San Diego public art director wants to go beyond vanilla

It’s easy to dismiss the two glowing balls installed at the newly opened Fault Line Park in the East Village as just another silly or simplistic public art project from the city of San Diego. But Christine Jones, the Arts and Culture Commission’s new public art program manager, argues forcefully that they are something more.

“They’re San Diego’s miniature ‘Cloud Gate’,” she said, half-jokingly, in response to me bringing up the similarities to Chicago’s famous large-scale reflective sculpture in Millennium Park. This iconic piece serves as the backdrop for thousands of tourist photos due to the cool way it warps and reflects the surrounding cityscape.

Titled “Fault Whisper,” the two stainless steel spheres reflect the surrounding buildings and skyscrapers in interesting ways, Jones said as we strolled around one of the two sculptures. But the site-specific installation by Berkeley-based art group Living Lenses is actually a real-time fault-line monitor.

The spheres, Jones said, are positioned on opposite sides of the Rose Canyon Rift System, which crosses the park diagonally under a sidewalk marking its location. Jones walked over to one of the spheres and pointed a crosshair through which people can look to see the other sphere perfectly aligned – for now anyway.

As the fault line shifts and wiggles, the other sphere will eventually move out of line of sight. So looking at public art becomes more like a quick stint in seismology.

On the other side of the sphere with the sight, there is a much bigger hole connected to an accelerator installed in the rift rupture below. The monitors pick up the movement of the Earth in real time and transform it into subtle atmospheric sound that is played on the sphere and online.

“So they softly broadcast the sounds of the Earth,” Jones said. She encouraged me to put my ear in the hole. “It creates this idea of ​​eavesdropping and remote intimacy with Earth.”

Suddenly, the two large silver balls no longer seem so stupid.

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 has been in the visual arts business for even longer. It was no 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 led the commission for more than 20 years before stepping down in 2012. very high quality. She is intelligent and she knows the world of public art. I predict we’ll see some pretty vibrant innovative artwork in the future.

Jones helped with the huge (and hugely popular) public art installation at the New Central Library, she helped restore and install art and artifacts from the Old Aztec Brewery at the Library of She and Logan Heights worked on the port’s first public art conservation strategy.

This strategy is highly regarded in artistic 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 other bureaucratic obstacles. This program has amazing work lined up along the local coastline, but projects have been put on hold due to budget cuts.

Jones said she plans to create a similar municipal program that would allow for greater participation by young or emerging artists.

“I definitely see a need to explore that,” she said. “There is definitely an opportunity to examine this a little more.”

Jones, however, makes no promises. She kept things vague in our interview, and when asked about her vision for the future of San Diego’s public art program, she only said she was thinking about serious things.

“There are still a lot of thoughts going on,” she said. “But the Arts and Culture Commission’s public art program had a vision and worked with important artists like Gary Hill and Roy McMakin. So looking to the future, I think we can build on that and we can do a lot more. … Some of the questions I’m asking myself right now when I think about the future: How can we reach a bigger, wider audience in San Diego? What kind of role can we play in San Diego neighborhoods? How do we broaden the notion of what public art is? »

“Going Beyond Vanilla”

San Diego’s public art collection is often considered vanilla – too safe and flattering. There is a lot of buzz in the field of public art these days around participatory art – work that directly engages viewers – tactical urbanism or “quick and easy urban hacks”, digital art which leverages technology and uses the internet and social media to increase participation and reach more than the same few dozen community members who tend to show up for time-consuming town hall meetings.

Victoria Plettner-Saunders said she was ready for Jones and the rest of the commission to tap into some of these exciting trends. Plettner-Saunders, who worked at the commission for seven years before becoming an arts consultant, said she would like Jones and Springs – who have also been reluctant to announce big changes – to stop being so tight-lipped about their strategy. .

“What’s the plan to get art into the neighborhoods beyond the utility boxes?” says Plettner-Saunders. “Is there a bigger, city-wide public art exhibit that we could put together?” Is it just about getting big iconic pieces? Are they looking to other communities – like Portland and the other usual suspects – to find out what’s possible?

Former Mayor Jerry Sanders and the city council suspended the city’s public art policy, which requires the city to set aside 2% of eligible projects’ construction costs for art, from 2011 to 2012. This percentage of revenue for art is back and there has been a slight increase in public and private development in recent years (eligible private projects must also set aside half a percent to pay for art), so Plettner-Saunders and Hamilton said they believe the time is right for the commission to consider new programs.

Hamilton said she also thinks the current political climate in San Diego is better suited to push far more forward-thinking 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 controversial. But I feel like San Diego is starting to mature and we have this urge to go beyond vanilla and I’m confident we can get there. I mean, look at the central library – I would never call the new library public artwork vanilla.

Bringing art into the neighborhoods

Because funding is tied to development, public art often ends up in odd places. New fire and pumphouses are adorned with public art — work almost no one ever sees — and clusters of public art often pop up in places like the Convention Center and the rest of downtown where new developments are in full swing. This means that San Diego’s older urban neighborhoods, where little is built, are often left out. This fuels criticism that the commission caters to tourists rather than locals.

In response, Jones pointed to two ongoing projects — one at the Skyline Hills Library under construction and another at the proposed new Mission Hills/Hillcrest Library — that directly serve San Diego neighborhoods.

“Artist Janet Zweig, she meets one-on-one with community members and thinks 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 opportunities to do projects outside of the percent for art program,” she said. “It percolates. There’s nothing to share yet, but I’m definitely thinking about all those things. … These are just some of the questions – these are big questions – but they are questions that I think about as we move forward with the program.