I remember my first ride on the Blue Line light rail when it opened in 2004. The shiny yellow and blue train floated through South Minneapolis to the airport. I got as close to the window as I could, and, as I gazed down across Highway 55 from a flyway overpass, the river valley opened up and a crow flew by. Later, the view from the Chicago-Lake station platform took in a wide swath of houses huddled on the flat geography, and I thought at the time that Minneapolis finally felt like a real city.
I also remember the wonderful light-rail public art installation, a collection of winter-themed audio and video stories, documented and presented in a series of installations at key stations. Called “Small Kindnesses, Weather Permitting,” the short recordings are a 2004 public art project by Janet Zweig, who designed the housings for the accompanying audio and video installations. There were 11 different designs, all of them playful, including a pinball-and-bell, a windshield wiper on a wheel, a curtained theater, a telephone, and a counter-style push button.
At the time I noted the solidity of the metalwork, each of the boxes a subtly different steel case with almost indestructible features that seemed like NASA-level kitchen appliances, beautiful and functional.
In retrospect, those overly solid steel installations were a wise move. Few pieces of civic infrastructure receive more everyday abuse than a transit station, and these installations were explicitly designed to stand the tests of time and vagabond youth. In this week’s cold weather, I took the liberty of revisiting Zweig’s existing recording boxes. Thirteen years later, I was pleasantly surprised to find that some of them are still working.
The everyday use and abuse of transit stations
Philistines like me rarely think about the maintenance of public art. But when you stop and consider the full meaning of the term “public,” it becomes apparent that art projects do not end with installation. For public art, especially in well-traveled areas, maintaining the project is at least as important than the original construction.
Over the last 13 years, the Blue Line has served over 100 million (!) individual riders, and frankly, it’s amazing that any of its interactive public art would still function all these years later. While most Minnesotans are respectful of infrastructure, with that many riders it’s inevitable that an ever-accumulating small percentage of people are bound to harbor malicious intent toward public property.
“They’re really great pieces, really fun,” gushed Mark Granlund, the public art administrator for Metro Transit. “We actually have a volunteer who, every two weeks, goes out and checks on all of them and reports back to us. Some of them are working fine. Some of them have parts that aren’t working. Sometimes the audio video doesn’t work, or it’s a mechanical aspect that doesn’t work. The handle is broken off or a snow globe is broken, or something like that.”
Inspecting the boxes today, you find a range of existing conditions. Some of them have been completely removed, and you find nothing but an empty metal bracket lingering curiously on the side of a shelter wall. Others appear to be in immaculate working condition, as if they were installed only yesterday.
“There’s one called ‘thanks a million,’ where you push a button and a counter goes up and a little audio story starts,” Granlund said. “I happened to see that one of them is up to 900,000.”
In my inspecting adventure, I discovered mixed results. On the 46th Street station, there are two installations, one of which (Box #20) works perfectly. It told me a story about a woman who found a mouse on a cold winter day. Meanwhile, only one of the pieces at the Lake Street station is not broken, but both of the Fort Snelling station pieces work well (although the flippable snow globe on #22 is down to about half of its liquid reservoir). It was there that I heard a poem about talking to strangers, and, farther down the platform on Kiosk #12, activated by a circular crank, I passed a minute watching a short video monologue. It was by a man named Ari Hauptman, about growing up as a sci-fi nerd. I couldn’t help but wonder: Over the last 12 years, how many people have watched the same short tale?
Meanwhile, both of the “million thanks” counters that I could find were stuck, inoperable after over 700,000 presses of the counter buttons. (Close but no cigar.)
To my eye, that track record seems remarkable. Especially in this polar weather, the resilience of the art is all the more beautiful considering that the many of the resulting stories center on the art of persevering through wintertime. While it won’t keep you warm, public art seems like a long-lasting way to improve the transit experience.
“We have permanent pieces along the rail lines and some bus lines,” Granlund told me. “There’s ongoing maintenance that has to happen with those. And we’re also looking at a partnership like the one with Saint Paul Almanac [a story-telling nonprofit]. It’s maybe not a permanent thing, but it’s something that our customers can experience and bring art into their experience.”
Take, for example, the much newer Green Line station art. Compared to the variably fragile Blue Line pieces, the Green Line artworks are downright impassive. Instead of one coherent piece, each of the newer stations boasts thematic architecture or artistic decoration meant to represent the specific neighborhood of the light rail station. For example, the Capitol / Rice Street station art is composed of seemingly plasticized political newsprint; the Western Avenue station has a sculptural facade with themes and symbols from Southeast Asia, etc.
“The Blue Line art wasn’t as site-oriented,” Granlund explained. “Whereas for the Green Line, we did look at each station and let an individual artist look at the design of the whole station, and integrate their work into it.”
Surprisingly to me, the gradual entropy of the Blue Line art might soon be reversed. Metro Transit’s recent hire of Granlund marks a renewed commitment to refurbishing the 12-year-old Blue Line boxes.
“We’re having three of them fixed in the next couple of months,” Granlund said. “I just got here six weeks ago. Once I get a little more information about what condition they’re all in, and get the 2017 budget, we’ll start bringing them back.”
Just as with bus shelters, where panes of glass break for a dozen different reasons, to be replaced and maintained in a Sisyphean cycle, so too with the public art of the transit system. Next time you’re waiting for the Blue Line to arrive, huddled by a heater, wander around the station and see if you can find an old story about wintertime. It won’t keep you warm, but it might keep your attention until the train arrives.