public art

My Three Wishes

From the now defunct DESIGN 21: Social Design Network, an online community that explored the connection between design and society. It was a joint venture between UNESCO and Felissimo. I was the resident blogger.

I have a pattern of always being open to inspiration in the unlikeliest of places. Like when I stumble upon a sign somewhere with cleverly composed wording, or when I open a book to a random page containing apt advice for that exact moment in my life. So I’m channeling this intuitive, ad hoc methodology for this, my first post of a new year. Consider it a goodie bag of wayward “found” wishes for the year ahead.

#1 More Beauty
While living in Chicago last year on work assignment, I came upon a bold statement inscribed along a temporary plywood installation on South Wabash. The graffiti artists appropriated the bare material as writing space, and generously painted on the words “You Are Beautiful.” It’s a not uncommon phrase to hear among friends and lovers, but in three-foot-high boxy type along a bustling Midwestern shopping corridor? (Little did I know at the time, this instance was one of thousands like it around the world, inspired by a movement by the same name.)

Jenny Holzer-like, it caused me to stop in my tracks and contemplate the juxtaposition I found myself in: the urban everyday (awash in unrelenting waves of ads and corporate logos) and simple, albeit jarring, text. I stood there for a long time, watching late afternoon become sunset, and sunset become nightfall. I wanted to see the effects the words had on passersby and how they changed, if at all, with changing light. I found it hard to walk away.

The people behind this public art project believe the power of the “You Are Beautiful” statement comes from its simplicity. They say their intention is “to reach beyond ourselves as individuals to make a difference by creating moments of positive self-realization.” And, no humble feat, “We’re just attempting to make the world a little better.” Whereas advertising, they claim, elicits a response to buy, their signage elicits a response to act. In other words, they’re attempting to inspire activism instead of consumerism.

I personally don’t agree that we live in a binary world, in which we must ultimately choose between extremes. Life is full of contradictions and humans are no exception. It’s up to us individually to come into compassionate, harmonious relationship with our own contrariness; to learn to break old habits that no longer serve us and make new habits that day by day, moment by moment, not only serve ourselves but also give generously to others. Activism and consumerism can live happily ever after.

But! There is so much power and goodness in this simple message as an urban intervention. I adore it. And I agree wholeheartedly that in this world we need more beauty… and little prompts like this to remind one another of the beauty that already exists within us. (So join the movement, spread the word!)

Wish number two, fittingly, is a Jenny Holzer truism:

#2 Protect Me From What I Want (aka More Presence and Poise)
This reminds me of another one liner I read in a passage somewhere recently – “Desire is the design flaw” – which had me setting my thoughts adrift on the sea of design for a while, i.e. I wondered what this means for designers, whose job – at least, conventionally – has been to create desirable objects?

I finally landed on the realization that this and Holzer’s truism comment on the unappeasable human desire for ever more, and that this pattern of incessant wanting is our own undoing. And this is why meditative traditions, such as yoga, Tai Chi, and Ki Gong, are so beneficial. They all work uniquely towards helping us get out of our own needy ways and into “the flow” of unpredictable, wonderful life. By bringing ourselves to the surface of our own beingness and awareness, they help untangle, calm and release the avid yearnings, restless impulses and repetitive thoughts that hula-hoop through our minds.

Similar to the “You Are Beautiful” message, contemplative mind-body activities remind us of who we are without the superficial trappings of consumer culture. And again, it’s not one or the other for me. My point is that from time to time, and even better when practiced regularly, it’s helpful to slow down, be present, and re-member who we are… before we can even begin to know what it is we want.

Rather than endlessly brood about the past or forever worry about the future, it’s high time we step inside ourselves to find presence and poise. Imagine if we all did this on a regular basis! (World leaders included.)

#3 More Wild Cards
Finally, I wish my next year to be one of celebrating wild cards. More creative activism. More irreverence. More political art. More refusal to sit idly by.

I’ve been drawn of late to punk rock history. More specifically, I’ve been smitten with the front men from The Clash and The Sex Pistols/PiL: Joe Strummer and Johnny Rotten (né Lydon), respectively. These guys valued clarity of intention and precision of execution in a way that was often abrasive, but always admirable. Like others before and after them, they used music as a medium through which to express activism. They used interviews with media (and live shows) as dynamic platforms on which to express unabashed truths.

I’m attracted to this. And I have faith that this tradition lives on across all disciplines the world over. What saddens me, however, is that we don’t see enough of it. And we don’t hear enough of it. It’s as though we need some sort of punk rock truth serum to contaminate and positively transform the dreck that currently chugs its way through the globally distributed pipelines of mass-mediated reality today.

That, and take-no-prisoners gurus!

