Dreaming Up a New Phone App, Part 3: A Vancouver Public Art Phone App

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On the morning of November 15, after attending the Annual General Meeting of the Vancouver Art Gallery the evening prior, I woke up with an idea for a new SmartPhone app.  The basic idea is to make public art in Vancouver more accessible through a phone app, that locates public art works through a GPS tracking system and can immediately provide to the app user information about the works, and the artists, over and above what can be included on, or near, the works themselves.

This basic idea isn’t new to the world, although it was new to me, when I dreamed it up. When I did a little research on-line after my dream, I found out that there already are a few cities (not many at all) that have such apps–including, of all places, Surrey, BC, not far from Vancouver, that used to have a reputation for generally not being very culturally progressive, although things seem to have changed there a great deal of late.  The public art app for Surrey is called “ArtWalk”, and I recommend that anyone who is interested in such things have a look at it.  It’s available on iTunes, free of charge. There also are general city guides in app form, aimed mainly at tourists, for many cities around the world, some of which seem to incorporate public art as one of the elements coordinated with GPS, in addition to restaurants and so on: these apps probably don’t do as good a job with public art as those apps that are devoted to this subject, although I can’t be sure, since I haven’t actually looked at any of them.  These apps designed mainly for tourists all cost at least a few bucks.

Speaking of money, money can be made from apps and app ideas and, if my idea were entirely novel, I’d be reluctant to share it with members of the general public in a blog.  But, at least the basic idea isn’t entirely novel, so I will discuss that here.  More detailed aspects of my idea, some of which also came to me in my dream and others of which I thought of afterwards, I’ll be keeping closer to my chest, for the time being.

I’m not entirely sure how I made the leap from attending the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) Annual General Meeting the previous evening, and the show at the VAG, Ian Wallace: At the Intersection of Painting and Photography, the previous week, to dreaming up a phone app that focusses on public art, but I feel strongly there was a connection–or connections.  Both the Ian Wallace show and the Meeting had got me thinking about digital technology in relation to art, including the production of art and the consumption of art.  The Meeting, which, as I discussed in my last blog post, I found disappointing, had made think about why I go to galleries like the VAG.  My reasons for going to  art galleries have changed over the course of my life, and I generally tend to go less now than when I was younger and eager to learn about all kinds of art; however, when I’ve travelled, I’ve always made an effort to visit local galleries (and museums), even if their current shows haven’t been of particular interest to me, because I’ve thought that a visit to these galleries could help to orient me to the city, or region, in question.  In my dream state, I may have made the connection that, in the digital age, an at least equally good–and possibly sometimes better–art-related experience that could help to orient a visitor to a new city, or region, and to its art in particular, could be achieved using a mobile phone app, that focussed on public art.  Then, too, my annual membership at the Vancouver Art Gallery is expiring very soon, and, in relation to the VAG, I’ll soon be out on the street, where most public art is located.

At any rate, I woke up that morning not only with an idea for a phone app that focussed on public art, but also with a strong compulsion to really look at the public art in my environment.  In the past, I haven’t paid a great deal of attention to most public art–or at least not as much attention as I’ve paid to pieces that were displayed in galleries.  But, beginning with that dream, I wanted to really open my eyes, and my mind, to public art.

Over the course of the next few days, I tried to find out more about pieces with which I already was familiar, and sought out other pieces about which I’d heard but hadn’t actually seen.  As my chronicle below of that experience illustrates, the kind of app that I am proposing would be useful not only to visitors to Vancouver but also to local citizens, to help us appreciate the public art in our city–and to save us some aggravation. I should emphasize that the pieces discussed below by no means consist of all of the public art in downtown Vancouver, or even in the specific areas downtown that are mentioned, nor are the pieces discussed necessarily my favourites–or those I most despise. They are just some of the pieces I happed upon in the couple of days immediately following my app dream, about which I chose to comment here.

MY DOWNTOWN VANCOUVER ART WALK (SANS APP)

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Every weekday, on my way in to work, I pass the main branch of the Vancouver Public Library.  Outside the front entrance is a “light installation”, or essentially a ‘sign’, made up of white light bulbs on a metal frame.  The bulbs spell out “THE WORDS DON’T FIT THE PICTURE,” which is highly apropos in front of a building filled with books. The ‘sign’ has intrigued me for a long time, but I’d never previously stopped to find out who the artist was, and to learn more about the work.  On this day, I stopped, and took not only the above picture of the piece, but also a picture of the piece of blue plastic, affixed to its concrete base, which carried basic information about the piece.

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I learned from this ‘label’ that the artist was Ron Terada, and that the piece was commissioned by the City of Vancouver for the Winter Olympics that we had here in 2010.  But when I wanted to learn more about the artist and the piece, and dialed the phone number that was indicated on the label, I found that the number was disconnected!  I tried the website address on the label, and website also was inactive.  (I eventually found information about Terada and the piece at the City of Vancouver’s on-line Public Art Registry.  You can follow the link if you’re interested in getting further information–and have some of the experience I had trying to find out more.)

That very day, there was a picture in one of our daily newspapers of a new piece of public art called Persian Wall in the downtown area, and I decided to track it down after work.  I had more trouble finding the piece than I expected (the short article accompanying the picture provided just the name of the building where it was located, and the street, West Georgia), so I dropped into the lobby of an office building on West Georgia, where I could see from outside that there was an attendant on duty, to get some help with directions.  Once I was inside the lobby, I came upon this stunning painting–that few were likely to know about other than those who work in, or otherwise enter, the building.

