Public art for Somerset Street

The City has a “percent for art” whereby a percentage of capital (construction) costs of projects is to be spent on public art. West siders will be familiar with public art sculptures on Preston (postcards from the piazzas), West Wellie (marble fire hydrants), and Bank Street (the bike racks).

So now it is the turn for the current Somerset construction projects running from Bayswater to Preston, and the Preston to Booth Street sections. The City combined the two projects in order to afford a larger art installation.

The City encouraged artists to employ lighting. Community input suggested that the slope eastbound up from Preston into Chinatown be themed/look separate from the Somerset viaduct (over the O-Train) section. The two remaining bits of Somerset from Preston to City Centre Avenue, and Somerset west of Breezehill, were suggested to be left unlit.

On Wednesday evening, the five finalist artists presented their mock ups at the Hintonburg community centre.

Project A is a two foot by two foot aluminium framed cube with internally illuminated rope/cable strung around inside the cube. Each cube could have a different rope pattern, and the pattern could be changed in future years by restringing it on the hooks inside the frame.

The cubes would be suspended from the tops of the pedestrian-scaled lighting fixtures.

Project B used tube lights, sort of like star-wars light sabres, about six feet long, attached upright to the tops of the ped light fixtures. Each tube could light up in a variety of colours (eg, blue, yellow, green, red) which could be selected by passing pedestrians pushing the button on the post (these would be those sturdy push buttons beloved by traffic engineers that require pedestrians to “request” a light change):

Project C was sort of like a chandelier mounted near the top of selected ped light posts. A series of bent wire “arms” extended out from the post, each one ending in a glass ornament about 8″ long. These were not internally illuminated as small LEDs wouldn’t make them bright enough, but would instead depend on light from the adjacent ped light fixture, or in the daytime, from sunlight.

Project D consisted of a cable art installation running between ped lights. This submission did not include internal lighting. In my non-artist vocabulary, I could be best describe it as macreme. Unfortunately, my single shot of the piece is too blury to make anything out.

Project E was called “fireflies”, and looked like votive candles lit from below with LED lights. A selection of the fireflies would be enclosed in clear boxes mounted on the ped poles:

I found it interesting to walk around the various pieces and try to figure out just what the mock-up was trying to show, and imagining them full size, in street-worthy materials, out in the neighborhood.

For those not familiar with the streets in question, the Somerset viaduct section of the street will have the very modern ped light fixture with the upside-down triangle light fixtures on top. The slope going up to Chinatown will have red ped light poles with a more ornate canopy on top. In between, running for one block west of Preston, the street will have the Little Italy curved fixtures as used on Preston street today, and the trees in that block will be illuminated with fairy lights, like on Preston, as this block is part of the Preston BIA.

In the opinion of this non-artist (“I don’t know art, but I know what I like”), I thought Projects B and C came closest to what I would like to see on the street.

B, with its six-foot light sabres, was big enough to be seen by motorists and would be impressively large for pedestrians. Looking down the block, all the fixtures would be large and visible at once, allowing for a street-scaled composition. I also loved the idea of being able to walk over the Somerset viaduct and, by pushing the buttons repeatedly, get all of them to glow the same colour. The only thing missing was the sound of the light sabre when I push the button.

I did, however, find the artist selected the “wrong” light posts. I would rather see the installation in two distinctly separate areas, one being the elevated viaduct/bridge; and the other being Chinatown around Rochester Street. I also feel that the light sabres are awfully large to go on top of ped lights, and compete with the posts. The ped posts are, after all, supposed to be decorative in and of themselves, and thus its a bit redundant to then tack on a “look at me” light column on top. I would rather see these light tubes mounted on the regular metal or concrete street light poles, which are much higher, and where the art could be seen above the trees and more as a whole street composition.

Submission C, the chandeliers around the top of the posts, was also interesting. The arms of the chandeliers were thin enough not to compete too much with the ped light poles. The glass ornaments at the ends of the arms seemed a bit small to me, at six to eight inches, and would be more visible if larger, say 12 inches. This installation would work well in both daylight and night-time. I was a bit disappointed they were not internally illuminated. I am concerned that each post is visible by itself, but would not make much of a “whole street” composition.

The chandelier arms extend out several feet from the post, maybe six feet. Since the posts are mounted 18″ from the curb, the arms extending over the street are vulnerable to damage from trucks and snow plows. Or, the chandelier could be a D-shaped ring of arms, extending out over the ped sidewalk but much less so on the vehicular traffic side.

Few of the suggested projects included any historic references, or references to the industrial nature of the neighborhood. There was a great opportunity for such references on the viaduct section, since it goes over the railway tracks and former coal and lumber yards, ice houses, railway roundhouse, etc. Only project C had a historic reference, in that some of the glass ornaments at the ends of the chandelier arms would be shaped like train horns or train lights, but alas, the connection wasn’t at all apparent to me even when explained by the artists.

Project E, fireflies, didn’t appeal to me as it looked too “enclosed in a glass box mounted on a post”. And mounting display cases on the ped posts looked awkward to me. I didn’t think it would captivate me at all, if I was to look up at it from the sidewalk; and the effect would be pretty subtle for motorists too.

The aluminum cube with illuminated cable patterns inside it, in project A, caught my attention for sure. In my imagination, I could really fancy this if it was a six foot cube mounted on a pedestal, but as a smaller cube up on a post … less thrilling. This installation did look like a piece of art mounted on the post, and did not compete with the post itself. I am unsure just how successfully one could re-string these cubes in the future: do we employ the artist to come back once a year, take them down, and hold a restringing workshop and then remount them? Could someone climb a stepladder and restring one to spell out a unique message or shape?

In all, it was an interesting experience to see the mock ups, to chat with the artists, and fight my way through the crowds of people thronging the exhibit area. Adjudicating art suggestions is certainly a way to get people out.