouvers Winter Olympic public art program in mid-December, she stated that LED is the new bronze and suggested that the projects which utilize so many different forms of light as a medium, signal an art-world trend found in Vancouvers legacy of Olympic public art.
Ann Rosenberg is a freelance curator, critic and author.