Pedestrian drama

Debra Brehmer, Contributing writer

A new major public work of art has arrived in downtown Milwaukee. In August, Brooklyn artist Janet Zweig’s “Pedestrian Drama” was installed on the east end of Wisconsin Avenue on the sidewalk in front of Northwestern Mutual Life.

Described by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel art critic Mary Louise Schumacher as “one of the most significant public art projects in this area in a decade,” the work is so modest that you cannot see it while driving by.

Zweig’s project is, as its name implies, scaled at a pedestrian level. Four kiosks have been attached to four existing light poles. Each kiosk has three screens, measuring about 18 inches wide, that hold flipbook style animations. Viewer motion activates the gently clickety clacking mise-en-scenes, drawing our attention first to the noise, reminiscent of old train station arrival signs.

Milwaukee’s art world had to rally for this project. In April 2009 it hit the typical snafu as the concept faced final approval by the Milwaukee Common Council. Ald. Robert G. Donovan, among others, described the project as “ridiculous” and took offense at its “old school technology.” With Zweig’s national reputation to underscore its significance, the art community was able to construct a successful defense of the piece.

Since the installation a month ago, several short articles have showered praise, but there has been a quizzical lack of grumbling. Few Milwaukee public art projects sail into existence without divisiveness. Have we exhausted ourselves on the electronic battlefield of opinions? Or, perhaps, does Zweig’s project operate in such an understated way that no one has really noticed it or fully labeled it as “art” and therefore as wasteful and stupid? Perhaps it snuck into place and will quietly flap its stacked pages, converting one passerby at a time to the potential charms of an unforeseen encounter, a moment of discovery, and an engagement with curiosity.

Indeed, the subtle power of “Pedestrian Drama” is its insistence on human relationships – the individual as a moving conduit within the greater sphere of civic life. As the vignettes amplify the theatricality of our everyday movements by extracting their simple choreography, they pull us into the notion of life as an interconnected dance. After watching the flipbook scenarios, you begin to feel a heightened awareness of your own physicality and then look to the street to join, in a more conscious and animated way, the flow of a shared gait or passing shuffle, the pleasurable muscular language of an exchanged nod.

Rather than the old-school notion of a sculpture being a physical and enduring representation of a singular artist’s vision, like Mark di Suvero’s work down the block, Zweig steps back from the authorial and provides only the frame.  A collaborative process generates the imagery. The existing flipbook stories were selected through a contest and produced by a group of local artists in consort with Zweig.

Each of the current dramas shows individuals engaging in everyday, street-styled encounters. We watch an elderly couple embrace and then depart, only to return for one more embrace, again and again. In another, young adults carry bunches of flowers, exaggeratedly chasing after one another in attempts to deliver the gift, but always falling short. An ode to winter shows a teacher or mother picking up something from the ground and offering it repeatedly to a group of kids. Then there is an umbrella shtick, with some good-looking people doing a sort of dance thing.

The only problem with this project is that these animations tend to read as “cute” rather than interesting, surprising or absorbing. The actors are wardrobed in outfits that appear to have sprung from Kohl’s seasonal inventory. The vignettes, at their best, exude a sweet charm but use the language of the commercial world as the channel of delivery.

After watching them the first time, I fully expected to see a Target or Gap logo at the end of each snippet. While I watched other people encounter the kiosks, many didn’t linger and I wondered if they thought these were advertising devices. It appears that the content may have been carefully modulated as not to offend or confuse. Unfortunately, this choice undermines the power of the project and its potential dispensation of a moment of wonder outside the routine patter of walking traffic.

The good news is that there will be a new round of animations produced in 2012. Perhaps the production team will feel more confident to step into less predictable realms this time. (Think Muybridge, William Kentridge, or even Monet and his fascination with the serial). Regardless, “Pedestrian Drama” does successfully extend the notion of public art into a contemporary, urban, performative realm. Like many of Zweig’s other public projects, it binds together the core value of human exchange and interaction. Within that transactional space, it allows us to more fully witness our place and our relationships to it for a few focused moments.

Pedestrian Drama