If you live in Calgary, I’m sure you’ve seen it – at the very least online or in a newspaper. You’ve probably got a name for it – something not “family friendly” either. The artwork has even developed its own personality and a social media following complete with artistic angst (see @Giantbluering and facebook.com/giantbluering).
artwork concept by inges idee
Love it or hate it; you’re entitled to your opinion – it’s art after all. As an advocate, I’m just glad that people in Calgary are talking about public art! Unfortunately, there are some major misconceptions out there about the project and public art in the city. I work at Heavy Industries, a firm that’s been building public artworks for over a decade. I’ve picked up a thing or two while working here, so, I’m sharing some information, direct from the team that built Travelling Light.
It’s ultimately not my place to debate the artistic merit of the piece. Heavy Industries is a custom fabricator; we work with artists and design professionals to build unusual objects. It’s our role to take a concept, figure out how to make it possible, and build it. We didn’t conceptualize Travelling Light – that was inges idee. I can tell you, however, that after being personally engaged in six public art projects with inges idee to date, that their artistic merit is not up for debate in my books.
inges idee is a collective of artists. They have an impressive portfolio of public artworks installed globally (Singapore, Germany, Denmark, Taiwan, Sweden, Japan…) and have been working jointly on artworks in public space for over 22 years. Their portfolio of work speaks for itself, so I encourage you to check it out here. I can also say, from getting to know the gentlemen of inges idee over the past four years, that they are creative thinkers, devoted to their art practices, and a lot of fun to go out for dinner with.
I had a look back at inges idee’s proposal to the City to provide some insight into the concept and put together a synopsis.
inges idee examined the site conditions, noting the location for the artwork was where four bridge structures crossed physical features like Nose Creek, the regional pathway, and the railway line. They called the site
“a conglomerate of intersecting traffic flows moving at different speeds.”
site plan from artwork proposal by inges idee
So, it’s fitting that the artwork explores themes of travel and movement. The ring shape references the wheel, and, while fixed in place, evokes the potential of constant movement.
The lights mounted on top “trigger associations with a bird or a bicycle rider”. The arches of the lamps call to mind handlebars of a high wheeler, or the silhouette of a bird, or a butterfly’s antennae – as such, they allude to slower speeds of travel and to the nearby airport simultaneously. The arches are positioned at a 90 degree angle to the ring, symbolizing the intersection of different paths.
“The radiant colour makes reference to the sky, which is always in the background, and contrasts with the bridge’s other functional elements.”
Since Travelling Light is located along a major traffic corridor, how it changes as viewers move through the space is important. Travelling Light changes in shape from a bar, seen from the distance of the bridge, to a widening ellipse, and finally unfolds into a large ring as you travel towards it. Seen from a distance, it forms a huge window framing the expanses of the landscape and stands as a striking icon. This video, developed by inges idee in the early planning stages, illustrates the shifting perspective:
“Travelling Light is a site-specific sculpture that examines and brings to life the theme of movement. Its simplicity lends it a universal character that triggers various poetic associations.” (inges idee, 2011)
So many people have commented on the simplicity of the artwork, asking how something that looks so simple cost this much money. In this video, Axel Lieber of inges idee discusses the concept behind the project (before anybody ever saw it) and notes:
“If it looks very simple at the very end, we did a good job, but nobody will know how complicated it was. [...] If it looks really easy and that it’s not a big deal, then it’s a success to us.”
The Money Policy:
So, let’s get to the heart of it, shall we? Most of the debate is over money. Nobody likes seeing their hard-earned tax dollars going towards something they personally don’t like. But, there’s a lot of holes in the information, so here are some facts:
Travelling Light was paid for through the percent for public art funding strategy, which sees one percent of all capital and upgrade project budgets over $1 million going toward art for our urban areas. The policy has seen 37 artworks installed throughout Calgary since the implementation of the policy in 2004. Percent for art policies are becoming commonplace in cities across North America, including Toronto, Edmonton, Seattle, and New York City. In Calgary, the funding mechanism provides for planning, design, fabrication, installation, purchase, management, administration, maintenance, conservation, and programming of the Public Art Collection; whew, that’s quite a bit to take care of. If you’d like to read the policy, it’s online here and Calgary’s public art Strategic Direction is here.
Much of the controversy was derived from the placement of the art along a busy travel corridor. The placement of Travelling Light was derived from the policy. Mayor Naheed Nenshi has pushed for more flexibility in the public art policy because the location of the artwork at the site of the capital project may not always the best use of the available funds. He stated,
“the one percent, in general, is a good thing, but I think we’ve probably been applying it a little too strictly.”
To hear it in Mayor Nenshi’s own words, click here.
So let’s put this into perspective: the $471,000 price tag for Travelling Light was just 1% of the capital project it’s associated with; the 96 Avenue NE Road Extension project costing approximately $47Million. The funds for Travelling Light were allocated under the Public Art Policy. That means the money was dedicated to a public art project; it couldn’t just be turned around and spent on something else.
As for the art budget specifically, it’s standard practice in public art for an artist to assign 20% of the total budget to artist fees; this includes travel expenses, their project oversight, and the thought and planning that went into their artistic concept. So where does the rest of the money go? In this case, back into the local economy. Travelling Light was detail designed, engineered, bent, fabricated, painted, transported to sight, wired, and installed all by local companies.
Travelling Light was built locally, in Calgary. Heavy Industries oversaw the fabrication of the artwork and brought numerous sub-trades and suppliers into the project to support our internal capabilities, including a local steel bending company, engineering firm, electrical firm, and crane operators. This is in addition to the support, management, and cooperation from other parties like the City of Calgary Public Art Program, the general contractor for the 96th Ave extension, geotechnical engineers, and other project consultants at the City.
It’s easy to forget how much goes into a project that appears so simple. Until you see it in person, it’s easy to underestimate the sheer scale of the structure. The ring has a 17m diameter – that’s almost 56 feet- and is made of a massive pipe with a 20” outside diameter. Engineering to ensure the artwork passed intense structural scrutiny was imperative, accounting for its sheer size, Calgary’s windy weather, and location along a busy traffic corridor.
The ring is built with 20″ OD pipe, which was a challenging material just to source. It’s also built under our Canadian Welding Bureau practices and procedures to ensure it adheres to CSA standards for steel structures. Keep in mind, that it’s always easier to fabricate something in the comfort of our shop, but due to the sheer size of the ring, it was predominantly site fabricated – right on 96th Avenue.
If you’re interested in some technical details: The artwork has massive foundations required to support the piece. In this way, it’s a bit like an iceberg; much of the structure is below grade and not visible upon completion. The finished artwork is painted with an industrial-grade coating – one of the best available – to allow it to look as it’s intended to for years to come. The ring also incorporates maintenance access for mechanical and electrical requirements.
After site fabrication was complete, installing the project involved a dual crane operation, lifting the artwork into place before the winds picked up that morning.
So, say what you like about the artwork. But, keep in mind that a lot of planning and hard work goes into a project like this, fuelling Calgary’s local economy in ways that are not always immediately apparent. Whether the artwork appeals to you or not, it will be an enduring part of Calgary’s public art collection as it was built well and made to last by local hands. I, for one, am proud to say the people I work with built Travelling Light and look forward to seeing what its legacy becomes in Calgary.