It's a balmy Monday morning after Christmas, and Chris Doyle has his eyes fixed on the front of the Tampa Convention Center. There, in the portico that leads to the entrance of the shell-pink building, a line of glittering mirror balls hangs from the roof overhead. The low morning sun, barely kissing them at first, suddenly lets rip -- and light bursts into dancing fragments inside the space as people walk by.
"That's what I was waiting for," Doyle says, vindicated. Clad in black shorts and flip-flops, he squints up in satisfaction at the mirror balls through silver-framed glasses. As if on cue, a Convention Center employee appears to say how cool the installation looks, seemingly unfazed by the fact that a New York artist has drilled a dozen holes in the building and plugged disco balls into the voids.
Come this weekend, the dozen mirror balls already adorning the portico will be joined by dozens more, bracketed to palm trees surrounding the Convention Center. To execute the ambitious installation, Doyle and a four-man crew spent about a week in a storage room at the facility, assembling motors with watertight casings for the portico balls (the largest of which boast 40-inch diameters), as well as the brackets that will hold the smaller palm tree balls aloft. On Saturday night, their hard work will come to life, rendering a building that has played host to both the Log and Timber Home Show and the Solid Waste Association of North America improbably hip.
Ecstatic City, as Doyle's urban intervention is titled, represents merely one node in the network of light- and new media-based public art that is Lights On Tampa 2009. When the program unveils this year's selected projects on Saturday, downtown Tampa will host a combination street party, electronic art biennial and civic bonding experience. (Though the works will continue to be on view through the Super Bowl, Saturday's public debut offers a chance to see them in the enthusiastic company of hundreds of Bay area residents.) For this year's offerings are nothing if not unrepentantly fun: In addition to Doyle's spinning disco balls, viewers can expect to interact with a giant mood ring in Cotanchobee Park via the Internet, watch a post-apocalyptic cartoon projected outside the St. Pete Times Forum and hunt for video installations throughout the Channel District.
Lights On Tampa's five main offerings lie within easy walking distance of each other, between the Convention Center and the Forum; the slightly farther afield satellite projects in the Channel District are accessible by a longer walk or the briefest of car trips. Their proximity to each other is hardly incidental -- for along with its goal of showcasing adventurous public art, Lights On Tampa aims to suggest that local residents undertake the adventure of exploring downtown together. The sense of collective memory and community that might emerge only puts the city at better odds of crafting a creative future from its industrial past.
Doyle, whose public installations are often commissioned by medium-sized burgs looking to enhance their arts and cultural offerings, describes his objective as animating a space. Though relatively low-tech, the mirror balls exude high energy in their ability to create an atmosphere of indefinable expectation. With the portico balls set to remain installed at the Convention Center permanently (while the palm tree balls will come down after the Super Bowl), both residents and conventioneers may find themselves responding to the installation with the occasional party, impromptu or planned -- and that's part of the fun.
"Every once in a while, maintenance workers come by and go, 'It's going to be so great because I'm going to be able to dance all the time,'" Doyle says. "And I'm like, 'Yes, you can -- anywhere you want.'"
The artists selected for Lights On Tampa 2009 are mostly New Yorkers, except for Tubingen, Germany-based collaborators Casa Magica and Tampa photographer Carlton Ward Jr. They were chosen by a trio of esteemed jurors: art critics Dave Hickey and Jerry Saltz, along with Anne Pasternak, head of New York public art organization Creative Time. In addition to the new projects, two installations from Lights On Tampa 2006 -- the program's inaugural run -- remain on view permanently: Tobey Archer's Marquee, a color-shifting fiber optic cable that rims the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center's roof, and Stephen Knapp's Luminous Affirmations, an installation of colored light and glass on the side of the new City Hall building.
Here's what to watch for:
Ecstatic City/ Chris Doyle
Tampa Convention Center
Get your groove on beneath the mirror balls posted around the perimeter of the Convention Center (see accompanying story). Starting at sundown, motors powering the rotating balls kick into action, turning the comparatively staid Convention Center environs into a space pregnant with possibility. Stroll through the adjacent plaza to the Riverwalk -- and if you feel like throwing down an homage to John Travolta's Saturday Night Fever walk along the way, it's OK. (Just this once.)
Revamp Fort Brooke/ Casa Magica
Fort Brooke Parking Garage, 107 N. Franklin St.
