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June 23, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, June 23, 2004

'Digital DNA' lost in fire last month 'Digital DNA' lost in fire last month (June 23, 2004)

No one knew status of egg-shaped sculpture while debate raged

by Bill D'Agostino

For the past two weeks, an egg-shaped sculpture has been the center of a bitter community debate about public art and the future of Palo Alto's aging Lytton Plaza.

To everyone's surprise, it was destroyed about a month ago.

The contemporary artwork, titled "Digital DNA," was fried in a San Bruno warehouse fire in May, city officials and the artist learned Sunday.

"It's terrible," artist Adriana Varella said. "I'm very sad."

The sculpture's destruction has fanned the flames of an already rueful political dispute and has also created more finger pointing. Suspicious public officials now blame city employees for the artwork's destruction, since the piece wasn't installed on schedule. Varella has even hired an attorney to study the city's culpability for the loss of her labor of love.

The city employee overseeing the project, Arts and Culture Director Leon Kaplan, said the loss was unfortunate but not his fault.

Digital DNA was originally scheduled for installation in the plaza on May 8. The fire occurred 11 days later, on May 19.

The artist, who visited the damaged warehouse on Sunday, said she didn't know about the fire until the middle of last week, when she was contacted by an employee from the storage facility. Kaplan said the delay could be due to the destruction of the facility's records in the fire.

Last year, the city's Public Art Commission picked the contemporary artwork for University Avenue's Lytton Plaza. The appointed officials voted for the city to purchase the piece for $9,950.

Recently, a new plan for the city-owned .2-acre plaza, featuring a fountain, became public. Some on the commission believe city employees are favoring the new idea over the "egg."

"By all rights, it (Digital DNA) should have been in Lytton Plaza for the last two months," Public Art Commissioner Gerald Brett said. "There's no reason that it's not."

The artwork, made of computer circuit boards quilted together in the shape of an egg, was designed to recognize Palo Alto's role in birthing Silicon Valley. Varella intends to rebuild it.

Kaplan, who is retiring at the end of the month, defended his role in the delay and called Brett "paranoid."

Kaplan said the artist herself caused the initial holdup by not finishing the project until late April, although Varella contends she was indeed done early that month. Then, the installation was delayed yet again because the process for hiring city vendors had changed, causing officials to go back to the drawing board.

Brett noted he initially chose an installer after interviewing a few and accepting proposals from two companies a year ago. After going through the new process this year, Kaplan ended up selecting the same installer.

To the shock and gasps of those present, Kaplan announced the news about the fire at the end of a tense discussion about the project during last Thursday's meeting of the Public Art Commission.

The unusual meeting was held because real estate developer Roxy Rapp and former mayor Leland Levy have proposed redesigning Lytton Plaza, with a fountain as the centerpiece. The two were asking for the commission to hold off installing the artwork until their plan officially moves forward.

Levy told the commission he feared the public's reaction if the artwork was installed and then temporarily removed to make way for the fountain.

"Either the public is going to say, 'Gee that's a terrible thing to do; we've got a lovely plaza here with this piece of art and we don't want to do that.' Or the public may say the opposite, 'Thank heavens you're tearing it up. We don't want to see Digital DNA in the plaza at all,'" Levy said. "I don't know what the reaction will be, but I don't think the reaction will be one that will make either of our lives easier."

During the Public Art Commission meeting, the commission unanimously voted to study Levy's and Rapp's plan, but also reiterated their desire for the artwork to be installed promptly. The news about the fire was not announced until after the commission had voted.

The fountain plan has not been formally presented to the city, and would ultimately need City Council approval to go forward. It is estimated to cost $500,000, and Rapp would like the city to contribute half, with the rest coming from a private contribution.

During the meeting, the tension that had been privately bubbling between Kaplan and Brett publicly boiled. In a composed but determined voice, Brett told his fellow commissioners that the incident had shaken his understanding about the supposed role of the Public Art Commission.

"Settle down, Gerald," Kaplan said in response. "Just chill."

Digital DNA has been plagued with other bad luck since its inception.

As Varella was moving from Palo Alto to San Francisco three years ago, the artist stored unattached pieces of the artwork in a garage she shared with her neighbor. But her neighbor threw away the unfinished artwork, thinking it was junk. Varella lost six months of work.

Staff writer Bill D'Agostino can be e-mailed at [email protected]

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