Light Rail in Ottawa putting art into the public eye

Geoff McFetridge. This Image Relies On Positive Thinking. (Detail, Lyon Station. This is part of Stage 1 Light Rail). The artist uses human figures as graphic elements to reflect on contemporary life. The figures speak to the “house of cards” nature of living in a city. The people are both noisemakers, and noise-complainers. With a minimum of distinctive characteristics or features, the figures are meant to capture humanity with a logo-like gesture. Courtesy City of Ottawa.

The full scope of the largest public art project in Ottawa’s history is coming into focus with the call for proposals to turn Stage 2 of light rail into a visual destination.

In Stages 1 and 2, some $21 million is being spent on artworks, based on a formula approved by council that sets aside one per cent of the city’s construction costs on a piece of infrastructure to be used for the purpose of artistic creation.

The city is asking artist teams to make their pitches for projects in Stage 2 by April 24. The projects they are bidding on involve the Confederation Line and the Trillium Line. There is another section of the project that will be done down the road. That is the stretch along Byron Avenue and Richmond Road. More about this unique project later.

Unlike Stage 1, where artists were attached to individual stations after the stations designs were basically set, in Stage 2 the artists will be in on the ground floor along with the designers.

This is an important step, said Julie DuPont, the portfolio manager for the city’s public art program.

Simon Brascoupé Lead Artist, Emily Brascoupé-Hoefler, Doreen Stevens, Sylvia Tennisco, Sherry-Ann Rodgers, Algonquin Canoe, 2018, Acrylic paint, pine paddles and steel canoe. The work is inspired by the Algonquin teaching that “it takes many people to paddle a canoe.” The artwork features hand-painted paddles by 101 Algonquin artists arranged in the shape of a canoe. This participatory project included artists of all ages. Pimisi Station. Stage 1 Light Rail.

“We are learning from Stage 1,” she said. “We have put stations into groups of five or six stations.” There are three clusters on the Confederation Line. Three teams will be selected; one for each clusters.

“The artists will be part of a team that will design the stations and the landscaping around each to create an overall look to each group.”

There are 24 stations in Stage 2. Artist teams will be assigned to Confederation Line stations:

• Montreal Road, Jeanne d’Arc, Place d’Orléans, Trim, Orléans Blvd.

• Westboro, Dominion, Clearly, New Orchard, Lincoln Fields

• Moodie, Bayshore, Pinecrest, Queensview, Iris, Baseline.

On the Trillium Line, artists will work on stations at Gladstone, South Keys and Bowesville. The deadline for submissions on this project is May 1.

Each team will get about $2 million. The remaining money will go to administrative costs and other programming.

Subways around the world have been enlivened by public art. One can think of the Chuck Close Mosaics in New York’s Second Avenue Station. Or the art work that helped raise the interest level in Montreal’s underground when it opened.

Public art in the Place des Arts Station in Montreal.

This is now Ottawa’s turn to see this unfold, DuPont said.

While the city waits for the trains to start running in Stage 1, the art is mostly complete.

“In the stations the architecture is neutral in colour with a lot of grey and beige so the art will stand out. It creates a sense of place. Stage One will help people see how that works,” DuPont said.

In Stage 2 the artists will be “creating a narrative.” These projects “will allow the artists to consider a large territory with these portals (stations) that pop up along the line,” DuPont said.

Douglas Coupland, Lone Pine Sunset, 2019. Powder-coated steel hung on a custom hook-on suspension system in the Parliament Station, Stage 1 Light Rail. Lone Pine Sunset, reinterprets Tom Thomson’s painting The Jack Pine.

“The art could be in the stations or along the line between stations. It could be subtle in one station and big and bold in another,” DuPont added.

In Stage 1, she said, the artists were not part of a team. That meant that a lot of the work was focussed on making sure the art would work as originally envisioned.

That meant, for example, time spent tracking down technical requirements for secure placement of the art.

In Stage 2, the teams will have that kind of engineering and design expertise and they should be able “to hit the ground running,” she said.

“It should be less stressful and daunting. The Stage 1 projects were big and complex, of a kind that we have never seen here in Ottawa. So there was a huge learning curve.

“The artists were working with a tunnel, with the movement of trains, with a lot of different elements.

“For example, they had to consider the vibrations caused by trains passing the artworks dozens of times every day.”

One big takeaway from Stage 1 was the realization that the earlier the artist joins the planning and design process, the better.

“This gets the art embedded into the structure, into the glass and into the walls,” DuPont said.

The idea of grouping stations is intended to bring “conceptual richness” to a design and to the art.

“They could imagine that five stations are a continuous piece of art.” Or not. The artists, in effect, get to curate the stations, she said.

“It’s up to them to figure out what that curation will look like when it is realized.”

Sometime later this year the city will issue a call for what DuPont calls a “social practice project” that will create artworks for the Byron Avenue-Richmond Road project. About $1 million is set aside for this effort.

“The artist will be embedded in the community and work with the community to come up with a project that better reflects the community.” The city has done this for public art projects in Barrhaven and on Elgin Street.

“There is a diverse demographic from one end of Richmond Road to the other,” DuPont said and that offers a great deal of potential material for an artist.

The bidding artists will come to the city with their qualifications. They will submit portfolios of work by April 24 and then the city will convene a team of peers, art professionals and experts who will review this information and come up with a short list of candidates.

The shortlisted artists will be interviewed by a panel that will select the winning teams.

The shortlist is expected to emerge in a couple of months after April 24.

DuPont says she hopes to have the artists on board by September.

The proposals will go through a technical review so they meet safety standards. There is an art and design process which will talk about aesthetics and will talk about excellence. And, she said, steps will be taken so that none of the works contravene such things as the Ontario Human Rights Act.

“They are professionals. They will understand that this is art in the public realm.”

Along with the works themselves, there will what DuPont is calling celebrations that will occur when the projects reach certain milestones. These could include music events or spoken word events or other types of gatherings.

There are more opportunities to party in Stage 2 because the construction is happening outside the downtown core in communities and neighbourhoods.

Julie DuPont is the Portfolio Manager of the City of Ottawa’s Public Art Program.

The Trillium Line projects will feature digital art, DuPont said. The sky is the limit again but it could be virtual reality, augmented reality or types of interactive work.

“It can be all kinds of things. We have thrown it open.” It will also help fill a gap in the city’s public art collection.

Other metros around the world have digital art interacting with commuters. In London, Dupont said, a glass block wall shows silhouettes of people moving on the platforms.

She said she expects, “the art will manifest itself in all sorts of ways. That’s the amazing part of this.”

These are busy and heady days for DuPont, who started working at the city in the late 1980s after studying fine arts and fine crafts at Algonquin College and uOttawa. (She also worked at SAW Gallery, the Council for the Arts and the Ottawa-Hull (now Gatineau) film and television development program.)

In addition to light rail, the city will soon start work on art to be included in the redevelopment of Montreal Road.

When she travels, she frequently goes underground. And when she’s on the surface in cities such as San Francisco, London and Paris, she’s networking with public art teams. She said she is in conversation with officials in Paris about linking the two communities through exchanges of public art.

In Canada, municipal cultural workers connect through the Creative City Network to share information and, well, to network.

All of this effort, DuPont believes, will help put Ottawa’s burgeoning cultural scene on a bigger map.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.