A New Movement in Public Art

Artwork by Ian Whitmore covers two sides of a truck, part of the
Artwork by Ian Whitmore covers two sides of a truck, part of the "Art Not Ads" project that can be seen in the District, Prince George's, Montgomery and Arlington this weekend. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, September 16, 2006

If you're stuck in traffic this weekend, blame art.

Today and tomorrow, three trucks -- the kind that normally hype a Barneys Co-op or a midnight madness sale -- are circling the District and close-in suburbs touting the painting, poems and video art strapped to their flanks.

"Art Not Ads," as the project is called, began yesterday. Organizers Welmoed Laanstra and Nora Halpern claim that the three-day roaming verse and image initiative will return wonderment to our everyday lives. They say that "Art Not Ads" will be the first of a series of streetside interventions -- eight or nine are envisioned over the next 18 months -- under an umbrella project called Street Scenes: Projects for DC.

The inaugural event showcases works by an impressive group of local and national artists. Three painters were invited; each has a banner on the truck for one day. Six poets will be featured, a pair shares one truck each day. Four video artists screen a single work each; their truck travels by night as it broadcasts a 28-minute loop. Today, the trucks will stop at downtown's Arts on Foot festival from noon to 4 p.m. and at the 1515 14th St. gallery building openings from 6 to 8 p.m.

The aim of "Art Not Ads," Halpern says, is to "present [art] in places where people don't expect it, putting it back into the everyday. It's our way of reminding people to keep looking." For Laanstra, the project shows that "art is not a separate experience" from daily life. Pedestrians and motorists who see the work will experience a "heighten[ed] sense of their environment," Laanstra adds.

Both Halpern and Laanstra know what they're doing. Halpern is a vice president at the advocacy group Americans for the Arts. Her résumé includes a stint as curator of the Frederick R. Weisman Collections; the late California magnate's holdings are rich with modern and contemporary art. Laanstra, a freelance curator, has mounted several strong exhibitions for Conner Contemporary Art. For "Art Not Ads," the pair invited District poet E. Ethelbert Miller to help choose the poetry.

Laanstra and Halpern's most recent project was last year's "Found Sound." Better known to District artgoers as the Port-a-Potty project, the undertaking involved sound installations inside Port-a-Potties and art spaces throughout the District. Like that project, "Art Not Ads" aims to provide a public art experience. The failures of "Found Sound" -- the art was locked up and difficult to view, the makeshift johns unsympathetic to their urban environment -- suggest some of the potential shortcomings of "Art Not Ads."

Halpern says that "Art Not Ads" wrests art from the clutches of its traditional homes, the gallery and the museum. "Curators need to work outside of these institutional systems and strip the walls away from exhibitions and collections -- to consider the entire city as a gallery space," she writes in an essay accompanying the project.

Creative protest against the hijacking of art by cultural institutions is a long-standing modern and postmodern concern. Much thoughtful urban intervention -- by Jenny Holzer, Thomas Hirschhorn and even graffitists -- has come out of this gripe.

This initiative takes art out of context and leaves it dangling. What will it mean for a pedestrian to glimpse video art on the side of a passing truck? Will the experience be much different from watching an ad? As for painting: When it exits the institution and becomes a banner that passes us on the street, is it anything more than graphic design?

For some of the artists participating in the project, that very problem proved intriguing. Painters accustomed to working with their hands were forced to design digitally; their images would then be transferred to vinyl banners wrapped around the truck's billboards.

"I'd be working almost as a graphic designer," says participating painter Ian Whitmore. "That's part of what interested me."

Painter Maggie Michael, whose work travels on the trucks today, was attracted to the public nature of the project. She expects some quizzical stares. "I like the accessibility of it and the confusion of it," Michael says. "I like that people will wonder if it's art but may think it's some anti-war group -- which would make much more sense in this town."

It's true that strangeness has its rewards. But "Art Not Ads" runs the risk of coming off as a feel-good measure. Because their project takes place in the public sphere, it's unclear how viewers will respond and nearly impossible to measure. Ultimately, the project's impact depends on us. This weekend, our job is to take a look and decide what we think.

Public art is capable of more than simply brightening our day, yet the project's deeper goals aren't clear. Though Halpern and Laanstra assure me that truck routes include the area's poorestcommunities, such well-intentioned moves only invite further questions. It's unclear what can be accomplished by driving poems down streets with bigger problems than drive-by art can solve.

Halpern and Laanstra have harnessed an impressive amount of energy, volunteerism and support from the area's galleries, artists and local governments. For this they deserve our applause. The ambitious task they've taken on is a treacherous one.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company