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Local Art Installation Sparks Safety Concerns

I can dance crazy at a concert because I love the music without being drunk. I can cry at a movie without blaming hormones. I can move in concert with an interactive art piece like a real weirdo and not be high. Art is, among a few other things, an exercise in empathy, an exploratory journey towards self-knowledge, and a thing that we do to feel alive.

But some assume that to be moved to feel – ecstatic or somber – by a work of art is taboo, and to express an interest beyond a thirty-second selfie-op with a work of art constitutes dangerous lurking. To engage too viscerally with a work of art through interacting with it, staring at it too long, or congregating near it must mean only one thing: you’re hallucinating. We all should be bothered by this assumption. We should all, regardless of where we live, take as an object lesson the following story.  Wherever you live, something like this is surely happening and art and culture are worse for it.

On Wednesday, January 16th a local news outlet, The Fort Collins Coloradoan, published a tidbit entitled “New Fort Collins alley mural reportedly drawing drug activity.” A local journalist reported that the mayor of Fort Collins, Wade Troxell, brought up at a meeting of local leadership that the owner of the Prost Brewing franchise nearby had voiced concern over young people reportedly on hallucinogens viewing the kinetic artwork in Firehouse Alley at night when the projections are visible and responsive to motion. The brief article also mentions and links to a report on a fatal alleyway shooting that took place outside the Alley Cat coffeehouse three years ago to demonstrate the precedence, I suppose, of crime in dark alleys. One could reasonably infer that the writer was equating kids looking at art outside to a gunman ready to kill.

A memorandum from the January 7th meeting that motivated the report simply states that the mayor mentioned, “The owner of Prost reports that the art project is attracting young people who are sitting on his patio and taking hallucinogens.” In the only other sentence in the memo on the topic Mayor Troxell noted that increased police presence would be necessary as a result.

Prost denied (SALT) Magazine’s request for comment, so we’re not really sure what kind of drug test was used to determined that “kids be trippin” near their patio and the art installation. We don’t know if the young people were trespassing on the patio, simply loitering in the vicinity, or whether someone working at the establishment saw actual drugs.

Other than the claimed appearance of public hallucinating there has been no reported criminal activity or disturbance in connection with the mural, according to Fort Collins Police Force spokesperson Kate Kimble quoted in the Coloradoan article.  

But a city council candidate was quick to jump on the alarmist bandwagon the next day by reposting the Coloradoan article on Facebook with an all caps ejaculation of “SAFETY” as their lead, and a campaign promise to make Fort Collins “more fun and family-friendly”. While I agree with the candidate on the importance of safety, I think we should, as a city, take a step back and ask ourselves if a few possibly, though not verifiably, high teenagers doing the old facemelt while looking at a work of art is the greatest threat to our physical security.

On the bottom of the Coloradoan webpage featuring this story were three other local headlines: the recent police shooting of an armed man, the coercion of a woman into sex work, and the paroling of an individual involved in the deadly shooting of a teenager.

While we all want to be safe in our town, acting like you’re hallucinating isn’t illegal or a threat to public safety. Unless an individual is breaching the peace, harassing others, or endangering lives, the law is vague about public intoxication. While attempts have been made to make being “high and annoying” an arrestable offense all such measures have thus far been crushed by the fist of common sense. Regardless of legal consideration, neither I nor (Salt) encourage the use of illegal drugs. Engaging with a work of art should not require intoxicants to receive its beauty and meaning.

Treating the writer of the Coloradoan piece as charitably as is possible, it’s worth noting that reporters at the Gannett corporation have a mandated number of internal hyperlinks required in each piece they write. Perhaps the writer didn’t intend to equate the fatal shooting of Randall Cargill in 2015 outside the Alley Cat to people looking at a mural at night but was required to cross-post in order to garner more clicks on the site from readers. But the piece was still the catalyst for unnecessary histrionic concerns in our community and fed a darker mistrust of art and the people who like it, and that bothers me.

Setting the reporting of hearsay as fact aside for a moment, the beautiful triangular pageant of local government could have performed its spin cycle in relative obscurity: business owner voices complaint about hooligans to mayor, who suggested heightened vigilance to police, who in turn say “Golly, gosh. We sure will keep Mayberry safe.”

Like those Teutonic clocks in Europe where, at the chime of the hour, automata workmen and burgers appear and perform their preordained tasks, the proper channels are moving like, well, clockwork. The mechanical dance is for the benefit of us all, and happens without fanfare or headlines when the machine is functioning as we’ve designed it; cocooning our town in the comfortably bourgeois lifestyle the glossies promise.

I can’t fault a business owner for caring for his business interests, a mayor for listening to his constituents, a police force for announcing it will continue to serve and protect, but I can’t help but roll my eyes a little at this whole brouhaha and hope it starts a greater conversation about art and contrived perceptions of danger. Public art doesn’t need any more bad press or detractors. While the city is quite supportive of public art projects, many Coloradoan articles take a critical view of them, often focusing on their cost or outrage from the citizenry. The first report on this mural by Peeta mentions the high cost not merely in passing but in the headline.

