Light-and-sound art coming to University Ave tunnel

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

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.


Like this comment
Posted by support art & artists!
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 17, 2014 at 10:26 am

beautiful concept and very exciting for Palo Alto to get not only more energy efficient lighting in the dingy underground tunnel but also something beautiful and inspired.

Like this comment
Posted by Great, but...
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 17, 2014 at 10:49 am

Any improvement in that tunnel would be wonderful. Glad that an artist has a plan.
I wonder about the techy-trendyness though. My car also has internal lights that change colors, which seems a bit silly, and wasteful, just extra programming.
>a Twitter application that would allow the community to interact with and control the light and sound elements< Sorry, but this app. isn't art or even anything useful. More like a computer game, not serious work.

Like this comment
Posted by Priorities Lacking
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jan 17, 2014 at 11:37 am

Beautifying tunnels, while families are living on the street in this county, studios cost $1,826 a month in this city, and people are starving to death in foreign countries, with groups of orphaned children living in garbage dumps.

Palo Alto City Hall wants to know what its "values" are? Go no further than the shallow that oozes from this story.

Like this comment
Posted by Happy JJ
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 17, 2014 at 11:38 am

I am so glad that 'something' is being done in the tunnels, especially light-related. While the city and artists are out there, perhaps someone can also paint the walls since they are dreary and add cameras to detract people from doing things they shouldn't be doing.

Like this comment
Posted by Carol Gilbert
a resident of University South
on Jan 17, 2014 at 2:52 pm

I think this is a great idea! I have always hated the tunnel for being so dark and dreary.

Like this comment
Posted by jardins
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 18, 2014 at 12:02 am

$30,000 for this project?? That's a lot of money that could be spent on needy people in this town and beyond.

I entirely agree with the comments made by Priorities Lacking.

Like this comment
Posted by ekryant9
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 18, 2014 at 10:53 am

ekryant9 is a registered user.

Awesome idea. Bike to Stanford down the tunnel every weekday morning!

Like this comment
Posted by NotAwesome
a resident of another community
on Jan 18, 2014 at 9:17 pm

Sounds like another Color of Palo Alto, which cost over $75,000 and went nowhere. Now we’ll have the Sound of Palo Alto, which will be your tax dollars flushing away.

“pantheon of greatness”? Will Palo Alto ever get over itself?

Like this comment
Posted by Great, but...
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 18, 2014 at 9:33 pm

Reminds me of the ill-fated Color of Palo Alto project. That one mixed the colors from photos of palo alto homes in the hopes of coming up with the average color of Palo Alto. A meaningless enterprise if ever there was one.
But he was going to use Hewlett Packard equipment to do the analysis (something about counting pixels) so HP contributed equipment and praised the project, especially Vic Ojakian.
If this new idea uses Twitter, thereby advertising a commercial product, Twitter should pay for it.

Like this comment
Posted by bill g
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 21, 2014 at 9:14 pm

Since the tunnel must be lighted anyway, this seems like a wonderful idea. And LED's will cut the energy consumption way down.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Burger chain Shake Shack to open in Palo Alto
By Elena Kadvany | 15 comments | 3,785 views

Eat, Surf, Love
By Laura Stec | 4 comments | 1,242 views

The Cost of Service
By Aldis Petriceks | 1 comment | 864 views

One-on-one time
By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 269 views