It’s easy to dismiss the two shiny balls installed at the recently opened Fault line park in East Village as another silly or simplistic City of San Diego public art project. But Christine Jones, the new director of the Arts and Culture Commission’s public art program, argues it’s about something more.
“These are the miniature ‘Cloud Gates’ of San Diego,” she said, half-jokingly, in response to my similarities to the famous large-scale reflective sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park. This iconic piece serves as a backdrop to thousands of tourist photos because of the way it warps and reflects the surrounding cityscape.
Entitled “Fault Whisper,” the two stainless steel spheres reflect the surrounding buildings and skyscrapers in interesting ways, Jones said as we walked around one of the two sculptures. But the in situ installation of the Berkeley artistic group Live lentils is actually a real-time fault line monitor.
The spheres, Jones said, are positioned on opposite sides of Rose Canyon’s fault system, which crosses the park diagonally under a sidewalk marking its location. Jones walked over to one of the spheres and showed a viewfinder through which people can look to see the other sphere perfectly aligned – for now anyway.
As the fault line moves and wiggles, the other sphere will eventually come out of line of sight. So looking at public art is more like a quick move into seismology.
On the other side of the sphere with the sight, there is a much larger hole linked to an accelerator installed in the rift below. The monitors pick up the movement of the Earth in real time and transform it into a subtle atmospheric sound that is played in the sphere and in line.
“So they’re softly broadcasting the sounds of Earth,” Jones said. She encouraged me to put my ear up to the hole. “It creates this idea of listening and remote intimacy with Earth.”
Suddenly, the two big silver balls don’t seem so silly anymore.
No promises, but the outlook is good
Jones has worked as a public art consultant for the City, Port of San Diego, and other clients for over a decade, and she has been in the visual arts for even longer. It wasn’t a big surprise when she was named the commission’s new senior director of public art in April, replacing Dana Springs, who officially took over as executive director last year.
“She is totally qualified for the job,” said Victoria Hamilton of Jones, who headed the commission for more than 20 years previously. resign in 2012. “You should expect to see very high quality project management and professionalism. She is intelligent and she knows the world of public art. I predict that we will see some pretty dynamic innovative works of art in the future. “
Jones helped with the huge (and extremely popular) public art installation at the New Central Library, she was involved in the restoration and installation of art and artifacts from the old Aztec brewery in library in Logan Heights and she worked on the first port public art conservation strategy.
This strategy is popular with art circles, in part for aspects such as the Tidelands Art program, which engages emerging artists who would otherwise be barred from participating in public art projects due to intense insurance requirements and d other bureaucratic obstacles. This program has some amazing sounding work lined up along the local coast, but projects were put on hold due to budget cuts.
Jones said she plans to create a similar city program that would allow for more participation by young or emerging artists.
“I really see the need to explore this,” she said. “There is certainly an opportunity to examine this a little more.”
Jones, however, makes no promises. She kept it vague in our interview, and when asked about her vision for the San Diego public art program for the future, she only said she was thinking of serious things.
“There is still a lot of thinking going on,” she said. “But the public art program of the Arts and Culture Commission had a vision and he worked with an important artist like Gary Hill or Roy McMakin. So for the future I think we can build on that and we can do a lot more. … Some of the questions I ask myself right now when I think about the future: How do you reach a growing audience in San Diego? What kind of role can we play in the neighborhoods of San Diego? How to broaden the notion of what public art is?
“Go beyond vanilla”
that of San Diego public art collection is often thought of as vanilla – too safe and forgiving. There is a lot of buzz in the public art realm these days around participatory art – work that directly engages viewers – tactical town planning or ‘quick and easy city hacks’, digital art that harnesses technology and uses the internet and social media to increase participation and reach more than the same dozen community members who have tendency to show up on time – consume public meetings.
Victoria Plettner-Saunders has said she is ready for Jones and the rest of the commission to exploit some of these exciting trends. Plettner-Saunders, who worked on the commission for seven years before becoming an arts consultant, said she would like Jones and Springs – who were also hesitant to announce big changes – to stop being so discreet about their strategy.
“What’s the plan to bring art to neighborhoods beyond utility boxes? Said Plettner-Saunders. “Is there a bigger city-wide public art exhibit than we could do?” Is it just about getting big, iconic pieces? Are they looking to other communities – like Portland and the other usual suspects – to find what is possible? “
Former Mayor Jerry Sanders and City Council suspended the city’s public art policy, which requires the city to set aside 2 percent of the construction costs of eligible art projects, from 2011 to 2012. That percent for art the revenue stream is back and there has been a slight increase in public and private development in recent years (qualifying private projects must also set aside half a percent to pay for art), so Plettner-Saunders and Hamilton said they thought it was the right time for the commission to look at new programs.
Hamilton said she also believes the current political climate in San Diego is better suited to getting much bolder art through the public process.
“It looks like things have calmed down,” Hamilton said. “So many projects were so controversial in the ’80s and’ 90s that it was crazy – everything we did was considered controversy. But I feel like San Diego is starting to ripen and we have this urge to go beyond vanilla and I’m confident we can do it. I mean, look at the central library – I would never call the public artwork in the new library vanilla.
Bringing art into neighborhoods
Because funding is tied to development, public art often ends up in strange places. The new fire and pumping stations are adorned with public art – works hardly anyone sees – and clusters of public art often appear in places like the Convention Center and the rest of downtown where new developments are booming. This means that the old urban neighborhoods of San Diego, where nothing is built, are often overlooked. This is fueling criticism that the commission is aimed at tourists rather than locals.
In response, Jones highlighted two projects In progress – one at the Skyline Hills Library under construction and another at the proposed new Mission Hills / Hillcrest Branch Library – which directly serve neighborhoods in San Diego.
“The artist Janet Zweig, she is actually one-on-one meeting with community members and think about how to incorporate art that really means something to the Hillcrest and Mission Hills communities, ”Jones said. “And the Skyline Library public art project is in development.”
“But I’m thinking of ideas and possibilities of doing projects outside of the percentage for art program,” she said. “It’s creeping in. There is nothing to share yet, but I am certainly thinking of all of these things. … These are just a few of the questions – these are big questions – but they are questions that I think about as we move through the program.