LivingArts: The Selfie and Sculpture

Being of a certain age I can remember a time before the internet, before Instagram, before Facebook, before cellphones and selfies. It is easy to forget how this technology and its ubiquitous nature has changed almost every aspect of how we communicate and behave. At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, I had an experience while installing public art recently that has caused me to reflect on this shift and how it affects the realm of public art.

Recently I was installing a new public art work in Thunder Bay; the work consisted of two life-size bronze figures that weighed in excess of 300 lbs each. The sculptures were commissioned to be installed about a block apart from each other on a busy downtown street filled with yoga studios, cafes and bakeries - arguably one of the most pedestrian friendly locations in the city. The two sculptures were being installed directly on traffic calming bump-outs that were extensions of the sidewalk. I subcontracted the physical installation to a very competent crew and was working on site with them for two days.

When we reached the point of lifting the heavy bronze works into place and securing them to the concrete footing with epoxy, an interesting thing occurred. It became difficult to accomplish the work because we were constantly being interrupted by people entering the jobsite in order to take selfies.

To be clear, I do not mean people were simply snapping pictures with their phones of us working, or of the freshly uncrated sculptures. I mean a number of people, independent of each other, attempted to pose beside the bronze sculptures and take a picture of themselves while we were in the process of moving the artwork. This required these individuals to physically cross the bright orange and yellow construction barricades, step into an active construction site with power tools, hoists and hydraulics in use, traverse obvious hazards to their own safety, and to then physically insert themselves between the installation crew and the sculptures.

The installation of public sculpture is a stressful situation. As an artist you are often working with a crew and trying to maintain constant communication and provide direction. Prior to the physical work an installation plan must be approved by engineers, the municipality, the artist and others, all in the hopes of a smooth and safe process. Of course what is on paper does not always equate with reality; a hidden gas line where your footing needs to go, a sidewalk sloping at the wrong angle, a hydraulic saw that decides to get jammed in the concrete, are some of the numerous unplanned occurrences that force you to solve problems on site. When the artist is onsite, they are also required to be a bit of a spokesman responding to random questions, liaising with local officials (municipal workers, police, BIA), and occasionally having a surly teenager ask questions that make you question your belief in the arts. The installation of public art also represents the culmination of years of work; the artist has guided the project from the proposal stage, through approval and fabrication, and the installation process is akin to watching your child move out to college. Add to this stress that the artist is often paying the install crew by the hour, and any delay can cause immense stress.

So after I had to ask the third individual to step back over the safety barricade for their own protection, and was rebuffed with “I just want a quick pic for fb,” I was a bit flummoxed. On one hand, it is great that someone likes the works so much that they just have to snap a selfie; on the other hand the minute they pass the construction barricade, their compromised safety becomes my problem. When they eagerly put their arm over the shoulder of the sculpture as it was precariously braced a few feet off the ground, waiting for the final lowering into position, I could see the headlines – “Man crushed by bronze sculpture.” I want to encourage everyone to enjoy public art, but not at the cost of personal safety. At first I made a point of explaining that the sculptures would be permanent and unveiled the next day; however, this had little effect on the behaviour of the selfie snapping public.

I think next time I am going to make signs that warn of Electro Magnetic Pulses harmful to iPhones being generated by the diamond saw. Perhaps the threat of damaging their phones will give people pause when crossing into the job site.