The eyes have it with new public art coming to Arts Court and Ottawa Art Gallery

Alex Bink's work Spectator, seen here in a rendering, is the piece of public art selected by the City of Ottawa to be located in the Arts Court/Ottawa Art Gallery complex.

The redeveloped Arts Court/Ottawa Art Gallery complex will be getting a new piece of public art courtesy of the City of Ottawa.

The piece, which won an international competition, is by the Brooklyn, New York artist, Adam Frank. It’s called Spectator.

Spectator is described as “a dynamic, interactive billboard” in a media release from the city. The artist says the work is “fundamentally a collection of everyone who has ever viewed it. Inside the building, you will have a viewing station where you will see a real time video of what is going on outside the building. When people look into the monitor, their eyes will be captured (on a video) and then played on an LED screen outside.

“When no one is viewing the monitor, the piece will play every viewer who has ever looked into it,” Frank said in an interview with ARTSFILE which took place during an open house earlier this year that revealed the five shortlisted proposals for the $385,000 art installation.

“The piece itself is its own viewing history.”

In many ways then, the eyes have it.

Frank said his work is often devoted to “empowering the viewer. Spectator reverses the traditional relationship between viewer and subject here.”

It is also, he said, a way of inverting the idea of Big Brother, the omnipresent state, with the eyes of ordinary people.

“It’s somewhat political in this context. But, also, this is an arts building. All visual art uses the eye. Any artist, any creative person collaborates with the viewer in order to make an art feeling inside the viewer’s head. The viewer, though, is almost never acknowledged as the powerful creative force that they are.”

He said his work attempts to reveal the power of the viewer.

Frank said the City of Ottawa’s competition was “a very unusual opportunity. I don’t apply to many things but this was too great of an opportunity. It had to do with art, but also there was a strong community aspect that is unusual in arts organizations or complexes.

“We have something similar at (MOMA)PS1 in Queens, New York. I love this idea of a formal gallery attached to living, breathing, working artists and I wanted to make something for that specific location.”

Frank took part in a a two-stage public art competition for the Ottawa Art Gallery Expansion and Arts Court Redevelopment. His work was picked based on criteria that included such considerations as artistic excellence, experience of the artist and site integration, the city said in a media release.

Nicole Zuger, the program manager, arts and heritage at the city, said in an interview at the open house that while public art commissioning is part of any capital development undertaken, “this one was special. It has been 20 years in the making” when the original Arts Court opened.

In consultation with the arts groups inside Arts Court, the city was encouraged to do an international competition.

“Arts Court is like a beacon and there was a notion of the public art there also being a very tangible beacon to draw people to the space,” she said.

Public art in the city of Ottawa is gaining more and more momentum, much of it fuelled by the massive light rail development.

“This is very much a part of city’s planning process. And the public art (here) is very important given that it is an arts facility. You need to take a really creative but also welcoming approach to the world,” she added.

The along with Frank the other shortlisted artists were: Josée Dubeau from Ottawa, Matthew Mazzotta, who grew up in Canton, New York,  Christian Moeller, who is based in Los Angeles but originally from Germany and Vancouver based David Spriggs.

The Arts Court/Ottawa Art Gallery development is part of a string of cultural projects undertaken by the city, Zuger said. These include the Centrepointe expansion and La Nouvelle Scene on King Edward Avenue. Still on the books is a concert hall, but that need might be addressed by the redevelopment of Dominion-Chalmers United Church which has been purchased by Carleton University and will become a community space as well as a home for the school’s music department. Add to that the recently adopted music strategy which will help guide the city’s thinking about music in a more focussed way.

The initial call for submissions for the public art piece for Arts Court and the Ottawa Art Gallery went out in November, 2017. A jury was selected based on recommendations from the arts groups inside Arts Court. The shortlisted art proposals were assessed by the jury in May and a winner was picked soon after. The announcement of Frank was made on Aug. 2 after a contract was negotiated.

The city sees the development as a “crossroads of art.” The Ottawa Art Gallery too is engaged in its own outdoor art commissioning. They expect to reveal a piece by The Latest Artists called Ascension which will be located on a wall alongside the Mackenzie King Bridge.

In the world of public art in Ottawa these are busy days. The decision to allocate one per cent of every city project to public art has sparked a bit of a boom.

Phase One of LRT, for example, is responsible for about $10 million in new works that will be in the new stations opened to the public in November if all goes well. Phase Two will add another $11 million worth of art. But as well public art projects are being funded in neighbourhoods across the city from Barrhaven to Orleans.

Zuger believes the city will be transformed by the tidal wave of new art.

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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.