Stuck in traffic as road cones narrow the lanes from three to one on a busy surface street? You are doubtless inconvenienced - but you may also be part of a vast interactive art event funded by your city.
In an era when arts organizations nationally and globally are fighting to hold on to funding, Seattle's aesthetically adventurous Department of Transportation proves a consistent source of bold, accessible and frequently interactive conceptual works. You're invited to participate - all it takes is a slight shift in perspective.
Unconfined by conventions of gallery or museum, the design-by-committee dangers of review boards or the illegality of street art, SDOT as an urban collective freely installs its temporary creations in every part of the city in need of the humanizing effect of art (not to mention pothole repair).
The pieces range in scale and complexity, from handsized Christo-style Walk Wraps to Matthew Barney Cremaster-scaled, street-length interactive installations involving huge kinetic sculptures, extensive casts of performance artists and hundreds of viewers and their vehicles.
While road cones and barrels are the most recognizable hallmarks of the DOT's oevre, its visual lexicon extends far beyond safety orange and white stripes.
Some of my favorite works are those that juxtapose urban with natural as in the seasonal Petaldrops and the Punkgrass installations, and the small abstract pieces no other artist or collective could at least legally get away with, such as geometric shapes incised into sidewalks or nails driven directly into the asphalt and highlighted with hot pink spray paint.
Aside from their often arresting formal visual qualities, to me these works pose both timeless and timely questions about how we attempt to coexist with and commonly impose infrastructure on nature; the simultaneous order and chaos of the city; our undending battle with entropy and natural growth, and notions of beauty and utility.
You could say that much of SDOT's mission is to combat nature - the sinking of earth under asphalt that causes rifts in the road, the pushing up of sidewalks by tree roots, the widening of potholes. We know that left alone, nature would eventually take it all back over. It's this inescapable fact that to me, makes the Petaldrops and other works that interact with trees and plants all the more poignant.
The subversiveness of SDOT's temporary installations is that despite their often glaring appearance, we ignore or accept them as inconvenient white/orange noise in the urban landscape. Meanwhile, for the price of a small shift in viewpoint the works offer viewers a variety of art experiences ranging from surprisingly playful, small and delicate to provocotive and bold. The gallery is open, and it spreads across the city.
I've started an iPhone journal of some of SDOT's Public Art projects as I come across them in my movements around town.
The phenomenon is not limited to Seattle. Keep an eye out wherever you live for installations by your local Department of Transportation.
Public Art | SDOT album
Click on the thumbnails to see the full images