Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 24, 2014

Light-and-sound art coming to University Ave tunnel

Artist with local connections will design interactive public art project for downtown pathways

by Elena Kadvany

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 reinvigorate 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 unanimous stamp of approval last week for local artist Ala Ebtekar to move forward with his project, to be installed in the pedestrian walkways in downtown's University Avenue underpass.

Ebtekar, a San Francisco-based artist who received an 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 different colors — dark and light gray, for example — so the light interplay will vary throughout installation.

The lights could also be programmed to coordinate with local events, such as a "glowing red" for Stanford game days, Chair Larissa Usich said.

"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 or 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 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 development of a Twitter application that would allow the community to interact with and control the light and sound. He also plans community talks and public-art walks.

Stanford students will also be involved in 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's proposal 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.

"I feel like inevitably when you're selecting an artist you can get somebody whose concept is great or somebody who's local or who's really met the brief for the budget," Commissioner Amanda Ross said. "We're really lucky as a city because not only (have) 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 $30,000 so far through 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 chair also unanimously elected a new chairperson, Kathleen Kavanaugh, and vice-chairperson, Ben Miyaji. Usich's term as chairwoman ends in April.

Editorial Assistant Elena Kadvany can be emailed at ekadvany@paweekly.com.

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