The art of questioning

Public art project asks viewers to think about Palo Alto

What is a city?

It's a question Palo Alto residents and visitors may find themselves facing -- literally -- in the coming weeks. The city's Public Art Commission is working with Oakland-based artist Anthony Discenza to install a temporary art project that consists of 20 signs displayed on downtown light posts. Each sign will confront viewers with a series of questions, ranging from the mundane ("What are some of the best options for getting around in your city?") to the existential ("Generally speaking, do you subscribe to the notion that people are meant to be happy?").

The purpose of the installation, says the artist, is to engage the public in thought and conversation about the issues affecting Palo Alto and its residents' lives.

"I'm ... interested in having the work act as a kind of trigger for some interior experience or dialogue on the part of the viewer," Discenza said in a statement.

The text on the signs is drawn from English-as-a-Second-Language conversation questions, and echoes the neutral tone of such didactic prompts, sometimes in subtly humorous ways. Yet Discenza is serious about encouraging reflection and discussion through this almost Socratic method of questioning.

Though many of the questions that appear on the signs could be applied to any city, others have particular relevance to current issues facing Palo Alto.

"This project is really exciting because it brings something fresh to the public art realm," said Vikki Tobak, a public art commissioner who also works as a curator and journalist. "We have a lot of 'wow factor' pieces, but something like this is unexpected. People might think it's a mundane sign, and then be surprised to learn that there's more to it."

Tobak also noted that Discenza's installation is in keeping with Palo Alto's reputation as a place of innovation and creativity, and said that temporary installations like this one can afford to be "a little more experimental, a little bit more challenging than most public art.

"He's taking people out of their comfort zones for a moment," she said of Discenza. "I really like that it challenges the city in that way."

Discenza has exhibited work both nationally and internationally at galleries and museums including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Getty in Los Angeles. On Wednesday, Oct. 15, at 6 p.m., the artist will give a free public talk at the Downtown Library, followed by a guided tour of the artwork.

Installation began Wednesday, Oct. 1, when members of the public began discovering the signs between Kipling and High Streets, Homer St. and Lytton Ave. All signs are expected to be in place by Friday, Oct. 3, and will remain up for about six months.

For those who want to take a self-guided tour, a map of the locations is available on the city's website, as is the full text of the project. Once the signs are installed, they'll include internet links where the public can go to learn more about the project.

In the meantime, here are a few questions to ponder and discuss: Are you excited about the future of your city? Can you identify any major problems in your city? Do you ever find yourself longing for the good old days?

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Like this comment
Posted by Ellen Uhrbrock
a resident of University South
on Oct 3, 2014 at 11:13 am

Interesting idea - it will provoke ideas, thoughts and suggestions about the future of our city.

If the city's webmaster creates a mobile app, collects suggestions, sorts them out and gives them to the best person in City Hall who is responsible for rewriting Palo Alto's Comprehensive Plan - our citizens will be heard and the Council given guidance.

I'll go to the meeting Oct 15 in the Downtown Library at 6:00 to meet the artist and see what he thinks about this suggestion.

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