What's more emblematic of Palo Alto than a Stanford University graduate designing an interactive LED-light-and-sound art installation that, with the help of a local tech company and Stanford students, will reactivate a much-used public space?
Not much or at least that's what the Public Arts Commission seems to think. The city body gave its stamp of approval on Thursday night for local artist Ala Ebtekar and Stanford alumna Binta Ayofemi to move forward with this project, to be installed in the pedestrian walkways bordering downtown's University Avenue underpass.
Ebtekar, a San Francisco-based artist who received a MFA degree from Stanford in 2006, imagines lighting the pedestrian tunnels with swaths of subtle color that would gradually change throughout the day. The light would be sensitive to its environment, changing depending on the time of day or the amount of traffic passing through, for example. Ebtekar has also proposed painting sub-sections of the walls with subtle colors dark and light grey, for example so the light interacts differently with that portion of the walkway.
The lights could also be programmed to coordinate with local events, such as a "glowing red" for Stanford game days, said Chair Larissa Usich.
"The concept is to have it wave over you," she added. "It's not going to be flashing or super bright in your face."
Ebtekar is also planning a sound element perhaps music by Stanford musicians or a local band would play, or any requests submitted by the public, Usich said.
Staff has consulted with technical advisers from the city as well as the city electrician to work out any safety, installation or logistical issues.
"They are not concerned at all about it," Usich said.
Currently, there are fluorescent lights down the middle of the pedestrian tunnels' ceilings. They would be removed and Ebtekar would install more energy-efficient LED lights, as well as conduits for speakers. There's a minimum and maximum standard for lighting in such walkways; the installation would fall within the approved amount, Usich said.
Usich also said that drivers passing through the underway might "get a glow" as they're driving through, but it won't be distracting.
Ebtekar's proposal also includes developing a Twitter application that would allow the community to interact with and control the light and sound elements and plans for community talks or public art walks he would lead.
Stanford students will also be involved in parts of the project development and installation, Commissioner Vikki Tobak said.
Ebtekar has also reached out to Palo Alto tech company Blurred Whisper to complete the programming necessary for the installation.
A subcommittee of commissioners said they, along with a selection panel, unanimously nominated Ebtekar over four other finalists for not only his artistic talent, but also local partnerships he's already forged and his own connections to the area. The commission also unanimously supported the nomination.
"I feel like inevitably when you're selecting an artist you can get somebody whose concept is great or somebody's who's local or who's really met the brief for the budget," said Commissioner Amanda Ross. "We're really lucky as a city because not only we've gotten a local guy, we've gotten an immensely talented artist who I'm really excited to have among our pantheon of greatness."
Berkeley-born Ebtekar's art -- mainly photography, drawing, painting and installation -- has been displayed in the Asian Art Museum and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco as well as the Palo Alto Art Center, among other U.S. and international museums.
The project will cost an estimated $65,000. The commission has raised a total $30,000 so far, with a $15,000 donation from Stanford that the commission matched last summer.
"Now that there is a project that's been selected, new discussions will begin about seeking the additional funding," Usich said.
On Thursday night, the commission also unanimously elected a new chair, Commissioner Kathleen Kavanaugh, and vice-chair, Commissioner Ben Miyaji. Usich's term as chair ends in April.