But this recent short Coloradoan piece of clickbait devotes only one line to the work of art itself so I went to resident interactive art expert Ben Gondrez, a creative technologist, manager of the Digital Dome at the Museum of Discovery, and the person from whom I heard about this whole mess. Ben writes:

The Old Firehouse Alley mural and interactive projection installation is a collaboration between renowned Italian street artist Peeta and Denver-based creative technology studio Alt Ethos. By day, Peeta’s spray-painted mural seems to bring the wall it is painted on to life with geometric forms twisting and turning, seeming to emerge from the flat surface of the wall. By night though, the piece is transformed even further into what seems to be an almost alive vision of the wall. Projections that are mapped directly to the pseudo 3-dimensional painting give it the illusion of something like a flowing alien landscape or even a portal into an alternate reality just beyond. However, the projections are not simply a static element of this installation, but an interactive one as well. As pedestrians pass by through the alleyway, their presence is picked up by a detector and translated to floating orbs that appear in the projections and cause them to morph and change in response to the individual’s actions. The interaction is abstract but noticeable as the floating orbs seem to be a shadow the movements of the passerby causing them to stop and interact and experiment by gesticulating, sometimes wildly, in front of the mural in an attempt to discover just what the mural is responding to. This type of interactive public art serves to engage people in the spaces they live and work and promotes a more creative environment. In a world full of large-scale screens and images, usually for the purpose of advertising products and services to us, it is refreshing to see an interactive artwork of this scale and technological complexity being used to engage people in the appreciation of art and public spaces.

Since I am a humble writer responding to the reporting (Coloradoan) of a comment (mayor) made about an assumption (Prost franchise owner), I can’t definitively allocate blame for this absurd bout of alarmist chicanery.

I feel a little bit guilty, and silly even, giving this nonsense any print space, but I think this sorry affair points to a number of larger issues with the corporate tokenism of art, the surging homogenization of our small Northern Colorado towns, the hypocrisy of our aspirant elected officials with regard to art and commerce, and the poor quality of journalism we’ve somehow allowed from the Coloradoan, our town’s only major newspaper. Let me succinctly lay out the situation.

The city wants to be full of vibrant art: on the street, in venues, at festivals. The Downtown Development Authority, who commissioned the piece, state their mission is “to build public-private investment partnerships that foster economic, cultural and social growth in the central business district.” This goal is fabulous and I commend them for commissioning a creative piece by Peeta, although he’s 5,344 miles away in Venice and not likely to return to our fair city.

It seems to me that the attitude from city leadership and business owners is that it’s great when Fort Collins art is printed in tourism brochures and attracts business, but when the townies start loitering near it, performing in the streets, or getting too noisy at a rock show, it becomes a nuisance. This nuisance becomes problematic if this engagement manifests in unexpected ways and appears to negatively affect local business. It’s then considered an actual threat to safety and calls for more active policing. And this leads local city council candidates to inform the public that they should be shocked, shocked, that this could be happening in our sheltered zipcode. Ultimately the existence of public art is portrayed as troublesome if not downright threatening in this news report and others like it. When public art installations are seen as part of beautification efforts, often a euphemism for new safety measures, business owners expect beautification to preclude noisome art viewers and to boost sales. This mercenary attitude toward art as an aspect of civic beautification is one of the root causes of this mess.

From a corporate development perspective, public art properly serves its purpose when a visitor takes a selfie with it, posts it accompanied by #focoart, and then spends inordinate amounts of money at nearby businesses, not when the community rallies around it or makes it their destination. Also, that interacting with a work of art with too much enthusiasm automatically suggests the use of illegal substances and police intervention is needed to ensure our town remains safe, family-friendly, and unthreatened by the offensive Wow’s! and Far-outs! of viewers enjoying an abstract light show. God knows, I’d hate for my daughter to see some young people outdoors interacting with a work of art painted on a brick wall instead of playing Xbox or staring at a dorm room tapestry while eating a bowl of Lucky Charms and indulging in Lizard Brain. Because it really isn’t about the art, is it?

Maybe a complaint about the allegedly chemically altered state of mind of a few teens looking at art reported by our town’s newspaper masquerading as relevant fact is possibly the most egregious crime here. To report a rumor, to put “reportedly” in a headline when reporting is ostensibly one’s job, to raise the alarm over nothing, this all doesn’t just harmlessly get clicks and shares for Gannett, it actually affects public attitudes toward art and art-lovers, local business owners’ valuation of artistic projects, safety and public spaces, and who gets elected in local government. These cultural attitudes about art may seem small but this is really what it should be about, shouldn’t it?