Arts exhibit review

Culture Tap and the Street Experience

Public art project rethinks role of technology to enrich pedestrians’ daily experience

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Culture Tap, a street installation of interactive kiosks that combines oral tradition, environmental lighting, and more.
Boston Center for the Arts

Culture Tap

By Dan Sternof Beyer and Bevan Weissman of New American Public Art

BCA Plaza, 539 Tremont Street

On display until October 18, 2013

The walk from the Orange Line Back Bay station, down Clarendon Street, and to the intersection with Tremont Street, is a pleasant one. The street presents itself somewhat like you would expect it to in the North End. It feels old, solid, well-kept and welcoming. The atmosphere is curiously fascinating, marking the place as a distinct piece of Boston, made up of “neighborhoods” and the transitional moments between them. Culture Tap has been situated in a plaza-like wide sidewalk on one of the most delightful streets in Boston.

Culture Tap is a street art installation in the form of interactive kiosks. It integrates audio clips of oral tradition, environmental lighting and data collection, simultaneously interfacing with pedestrians via their Charlie Cards. The work comprises two components: Stories by Day and Lights by Night. During the daytime, an approximately seven-foot tall quartz-like polygon plays audio clips of South End residents’ personal and historical anecdotes. It continues through the sunset, but each Charlie Card swiped after that point activates environmental lighting — the speaking object now glows in different colors. The stories told range from the tale of a man who met his wife at the bus stop nearby, to a description of bars and pubs on that same street back in the day. The project was created by the artist collective New American Public Art, as part of Boston Center of the Arts’ (BCA) Public Art Residency program. It fits beautifully into the context of the South End community, activating the public space, and bringing strangers on the street to interact with each other and engage with their environment.

When I first swiped my Charlie Card at a kiosk I was suddenly sitting down next to an old lady, striking up a conversation, or getting into a cab and having a chat with the driver. After I re-swiped my card a few times, the stories started to loop — I was disappointed. Fortunately, a few people nearby started to talk to me and ask about the piece. One of them tapped his own Charlie Card, the narrative voice changed: the different Radio-frequency identification (RFID) number of his card had prompted a different set of stories than mine. This hyperspecific yet random aspect of the kiosk made us unanimously agree: “that’s pretty awesome.” The kiosks are intended to serve as a holistic and creative approach to place-making, incorporating quantitative metrics and bolstering local Boston pride. Along with other pedestrians, I think the artists have succeeded in their objectives.

At night, the kiosks also interact with moving light sources, i.e. cars and shadows from people walking. Generally, moving shadows reflect actual movement, but since there are multiple cars that drive by, the shadow of a pedestrian changes in size and transparency while reappearing multiple times. The effects create a strange time lag and duplications of the shadows are trapped inside the glowing polygon.

One aspect of the installation that could have been improved was the signage. Passersby seemed to be curious, but did not have the patience to read the description. However, when I had to summarize the installation to curious fellow pedestrians as “anecdotes from local people about this place in the past,” this alone was clear enough to intrigue them. If the signage were simpler and more visually accessible, it would be more effective at catching the attention of bystanders, and communicate enough to provoke a response from them.

Imagine if installations like Culture Tap were a permanent part of a street’s time-capsule-like infrastructure. It could play clips recorded on that specific day from three decades ago — my children would be as curious about this decade as I am of the past; intrigued by things I did not get to witness, but that I am experiencing through its continuity. Sometimes I imagine that in the future, streets will serve not only as a line from point A to point B, but also as sources of happiness that allow people to have a richer daily journey. Culture Tap has only increased my optimism about the future.

Since Culture Tap is intended as a spontaneous and situational experience, I recommend experiencing the streets near the BCA and allowing the interface with the kiosks to be peripheral rather than central. Go for a walk during sunset to a restaurant or music venue in the area; visit one of the theaters, the ballerina costume shop or the historical 1865 cyclorama on the BCA campus; or simply look around and soak in the entrancing atmosphere. The point of a public place or street is that you have the right to be there regardless of who you are or what you do.

It is a challenge to integrate technology and art into a project that is accessible and impactful to a wide range of people, one that encompasses people outside of the educated middle classes who own a smartphone. Once in a while, it is nice to be reminded that we live and share the world with others – little kids, an old man who works at a bookstore, a busy single mother with six children and even someone who blows autumn leaves into piles for our landscape. A street art installation like Culture Tap can connect us all together, by wonder, curiosity and delight.