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It’s easy to dismiss the two shiny balls installed at the recently opened Fault Line Park in East Village as yet another silly or simplistic public art project by the city of San Diego. But Christine Jones, the Commission for Arts and Culture’s new public art program manager, makes a strong case that they’re something more.
“They’re San Diego’s miniature ‘Cloud Gate,’” she said, half-jokingly, in response to me bringing up the similarities to the well-known, large-scale reflective sculpture at Millennium Park in Chicago. That iconic piece serves as the backdrop to thousands of tourists’ photos because of the cool way it warps and reflects the surrounding cityscape.
Titled “Fault Whisper,” the two stainless-steel spheres do reflect the surrounding buildings and skyscrapers in interesting ways, Jones said as we walked 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 Fault System, which runs diagonally across the park under a sidewalk marking its location. Jones walked to one of the spheres and pointed out a viewfinder through which people can peer to see the other sphere perfectly in alignment — for now anyway.
As the fault line shifts and wiggles, the other sphere will eventually move out of the sightline. So, viewing public art becomes more like a quick stint in seismology.
On the opposite side of the sphere with the viewfinder, there’s a much bigger hole linked to an accelerator installed in the fault rupture below. Monitors pick up the Earth’s movement in real-time and turn it into a subtle atmospheric sound that’s played at the sphere and online.
“So, they are gently broadcasting the sounds of the Earth,” Jones said. She encouraged me to put my ear up to the hole. “It creates this idea of eavesdropping and remote intimacy with the Earth.”
Suddenly, the two big silver balls don’t seem so silly.
Jones has worked as a public art consultant for the city, the Port of San Diego and other clients for over a decade and she’s been in the visual art field even longer. It wasn’t a big surprise when she was named the commission’s new senior public art manager in April, replacing Dana Springs, who officially took over as executive director last year.
“She’s totally qualified for the position,” Victoria Hamilton said of Jones, who ran the commission for over 20 years before stepping down in 2012. “You should expect to be seeing very high-quality project management and professionalism. She’s smart and she knows the public art business. I would predict we’ll see some pretty dynamic innovative artwork going forward.”
Jones helped with the huge (and hugely popular) public art installation at the new Central Library, she had a hand in the restoration and installation of the old Aztec brewery art and artifacts at the library in Logan Heights and she worked on the Port’s first public art curatorial strategy.
That strategy is highly lauded among artsy circles, praised, in part, for aspects like the Tidelands Art program, which engages emerging artists who’d otherwise be barred from participating in public art projects because of intense insurance requirements and other bureaucratic barriers. That program has some incredible-sounding work queued up along the local coastline, but the projects have been on hold because of budget cuts.
Jones said she’s considering creating a similar city program that would allow for more participation from young or emerging artists.
“I definitely see a need for exploring that,” she said. “There is certainly an opportunity to look at that a little more.”
Jones, though, isn’t making any promises. She kept things vague in our interview and, when asked about her vision for San Diego’s public art program moving forward, would only say she was in the midst of thinking about some serious things.
“There’s a lot of contemplating still going on,” she said. “But the Commission for Arts and Culture’s public art program has had a vision and it’s worked with some important artist like Gary Hill or Roy McMakin. So, looking forward, I think we can build on that and there’s a lot more we can do. … Some of the questions I’m asking myself right now when I think about the future: How do we reach a broader, wider public in San Diego? What kind of role we can play in San Diego neighborhoods? How do we expand the notion of what public art is?”
San Diego’s public art collection is often thought of as vanilla — too safe and pandering. There’s a lot of buzz in the public art realm these days surrounding participatory art — work that directly engages viewers — tactical urbanism or “quick and easy urban hacks,” digital art that harnesses technology and using the internet and social media to increase participation and reach more than the same few dozen community members who tend to show up to time-consuming public meetings.
Victoria Plettner-Saunders said she’s ready for Jones and the rest of the commission to tap into some of those 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’s also been hesitant to announce any big changes — to quit being so tight-lipped about their strategy.
“What’s the plan for getting art in neighborhoods beyond utility boxes?” Plettner-Saunders said. “Is there a bigger city-wide public art exhibition 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 come up with 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 percent of eligible projects’ construction costs for art, from 2011 to 2012. That percent-for-art revenue stream is back and there’s been an uptick in public and private development in recent years (eligible private projects are also required to set aside half a percent to pay for art), so Plettner-Saunders and Hamilton said they think now is a good time for the commission to look into new programs.
Hamilton said she also thinks the current political climate in San Diego is better suited for getting some much edgier art through the public process.
“It seems like things have calmed down,” Hamilton said. “So many projects were so controversial back in the ’80s and ’90s it was crazy — everything we did was viewed as a controversy. But I feel like San Diego is starting to mature and we have this urge to move beyond vanilla and I feel confident we can achieve that. I mean, look at the Central Library — I would never call the public artwork at the new library vanilla.”
Because funding is attached to development, public art often ends up in weird places. New fire and pump stations are graced with public art — work that hardly anyone ever sees — and public-art clusters often pop-up in places like the Convention Center and the rest of downtown where new development is booming. That means San Diego’s older urban neighborhoods, where nothing much is being built, are often left out. That fuels criticism that the commission caters to tourists over locals.
In response, Jones pointed to two projects in the pipeline — one at under-construction Skyline Hills library and another at the proposed new Mission Hills/Hillcrest Branch Library — that directly serve San Diego’s neighborhoods.
“The artist Janet Zweig, she’s actually meeting one-on-one with community members and thinking about how to integrate 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 am thinking of ideas and possibilities for doing projects outside the percent-for-art program,” she said. “That’s percolating. There’s nothing really to share yet, but I’m certainly thinking about all of these things. … These are just some of the questions — they’re big questions — but they’re questions I’m thinking about as we move forward with the program.”