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That’s me reflected in the metal plate, below, taking a picture with my phone of the plate, since it had on it basic information about the painting, including the name of the piece and the artist. (Taking a snap is so much easier than writing down such information.)  When I wanted to find out more about the piece,  Vancouver’s Public Art Registry provided no assistance, which I initially assumed was because the piece isn’t owned by the City; but I did, eventually, find the information I was seeking in a press release on Marketwire.com, a business website.  Additional information about the artist, Scott Plear, is available on his website.

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Once I had the exact address of the building where Persian Wall is located, I proceeded further down West Georgia.  Eventually I found the piece, on the side of the building, and not on the front, as I had expected.

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Unfortunately, there wasn’t even any basic identifying information about the piece, or the artist, on the outside of the building–although it seemed likely there was some such information inside the building.  Unfortunately, this building was a condo tower and not an office building, where members of the general public usually have easy access at 6 p.m.  Maybe I could have gained access to the lobby, but I didn’t bother to try.

Contrary to what I expected, there is information about Persian Wall in the City of Vancouver’s Public Art Registry, even though the piece is part of a privately-owned condominium building.  Maybe the fact that the piece faces out onto the street makes it eligible for inclusion, whereas lobby art isn’t eligible.

As I was heading back towards Burrard Street along the south side of West Georgia Street, in the dark, I vaguely saw some thin, oddly-shaped, pieces of what seemed to be plywood within a recessed area, that may or may not have been art.  I wasn’t going to get too close, because it appeared from the sidewalk, where I was situated, that there might be a drop-off of several feet, and I didn’t want to fall into the possible cavity.  Probably–or so I thought at the time–it was just a construction site, that hadn’t been properly cordoned off.

I continued past the presumed pit with its jutting pieces of wood to The Shangri La Hotel, outside of which were the two, matching, lion sculptures pictures below. Taking a picture of the hotel lions was a little frivolous of me (they’re not really public art, or are they?), and I didn’t expect that I would be including this picture in this blog. The reason I’ve included it is for what is in the background of the picture–the oddly-shaped white figure against the wall, that is part of what I described above, that I initially concluded was a poorly-maintained construction site.

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A few days after my “Art Walk” along West Georgia, I came across some VAG literature that noted that the Vancouver Art Gallery Offsite, a space outside the gallery itself where the VAG exhibits art, is located beside The Shangri La Hotel.  Because I didn’t get down to this part of West Georgia very often, I’d never actually visited the Offsite space–although, particularly since I’d become a member of the Gallery, I had wondered about it, and thought I should visit.

I checked out on the VAG’s website what was currently showing at Offsite and, sure enough, that supposed construction site was actually the current exhibit, Large Painting and Caryatid Maquette in Studio at Night by Damian Moppett.  If you check out the piece on the VAG’s website, you’ll see why, in the dark,  I mistook the piece for a construction site, and steered clear of this prominent sample of public art in downtown Vancouver, when my mission was to find more of it.

At the Burrard SkyTrain Station, I came across my final piece of public art for the evening, an abstract black granite sculpture that has been there as long as the SkyTrain itself (over 30 years).  Once again, I could find no identifying information on the piece.  (Had such information originally been on a metal plate, that had been stolen?  Maybe installers of statues should consider using plastic labels, like on the piece at the Public Library.)  Although this sculpture had no identifying information, the name of the band whose poster was glued to the base, “Day Trippers”  would have made a good name for a  sculpture outside a transit station, don’t you think? You can follow this link if you want to know more about the sculpture.

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Lest my readers assume that many of the problems I had finding out more about public art in downtown Vancouver–or just finding it, period–on my first “Art Walk” were due simply to me having been wandering around in the dark,  the next day I set out, in broad daylight, to find another piece I’d wanted to see, and experienced some very similar problems.

In the past few years, I’d seen a few interesting pieces by the Vancouver artist, Liz Magor, and I wanted to check out one of her public art pieces that I thought I’d heard was on the water near Yaletown.  Not true. (It’s actually at Coal Harbour.)

What I found instead was a beautiful language piece I’d never heard of before, that went on, and on, and on, for 100 meters or so, along the railing beside the water. (The three segments pictured below together comprise only a very small part of the total piece).  I couldn’t find any information about the piece when I was in its presence (not even the name of the artist), although I eventually found out the piece is by another talented Vancouver artist, Henry Tsang, and is called, Welcome to the Land of Light.  I wasn’t living in Vancouver when the piece first went up, in 1997, and I never get down to this part of the waterfront, but I’m still extremely surprised I’ve never heard of it.  Finding this piece more than compensated for not finding the Magor piece that day.

Even without knowing the story behind this piece, it’s quite entrancing.  But, knowing the story behind it, including the language of the non-English script, and why these particular words were chosen, the piece becomes an important homage to Vancouver’s history.  I wonder how many of even those people who regularly pass the piece know what this piece is about.

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The final piece I’m mentioning in this blog post I encountered as I was heading home after finding the Henry Tsang piece (and not finding the Magor piece).  It was a relatively modest mosaic on the ground, in a park that I think is named “David Lam Park”.  As I’d come to expect, there was no information about the artist, or artists, beside the piece; but also, in this case, I couldn’t find any information on-line.

I suspect it might have been done by the same group, comprised largely of homeless kids, that created the mosaic beside the building at 411 Dunsmuir a couple of years ago, some of whom I spoke with when they were working on that mosaic. The style is very similar.

In the app that I dreamed up, both of these mosaics, although unassuming, and their creators, would receive recognition–and this infomation would be easy to find.

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I was going to write a concluding section here; but, I’m pressed for time (Christmas is so soon!), so, for now, I’ll leave it at that.  You can draw your own conclusions.

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