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Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2009

Janet Zweig’s Art on the Avenue

Animated visions of ‘Pedestrian Drama’ in Milwaukee

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Here are some notes on the progress of sculptor Janet Zweig’s Pedestrian Drama,an important, one-of-a-kind public artwork that will be permanently installed on five lampposts along the north side of the east end of Wisconsin Avenue between Cass Street and the big curve.

First, a quick history: Through the Percent for Art program of a federal Department of Transportation streetscaping grant, the city of Milwaukee held a nationwide search for proposals in 2006. A large, highly distinguished committee of civic leaders chose Zweig from three finalists in 2007. She refined her proposal through several presentations in 2008 and was awarded the commission. A short controversy, such as has met every major public art project the city has undertaken, erupted in April 2009, but by May the work was back on track.

The design, which can be viewed on Zweig’s Web site (janetzweig.com), is beautiful and highly original. Each lamppost will hold an elegant, hexagonal kiosk presenting computer-operated flip-card animations in each of the three sides facing the sidewalk. The animations, motion-activated by pedestrians, will be shown on 1950s-era railway station flap signs, still used in some train stations in the world to announce the arrival and departure of trains. It took Zweig a year to persuade an Italian company, nowadays the only manufacturer in the world of flap signs, to custom-build the mechanisms with 60 flaps, instead of the usual 40, for added length and detail.

The animated images will be rendered on the cards in black and white and set into black metal frames, covered by glass and lighted at night. They are modest in size, and attached to the black harp lampposts at easy eye level. The railroad reference is nostalgic: I remember the childhood thrill of arriving from my hometown of Fond du Lac at the great Chicago and North Western station that once stood across the street from the installation site.

Zweig was actually born in Milwaukee, but her family had moved by the time she was 3 and she remembers nothing of her first years here. She is working hard to know the city now. It’s fundamental to her vision that this be a true Milwaukee artwork, so she is involving as much of the community as possible in determining and executing the content of the animations, choosing images and stories that speak with humor and mystery about some of our widely shared experiences.

Through an online contest this fall, 110 Milwaukeeans contributed more than 275 ideas for animations, and Zweig recently chose 36 winners to share $15,000 in honorariums. She’s also held meetings and small group “salon conversations” with some 20 of the city’s many accomplished visual and performing artists, writers and cultural movers to solicit their input. These relationships are expanding and deepening.

Three artists have been assisting her more closely as sounding boards and facilitators. They are choreographer Debra Loewen of Wild Space Dance Company, known for her original, site-specific dance dramas; director and educator Rebecca Holderness of UW-Milwaukee’s BFA acting program who is well-versed in contemporary performance creation; and myself, a playwright comfortable with nontraditional performance situations and local subjects.

A lot of our work has simply involved grasping the challenges of the technology, which requires, among other bewilderments, that each 7.5-second sequence end at the starting point, ready for the next activation. Images can jump from panel to panel. It’s very much a work in progress, but Zweig is considering using our city’s relationship to weather as one organizing principle. One kiosk might reflect the need for shelter from blustery rain, others the drudgery of snow, the bloom of spring, the languid summer, the wistful fall. Each must be visually stunning, surprising and memorable.

Zweig is currently drawing storyboards in preparation for citywide casting, rehearsals and filming; the film will be edited and transferred to the flap cards. Zweig stresses that only 20% of the cost of this federally funded program comes from the city of Milwaukee—and that money will be given back to Milwaukeeans. She is scrupulous that all of the funds contributed by the city be returned through the contest honoraria, performers’ fees, costs of filming and the fabrication and installation of the kiosks. Adam Brown and Franklyn Berry, whose local company, AFX Sign Effectz, has worked with Zweig on past projects, will do the latter.


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