In The New York Times bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, author Elizabeth Gilbert wrote about a guru named Swamiji (who I’d happily invite to a dinner party along with the late Strummer and the very alive and kicking Lydon). Swamiji demanded enthusiasm, commitment, and self-control. He was always scolding people for being jad, the Hindi word for “inert.” He brought ancient concepts of discipline to the lives of his often-rebellious young Western followers, commanding them to stop wasting their own (and everyone else’s) time and energy with their freewheeling hippie nonsense. He would throw his walking stick at you one minute, she says, and hug you the next. He was complicated, often controversial, but truly world-changing.

It’s not complication and controversy we want to quell, you see. It’s complacency and conformity. Another round of Strummers, Rottens and Swamijis, please!

Photos: Block 37 Scaffolding Structure for Department of Cultural Affairs, Chicago, IL, 2005-2008, collaboration with Chris Silva, Michael Genovese, & 100 Chicago artists, by Jen Leonard.


Art for Our Sake

From the now defunct DESIGN 21: Social Design Network, an online community that explored the connection between design and society. It was a joint venture between UNESCO and Felissimo. I was the resident blogger.

It’s popular today to talk about the power of design, and the responsibility of design, and its potential to spur social innovation. This post, for a change, gives design a time-out and calls upon the transformative power of art.

I do so because I’ve recently come from a free 12-hour contemporary art party in Toronto called Nuit Blanche. It was the second annual, inspired by the Parisian precedent, and it succeeded in bringing out hordes of people from sunset to sunrise: young, old, goth, punk, scenesters, rockers, tourists, locals. I’ve never seen anything quite like it!

The downtown core was divided into three zones. Each carried a theme. The themes were brought to life through more than 190 site-specific exhibitions, independent projects and resident galleries whose doors remained open long-after-hours. (Mass transit and local bars adapted too, extending the hours of their service.) All in the name of art.


I set out to photograph my journey through the zones (from B to A to C – just because it worked out that way), with comfortable shoes, layered clothing, and plenty of water. After five-and-a-half hours of powering through performance art, video projections and interactive installations, I was invigorated, but realized my goal to see it all was overly ambitious. (Some of my friends knew better and selected only a few stops, staying long enough at each to more deeply appreciate the effects). Consequently, my third zone experience was tempered, as my tired feet gave way, and comfortable hotel bed beckoned. So I missed out on the pom-pom exchange, chocolate stag in the park, and 34-meter-long locust installation by Noburu Tsubaki and Hishashi Muroi. Drat! But what I was able to stick around long enough for was plenty rousing. Some highlights:

  • Noite de São Joãó (Night of St. John), by Brazilian installation artist Laura Belém, who imported a tropical street festival along one of Toronto’s ritzy shopping corridors;
  • Ground Loop Alibi, by superstar DVJ Charles Kriel, who mixed sound while projecting imagery onto the Royal Ontario Museum’s Michael Lee-Chin’s crystal;
  • Watcher, by multimedia artist Millie Chen, who choreographed 10 video vignettes inside three separate residences, which appeared as silhouettes across colorfully-lit windows;
  • ThunderEgg Alley, by po-mo artist Swintak, who turned an alleyway dumpster into a high-end micro hotel and spa for the night;
  • Everybody Loves You 2, by Japanese artist Daisuke Takeya, who invited 100 people to declare their love to the camera as neutrally as possible;
  • Midnight Mirage, by Vessna Perunovitch, who served Serbian food to an audience of 12;
  • City Glow, by Chiho Aoshima, who created a mesmerizing anime-inspired film of anthropomorphized urban life;
  • Incursion 43:38:36.19 N / 79:25:19.89 W°, by Craig Walsh, who installed a storefront video to outstanding effect: a window became a prehistoric aquarium, drip by drip; and
  • Magical World, by Johanna Billing, who filmed children at a cultural center outside Zagreb, Croatia, rehearsing the lyrics of the same-titled song.
  • And that’s just the short list of art I came to love at first sight. Some made me laugh. Some made me cry. Yet, beyond the art, there was something else clamoring to get my attention. Something that felt a lot like social innovation. Although some of the works on display were clearly “art for art’s sake” the cumulative effect of the exhibitions was transformational.

    Each of the thousands of us in attendance was at once observing the art and making the art. Alone, or with friends, knowing or unknowing, we became one giant art beat. Nuit Blanche succeeded because its effect was more powerful than the sum of its parts. Together, we shared a social slice of time. As individuals, we left positively changed.

    Art is not dead, folks. It’s as important as ever. As imperative as design. For, if design is about coming up with the right answers to our shared problems today, art is about raising the right questions and motivating us to celebrate colorfully, loudly, and all through the night.