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Arts & Cultural Vitality / 2013



Idea submitted in the My LA2050 Maker Challenge by URBAN AIR

Urban Air is a project that transforms existing billboards into living, suspended bamboo gardens. Embedded with intelligent technology, Urban Air is at once a provocative artwork and a crack in the urban skyline meant to surprise, inform, suggest, and create a visual respite for a road weary city. With a donated billboard over one of LA’s busiest freeways, the façade of the billboard will be removed and replaced with architecturally integrated planters. Imagine being stuck in traffic, channel surfing on the radio, nothing but billboards with advertising on the skyline, and up pops a cluster of suspended living bamboo with water misters creating a visual cloud forest. As per artist Stephen Glassman, Urban Air is an opportunity for people to “look up, feel themselves as human, and conceive of what might be.” Beginning with one billboard, Urban Air intends to take an infrastructure that is only meant for modern advertising and commerce and create something accessible, inspiring, and altogether different - art for art’s sake in a social, urban, and ecological context. Billboards right now exist mostly as visually opaque structures, like boarded up windows on the horizon. Urban Air transforms them into portals… Open windows that connect the viewers not only to the sky but also to their own sense of humanity, and ultimately and potentially, to other Urban Air billboards around the globe. Urban Air is about transforming structures often seen as urban blight into living metaphors. While Urban Air is primarily an artwork, each “green” board will also be a “hotspot” that measures and wirelessly communicates the comparative air quality of its internal microclimate relative to its surrounding area via the internet. We are reportedly exposed to up to 5,000 advertisements alone per day. And it has been said that the average city dweller is exposed to as much information in one day as the average Victorian was in a lifetime. When advertising is replaced with art, something that is purely visual and intended only to be looked at and experienced, we all win. Urban Air becomes a global node, an open space in the urban skyline intended to inspire and revitalize, at once an artwork, a symbol of, and an instrument for a green future.

What are some of your organization’s most important achievements to date?

Stephen Glassman Studio first raised widespread critical acclaim in the early 1990’s creating free-form bamboo installations for devastated urban sites in the aftermath of the Rodney King Riots, Malibu Fires, and Northridge Quake. Since then, Stephen Glassman Studio has gone on to do significant large-scale projects including a 4,000 square foot sculpture plaza at the LNR Warner Center, the Fairmont Skate Park in Salt Lake City, Utah, Arkansas’ Southeast Shear (an NEA & White House Millennium Project), the Sylvia Campuan Bridge in Bali, and more. Stephen Glassman Studio has collaborated with architects such as Sasaki, Steinberg, Miller / Hull, and Arup Engineering as a creative consultant to urban master planning, as well as in the creation of commissioned art works for large-scale projects. Glassman is the recipient of numerous grants and awards including the NEA, Nathan Cummings Foundation, LA Cultural Endowment, and was a 2000 Chrysler Design Award nominee. Stephen Glassman Studio’s work has been collected and exhibited throughout Southern California, New York City, and internationally. The design and concept for Urban Air first received notice when it won the 2011 London International Creativity Award. As a successful Kickstarter project Urban Air went on to generate international dialogue about the nature of advertising and the role of art in communities, garnering support from over 1500 people internationally, with the film about it receiving over 150,000 downloads in 125 countries. Urban Air has been written about in countries around the Globe including Japan, Greece, Egypt, India, China, Russia, Italy, Peru, Brazil, France, England, Taiwan, Italy, Poland, and by publications and/or programs including The Huffington Post, Wired (Italy), LA Times, National Geographic, Forbes, Dwell, Landscape Architecture, DAD (Peru), Good Magazine, NPR, KCET, The Discovery Channel and more. Urban Air is currently slated as a main stage presenting project for The NYC Green Festival this upcoming April. Since its publication internationally Stephen Glassman Studio has received interest and inquiries from all over the world about the possibility of Urban Air projects in other cities… and the work of the studio, including Urban Air, has been the subject of collegiate studies at Vassar College, Syracuse University, Hampshire College, and other institutions.

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

Alex Kouba /CEO, Summit Media

ARUP Engineering Global Engineering Firm

Russel Fortmeyer – (ARUP) Senior sustainability and technology consultant

Bruce Danziger - ARUP structural engineer

Deborah Marton – NYRP urban planning / sustainability

Dan Burrier – CEO, Common, Inc Advisor

Sarah Elgart – producer

Steve Reiss – producer

Please explain how you will evaluate your project. How will you measure success?

