FOR the rest of the summer, tiny, seemingly random pockets of the city will look and sound just a wee bit different from what you are used to. SiteProjectsDC, a public exhibition of nine artists from the Washington and Baltimore area organized by the Washington Project for the Arts/Corcoran and sponsored by the Downtown DC Business Improvement District, has temporarily infiltrated several square blocks of Northwest Washington, with an occasionally thoughtful (and in a few instances magical) hodgepodge of installation art.
Generally speaking, SiteProjectsDC is a wired (albeit sometimes tired) affair, with two-thirds of the pieces powered by some form of electricity and a handful accompanied by the "eeps" and "beeps" of the computer and voice-mail world. Needless to say, those projects involving the latest technology are often those most likely to break down, but they can also be the most effective when operating properly.
The best example of this is Clay Wellman's installation in the former Woodward and Lothrop building, on the south side of G Street between 10th and 11th streets NW. Wellman removed the security bars from one of the old department store's main entrances and cut small windows at various heights in the plywood that has been boarding up the building for the past couple of years. Through any one of these snapshot-sized apertures, which Wellman calls "pseudophotographs," you can see clear through to the F Street side of the building, since the artist has arranged to have the interior lights remain on until 9 in the evening for the duration of the show.
A sense of melancholy wonder comes from peering into the empty expanse of a once bustling retail mecca, a reverie interrupted only by what appears to be a solitary figure passing in front of the peep holes (the startling intruder is actually a kinetic -- but inanimate -- component of the work, powered by a hidden motor). Gradually, you become aware of the sound of recorded footsteps overhead, adding to the aura of mystery and nostalgia that this hybrid of new and old media conjures out of an abandoned building.
The installation guaranteed to stop the most passersby in their tracks, though, is Timothy Nohe's whimsical "." Just outside the Shops at National Place on the southwest corner of 13th and F Streets NW is a yellow newspaper vending box (or "rack," as it's known in the business). Next to boxes for the Wall Street Journal and other papers, most folks wouldn't give it a second glance, except that an all-weather personal CD player inside periodically squawks such Furby-like announcements as "downloading data" at top volume. Inside, an inexpensive Mac computer flashes a roster of newspaper mastheads from around the world, pointing to what Nohe calls the "tension between the electronic media and the print media."
The artist's original plan was to hook the machine up to a modem so that headlines could be downloaded throughout the day but, alas, a telephone connection was not feasible.
Over at the Martin Luther King Library, Janis Goodman has created a nice meditation on the hobby of people watching. From inside the library's ground-floor reading room, you look at people cut between Ninth and 10th Streets NW on the the G Street pedestrian walkway through a window on which the artist has affixed a transparent vinyl laminate of sickly acid-yellow. Hand-drawn fish have been inked onto the surface, creating a waterless aquarium in which we are both the observer and the observed.
In a former Up Against the Wall store at 1004 F St. NW, sculptor and performance artist Stephen Barnes has contributed an amusing commentary on urban renewal, with a store-front version of the well-known "claw" game. By manipulating a joy stick and a button, viewers can try to reposition a skyline of charcoal-gray Styrofoam buildings with a crane-operated metal hand. Prepare to be as frustrated by this exercise in futility as by those offering cheap prizes in boardwalk arcades.
Not all of the entries make such imaginative use of space.
Ken Ashton is a fine photographer whose series of streetscapes allude to issues of uniformity and identity in what he has dubbed the multi-city "Megalopolis" stretching from Boston to Washington, but taken out of context, the solitary black-and-white blowup of a D.C intersection, bolted to the wall of 1004 F St. NW, loses any pungency.
Similarly, works by Sheila Crider (a carousel of scratched slides projected onto an interior wall of a building on F Street between 11th and 12th) and Austin Thomas (an array of nondescript rocks adorned with red, white and black tassels hanging from a window in the 1100 block of G Street NW) would be equally at home -- and just as banal -- in a conventional gallery.
Colin Ives and Teri Rueb have each attempted something far less concrete.
Ives' mock-up of an Internet home page set in a window at 601 13th St. NW, "YouAreHere Storefront Counter," not only tracks the number of people who visit the physical site at the top of the Metro Center escalators (by means of a "SiteCam" video camera), but the number of people who visit the companion Web site as well (www.gl.umbc.edu/~ives/counter/). There, live images from the street are continually updated.
Rueb's art doesn't exist in real space at all, except for a number of downtown pay phones that have been plastered with the debatable statement, "This phone is art." By calling 202/737-4663, you are connected to a voice-mail menu of rambling essays on cell phones and other evils of the computer age. Listeners are encouraged to leave a message or opinion, which will then be archived for later retrieval at the same number. Both of these pieces are conceptual thumb-suckers; they're just not a lot of fun to look at or listen to. Bear in mind that the cost of a pay phone call is 35 cents these days, too, and that these calls can be placed just as easily from the comfort of your home phone.
Nevertheless, the point, according to curator Laura McGough, who has organized similar projects in Toronto and Buffalo, is not necessarily an immediate visual payoff. According to McGough, it's all about the transformation of the jaded way we look at the city around us. "What we're trying to do is to take benign, boring everyday objects and fill them with possibility," McGough says.
In the case of SiteProjectsDC, some of those objects are half full, and some half empty.
SITEPROJECTSDC -- Through September 25 at various public locations throughout downtown Washington, all within easy walking distance of Metro Center. 202/639-1828. Hours are variable, although most installations are viewable around the clock. Free. Site maps are available at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, 901 G St. NW, or from the Business Improvement District's red-uniformed SAM (for "Safety and Maintenance") operators, at kiosks throughout downtown. They can also be downloaded from the Web site: www.siteprojectsdc.org.
Guided tours of SiteProjectsDC will be offered on July 6, Aug. 3 and Sept. 7 at 6 and on July 29 and August 26 at noon. Meet at the Metro Center subway station at 13th and G Streets NW.
CAPTION: Something fishy is going on at Janis Goodman's installation at the Martin Luther King Library.