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Public Art for a Desert City with No Inhabitants

A diagram of the City Lab at Pegasus Global Holdings's CITE (all images courtesy Pegasus Global Holdings)
A diagram of the City Lab at Pegasus Global Holdings’s CITE (© Perkins + Will, courtesy Pegasus Global Holdings)

Does a city with no residents need public art? Absolutely, according to University of New Mexico (UNM) adjunct professor Sherri Brueggemann, who first heard about the Center for Innovation, Testing, and Evaluation (CITE) plan last year. The project, which is equal parts science fiction and Sim City with a dash of Disney World, involves the construction from scratch of a full-scale, generic US city in the New Mexico desert that will be used by academics, developers, entrepreneurs, government agencies, and others to test new products and technologies, from smart grid power systems to unmanned trucks. The $1-billion, 26-square-mile urban laboratory, which is being developed by Pegasus Global Holdings and referred to as the “City Lab” in project descriptions, will have a mall, airport, city hall, churches, power plant, highway, suburbs, townhouses, and downtown office buildings, but no inhabitants. The only people in its streets will be CITE’s estimated 350 staff and the researchers making use of its facilities. Curious to know what kind of public art such a city should have, Brueggemann — who also manages Albuquerque’s public art program — presented the problem to students in her art management class.

“The metaphor immediately comes to mind: if a tree falls in the forest and nobody’s around to hear it, does it make a sound?,” Brueggemann told Hyperallergic. “I thought, what an interesting idea, I wonder what kind of art there would be? I was teaching an art management class and looking for one great project. When I presented it to my students it took them a while to wrap their heads around the idea, but then it stuck and they all started talking about it.”

Brueggemann then guided her students through the process of soliciting public art proposals for City Lab, from drafting the call for projects to sorting through and evaluating the submissions. In the end, they received 26 proposals from every corner of the country spanning every medium, from conventional metal sculpture to digital streaming projects and performance art. Though Pegasus Global Holdings does not intend to act on any of the proposals, it did assist Brueggemann’s class project by providing information about and images of CITE, and the company’s senior managing director Robert Brumley spoke to the students via Skype.

“They wanted to know what I thought about CITE itself and how receptive it would be to art, and I said it would be completely receptive because right now there’s no city council, no mayor, because we own the place and we’re really the ones that make all the decisions,” Brumley told Hyperallergic over the phone. “We would love to see art because it implies people when you put art in the setting. We had been struggling with the fact that we didn’t want to make it look like a lab, we wanted to make it look like a city, and without art, or branding, or billboards, it looks like something out of the Soviet Union back in the 1950s.”

Rendering of Jared Winchester and Cory Alexander Greenfield's "Wilding Towers" (2014) proposal (© 2014 Winchester and Greenfield)
Rendering of Jared Winchester and Cory Alexander Greenfield’s “Wilding Towers” (2014) proposal for City Lab (© 2014 Winchester and Greenfield)

In the end the students selected four winning proposals, which are currently on view as part of the exhibition All Over the Map: The Ongoing Dialogue of Public Art at the Albuquerque Museum. Albuquerque-based artists Ellen Babcock, Lara Goldman, and Adam Wohlwend proposed “TTTT — Tomorrow’s Think Tank Today,” an installation of cameras and LCD screens that would stream footage from elementary school classrooms and hallways around the world onto the one digital billboard in City Lab. Jared Winchester and Cory Alexander Greenfield, also of Albuquerque, planned to build a series of “Wilding Towers,” earthen mounds made from the dirt excavated during the construction of City Lab’s below-ground network of tunnels, labs, and infrastructure. Embedded with seeds of native plants, the structures would gradually crumble and bring new vegetation to the city. The open call’s most far-flung respondent, Ashley Lohr of Anchorage, Alaska, suggested City Lab be used to test paints. Her project involved placing giant paint swatches for hues of True Value paints with Southwestern names — including “Sunlit Mesa,” “Side Saddle,” and “Prairie Grass” — around the city and renaming them according to the effects of sunlight and weather over the course of several months. The fourth winner, New York-based performance artist Paul Kuniholm Pauper, proposed to play a sleazy developer hawking City Lab real estate to workers and researchers at the site and to outsiders in an apparent attempt to gentrify the urban testing facility.

“East Coast urbanites are of course interested,” Pauper told Hyperallergic. “There might have to be a pneumatic tube to whisk them across the continent in luxury. Bring back the dirigible, we’ll work on ameliorating the negative public image of the Hindenburg, and the East Coast contingent can join the utopia in style.”

Aerial view of CITE's City Lab (rendering © 2014 Perkins + Wil and CITE)
Aerial view of CITE’s City Lab (rendering © 2014 Perkins + Will and CITE)

Life in City Lab probably doesn’t sound utopian to many — and with construction not yet begun, it would be a long time before any gentrifiers could move in — but as a blank urban canvas for hypothetical public art projects, it is very seductive. Long before the facility starts testing self-driving vehicles, next generation cell phone signal towers, and whatever else the research and development sector wants to take for a realistic but low-stakes joy ride, CITE has already occasioned its first experiment.

The four winning public art proposals for CITE’s City Lab are on view in All Over the Map: The Ongoing Dialogue of Public Art at the Albuquerque Museum (2000 Mountain Road NW, Albuquerque, New Mexico) through April 15.

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