The first and most important measure of success is a prominent, fully produced and realized Urban Air billboard at a significant intersection or at a major thoroughfare in Los Angeles by the end of 2013. However, its realization alone is only the beginning of the equation. As the piece is intended to be a catalyst, the impact it generates is of equal, if not greater importance. Urban Air must inspire widespread and formidable dialogue, a matrix that can be tracked to some extent through media coverage. Likewise the amount of interest and inquiry by other cities to create like projects will indicate a measure of success. As has been done to date, we will note success in the ability of Urban Air to inspire academic curriculums, generate college classes and workshops, and stimulate other professional collaborations and artistic endeavors. An important evaluation will be the goal of shifting the edges and territories of art, building, and infrastructure in the public realm. For example, Arup Engineering is already beginning in-house conversations to explore the possibility of public building – both art and architecture – as possible creative and beautiful solutions to a greener urban future.

A technical success will be in the comparative monitoring of environmental qualities. The embedded environmental sensors will be streaming to the Urban Air website, and this data stream will be available to the public. Traffic to the website, both its quantity and quality, will be easily measured.

Success will also mean a measurable and discernable result in the culture of advertising within the city and beyond. This could include launching a potential collaboration with an advertising company or a discernable change in the aesthetics of some ad campaigns. Questions we will ask ourselves to measure success and evaluate our project will include: Did we affect a cultural change and inspire artistic and sustainable innovation in the advertising landscape? Can Urban Air inspire and begin to generate an advertising landscape that contributes to the city and serves people? Can we begin to imagine buildings and monuments that both clean the air and beautify the skyline? As ultimately we would like to see Urban Air become a global initiative, perhaps in partnership with the Clinton C40 Initiative – a combined effort of the 40 largest cities in the world to reduce their carbon footprint by the year 2020, to generate interest and a connection with them would be an important and significant milestone. A successful Los Angeles “proof of concept” installation will open the door to all of these possibilities.

How will your project benefit Los Angeles?

Urban Air is a public artwork that also puts an active face on the possibility of urban sustainability. Urban Air will bring an urgency and vibrancy to the civic landscape, inspire community dialogue and action, beautify transit corridors, and ultimately connect people. Much like a modern city, bamboo is at once both vertical and horizontal. Each culm is connected to and sustained by the others through a vast rhizome network. Like streets, mass transit, or electrical grids in a modern city, everything and everyone is connected. The health of any individual within such a system is ultimately dependent on the health of the system as a whole. Urban Air will contribute to the overall health of Los Angeles.

Throughout history, art has been a vital sphere and critical element in the construct of communities. It has lived in the public realm in cave paintings, religious idols and shrines, piazza’s, monuments, and more. In the 20th century, with the privatization of culture, art moved more into the realm of institutions, museums, and private collections. The sphere of art however, still occupies critical social space. It enhances cities by contributing to commerce and helping to revitalize neighborhoods and communities. Today however, the presence and role of art is frequently replaced by advertising. Urban Air will also generate value and spectacle in the public realm, though with a different intent.

Urban Air reclaims the territory of advertising traditionally occupied by billboards, and as such directly intervenes, engages, and transforms it. Today advertising is consciously exploring its ability to generate new value. Social entrepreneurship, transparency, and sustainability are emerging as business’s new index of what matters. Likewise, the need to experience creativity “for no reason” - art for art’s sake - in daily, urban life, becomes more urgent. Urban Air takes on that action. With its ideal climate, Los Angeles is poised to become a world leader in sustainable urban culture. As an accessible work of art and a green, interconnected billboard, Urban Air will be a flag flown for both.

What would success look like in the year 2050 regarding your indicator?

The success of Urban Air in 2050 would look something like this: A driver in LA would see a plethora of Urban Air, and Urban Air inspired constructions gracing the skyline. Bamboo and other living plant life would be integrated with art on the edifices of the built environment. There would be Urban Air billboards by an array of different artists as part of the Clinton C40 Initiative – a combined effort of the 40 largest cities in the world to reduce their carbon footprint by the year 2020. These “greenboards” would be catalysts for the way we think, act, educate, advertise, and integrate both the arts and greening of our cities. There would be additional Urban Air or Urban Air inspired billboards in other cities around the globe. Many edifices around LA, as well as elsewhere, would be exploring the use of art as an initiative in and of itself – “art for arts sake” – as well as potentially for integration in socially and aesthetically conscious ad campaigns. The urban advertising landscape would be transformed to become another layer of serviceable urban infrastructure. Campaigns and companies themselves would be taking a different approach to the use of billboards, frequently integrating environmental sensors to measure air quality and otherwise concerning themselves not just with commerce but with providing service and both integrating and communicating aesthetics and sustainability. Universities and schools would regularly offer courses studying the use of both art and sustainable concerns in advertising and in platforms traditionally used for advertising. Commercial architectural projects would integrate Urban Air inspired billboards as part of their initial architectural planning and design, rather than as a post construction after thought. Conversations and dialogue around the way we experience and use art, aesthetics, sustainability, technology and commerce would have expanded and changed significantly in ways that major cities approach both the integration of arts, sustainability and economy throughout the world, so that he human experience of living in cities would be significantly improved.