Monday, May 19, 2008

The Precedent Before the Precedent

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust is planning a 20-by-40-foot flashing electronic sign that it hopes will transform Pittsburgh into the "City of Light."

The sign, which will be on the roof of Penn Avenue Place, the former Joseph Horne/Lazarus Building, would display a series of white triangles floating on a blue-gray background.

This plan is the first thrust in a series of architectural/light projects that the trust announced in 1996. (P-G, Donald Miller, 4/23/99)

Did anyone ever gaze up at that queer thing facing the North Shore and not feel a palpable sense of foreboding? Didn't we all ask ourselves, Why?

In Curating the District, the Trust notes that "Light Panel" has a much higher profile. Built atop the old Horne's department store, "It is positioned to be seen from ... PNC Park and from the air, visually linking arts, sports, and tourism," the Trust asserts. If that sounds ambitious, consider that the artists themselves claim to be linking not just elements of Pittsburgh's latest revitalization, but the very fabric of the universe itself. The Trust's promotional gloss quotes Wilson saying, "Everything begins with light," and that "Without light, there's no space. And space can't exist without time: they are part of one thing." (C-P, Chris Potter, 4/22/04)

What rube could dare protest such a thing?

Not only was this definitely art -- but how dim and modest, how unobtrusive and slow-moving -- almost soothing. You are getting sleepy, Pittsburgh...

What can be said, and happily so, is that this new project is emblematic of something far more important than just light and color for Pittsburgh. The new work would be a visible indication of a willingness by the community to innovate, to try something new and dramatic, to work at presenting a new face to the world. If it is controversial in the process, so be it.

Controversy is not necessarily a bad thing for a city. It shows energy -- for heaven sakes, something is actually happening here that is noteworthy. It wakes people up, invigorates them and sparks public dialogue. Those are good things. (P-G, Edit Board, 5/08/99)

We are not saying it was wrong for some forces on or involved with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust to take deliberate steps to jazz up the night skyline, or to attempt to acclimatize Pittsburghers to the the concept of glowy things -- even to do so with some cleverness. Loosen the pickle jar a bit.

After all, this sign was what they said it was. They did not do or say anything false or misleading during the public vetting process, so far as we know. They played by the rules, and the public was willing to play along.

Maybe it's the former art teacher in me, but I'm tempted to see the jumbo screen at the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts as an electronic painting for the 21st century, one that could animate the city in a positive way.

But can Pittsburgh allow it without opening the door to a riverfront crowded with galloping Marlboro men and screaming Oven Mitts? (P-G, Patricia Lowry, 9/24/03)

CAPA sign, eh?

There is some precedent here for the screen, in the Robert Wilson/Richard Gluckman triangle of light that rotates on a rectangular screen facing the riverfront, initiated by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. Two years ago, when that LED screen was launched atop the former Horne's building, the Trust was promoting Pittsburgh as the "city of light," especially light that moves in space and time to define the Cultural District.

While the abstract Wilson/Gluckman screen carries no text, it could be argued that it promotes, in a broad way, the work of the Cultural Trust, which recently plugged in Austrian-born artist Erwin Redl's red-hot, mesmerizing "FLOW" on the Liberty Avenue side of its wedge-shaped Wood Street Galleries building.

If it could have been argued, most likely it was argued.

The point of this story is that interests that stand to gain enormously from the weakening of regulations are capable of being very subtle, very collaborative, very creative, and extremely patient.

All of which also is fine -- but those who may have different policy perspectives have the right at all times to be able to see what is going on, and to sound off about it if it involves changing existing regulations. That's what we call transparency and accountability, and those are more than the buzzwords which they have become.


  1. I always wondered what that thing was while sitting at PNC park.

  2. I've always hated that thing