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Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2012

Pedestrians React to Milwaukee's 'Pedestrian Drama'

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The assembly of flipping signs on five light poles on the east end of Wisconsin Avenue in Milwaukee's Downtown is a playfully coy artwork. Pedestrian Drama, the brainchild of artist Janet Zweig, has been in place for about a year. To find out what passers-by thought of this work, I spent some time Downtown talking with Milwaukeeans and out-of-towners about their impressions.

One recent weekend, Milwaukee native Joey Lawton was in town with Jamon Deaver. Both men now live in Chicago and were here to attend a wedding. Pedestrian Drama literally stopped them in their tracks. Lawton keeps up on Milwaukee news and had heard about the piece before, saying: “I read about it; it's really cool. It caught us off guard.” Deaver added, “I think it's amazing.”  There was a palpable sense of surprise and they lingered to check out all of the kiosks, taking photos along the way.

Another group sharing their thoughts was a family, with four people ranging in age from 20-something to seniors. The youngest, Daniel, and his mother, Susan, were in town from San Diego, and exploring Downtown with Milton and Joanne from Elm Grove. Daniel was the most taken with the artwork, appreciating the way it makes a person “look around more. It engages you with the street.” Susan added, “I like how it's not digital. It's more like how motion pictures originally got started.”

Milton noted that the interactive nature was quite attention-getting, and the group as a whole expressed agreement in liking this aspect, noting that it doesn't take pushing a button to get it started. Joanne had a quizzical response and wondered what the work was about. This question brought up thoughtful debate on the notion of interactivity, the process of seeing and the unfinished stories in these small dramas.

As the laid-back weekend morphs into the practical, workaday world of Monday through Friday, the mood on the street alters. People rush by, engrossed in their own thoughts and conversations. There seems to be less attention paid to the familiar surrounding environment. To get a sense of what Downtown workers thought of the art, I spent some time during a recent Tuesday lunch hour gathering some opinions.

I spoke to three businessmen dressed in casual summer office attire. They were with Northwestern Mutual, two from at the Downtown campus and one who had come in from Franklin. When asked what they thought of the installation, there was a long pause, ripe with uncertainty about how to respond. Urging their candor, one then said, “It's stupid. I'm not a fan.” Another mentioned that he saw maintenance work being done on the kiosks frequently. Their reactions communicated their disinterest as well as perplexity.

Others had opposite opinions. A woman who works at Foley & Lardner, pausing from reading her book, offered her impressions of the piece. She thought it was cool, and even enchanting. She appreciated that it “gives you something to stop and say, 'Hey, what is that?'”