If one project from Lights On Tampa 2006 lingers in the public memory above the rest, it's Paris-based artist Jorge Orta's animated projection, which temporarily transformed the University of Tampa's Plant Hall into a giant, kaleidoscopic screen. This year German duo Sabine Weissinger and Friedrich Foerster, aka Casa Magica, have concocted a similarly image-based architectural intervention, though their target is the decidedly less romantic Fort Brooke parking garage -- one of downtown Tampa's several Brutalist gems. A series of six multilayered digital collages composed by the artists aim to embellish the garage's austere façade with shifting trompe l'oeil adornments. Elements in each composition -- e.g., larger-than-life military uniform buttons, Spanish tiles, tattooed skin, a boat's sail -- evoke Tampa's past and present while creating the illusion of form and texture on the building's exterior.
Tampa Public Mood Ring/ Will Pappenheimer and Chipp Jansen
Cotanchobee Park, 601 Channelside Drive
The Lights On Tampa 2009 project destined to be either a smashing success or the butt of Dan Ruth columns for decades to come (perhaps both), Pappenheimer and Jansen's Tampa Public Mood Ring has two components: a large-scale public sculpture in the shape of a giant mood ring, located in Cotanchobee Park, and an interactive website where online visitors can attempt to change the color of the ring by "rating the mood" of news stories related to the Super Bowl. Pick a color that matches your reaction to a story on blogs.tampabay.com/superbowl, and the hue of LED lights atop the ring sculpture changes in accordance. With ESPN scheduled to feature footage of the ring during cutaways from the big game, fans from around the world could be tuning in and logging on to change the color of the Tampa Public Mood Ring in February -- or when word about the project gets out online. In the meantime, it serves as a cheeky emblem of LOT's progressiveness as a public art project.
Slurb/ Marina Zurkow
St. Pete Times Forum
What would happen if Tampa suffered a Katrina-esque hurricane or a cataclysmic global warming-induced rising of polluted seas? The answer, in beguilingly lovely form, might be found in Marina Zurkow's Slurb. The artist's 17-minute animation, to be projected outside the St. Pete Times Forum, presents a fragmented, post-apocalyptic narrative set against the backdrop of Tampa, submerged. Boat-borne figures navigate a watery landscape of beached mermaids, floating detritus and mourning refugees; only a buzzing dragonfly seems to have a bright future. The animation's surreal visual style and scroll-like progression from left to right combine to create a formal beauty that exists in tension with its startling message. An ethereal soundtrack of vocals and electronic sounds is icing on the cake.
Tampa Bay: Living Waters/ Carlton Ward Jr.
Channelside Drive & Franklin Street
Well-known in the Bay area for his breathtaking conservation photography, Ward is the only Tampa-based artist featured as one of Lights On Tampa's headliners. A cluster of LED screens housed in a storefront adjacent to Doyle's Ecstatic City will display a rotating portfolio of Ward's work. The photographs, which speak to the vital connection between the region's ecological and economic well-being, showcase water, wildlife and the human culture dependent upon the natural environment to survive. A naturalistic bookend to Zurkow's animated Cassandra call, Ward's images serve as a reminder both of our good fortune to inhabit an area of such natural richness and the responsibility therein.
Channel District Satellites/ Various artists
Grand Central, Florida Aquarium and other sites
Though billed as a supplemental project, this group of 10distinct video-based installations located in sites throughout the Channel District offers its own cornucopia of sights. Curated by University of South Florida professor -- and Lights On Tampa 2006 participating artist -- Wendy Babcox and Shawn Cheatham, the lineup includes a mix of local and visiting artists. Keep an eye peeled for Joe Griffith's Thunderstorm Machines (at the Grand Central at Kennedy), a trio of flashing anvil-shaped sculptures that invoke Tampa's claim to the title "lightning capital of the world;" Peter Segerstrom's Cadillac Beach (at the Florida Aquarium), an audio installation of parked Cadillac Escalades that play altered recordings of whale song; and Mike Reynolds' two-channel video projection (also at Grand Central) documenting the systematic and creative destruction of 100 one-dollar bills as an ode to economic despair. Other participating artists: John Orth and Alan Calpe, the Fluff Constructivists, Yoko Nogami and Maria Saraceno, Anat Pollack and Robb Fladry, Meg Mitchell, Gregg Perkins and Wesley Wetherington.
Light on Tampa 2009, Tampa Convention Center, art show
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