Public Art, Private Parts

One morning last month, Gustavo Matamoros arrived at Miami International Airport to find that his flight to Tampa had been canceled. For Matamoros, the director of the South Florida Composers Alliance, the two-hour wait for the next plane to Tampa was not so much an inconvenience as it was what he terms "a golden opportunity" -- it would give him a chance to view Christopher Janney's Harmonic Runway, a site-specific installation located in the airport's new international building.

Matamoros, a musician and composer who, like Janney, has worked with sound installations, missed the inaugural reception for Runway last June. So on his recent visit to the airport he eagerly made his way to the corridor that leads to Concourse A, where security personnel asked for his boarding pass. He cheerfully supplied his pass to the next flight to Tampa. But because Concourse A, which currently services British Airways, Air France, and several Latin American carriers, is for international travelers only, he was denied entrance. Matamoros persisted. He picked up a white courtesy phone and asked for the airport manager, who replied that MIA was on high-security alert and required special permission for anyone other than international passengers to enter the area.

Annoyed but undaunted, Matamoros proceeded to a pay phone and called the office of Metro-Dade Art in Public Places. An employee there told him he would have to talk to the airport's public affairs office to arrange for a special pass. A spokesperson in the public affairs office said that, given his status as the director of the South Florida Composers Alliance, he qualified for a pass, which he could pick up in three hours -- of course, by that time he'd be in Tampa.

"I could not in my wildest imagination believe that I couldn't go and see this work," Matamoros says, laughing incredulously as he describes his airport odyssey. "I think that as the director of the Composers Alliance, I have a certain responsibility to see the work of sound artists A but as a citizen of Dade County, I have a right to see this one. The 'public' in 'public art' means that everyone should have access.

"The fact that they spent so much money on it was one reason I wanted to see it," he continues. "I wanted to see what that money had gone for. The irony is that not only did it cost so much money to produce, but you have to pay $500 for a plane ticket just to look at it."

Created at a cost of $360,000, Harmonic Runway was commissioned by Metro-Dade Art in Public Places, a county government agency. Art in Public Places receives 1.5 percent of county construction funds appropriated for public buildings; it uses the money to finance art projects in those buildings and at other public sites such as parks and transit stations. One of the decade-old agency's most extravagant projects, Runway opened with much fanfare with a fancy cocktail party at MIA that was attended by many public officials.

To create his installation, Janney, a Boston-based artist and composer, lined the corridor linking MIA's main terminal to Concourse A with glass panels coated with a colored film. Mounted side by side in front of a glass window, the violet, magenta, yellow, and green panels cast variegated shadows onto the corridor's aluminum-tile ceiling and its carpeted floor; the shadows change hues throughout the day according to the brightness of the light outside. As part of the installation, recordings of birds and other Everglades fauna play continuously, invoking the sounds of South Florida's natural habitat. Additionally, when pedestrians pass through strategically placed beams of white light, they activate the playing of bamboo flute music. The noises and colors of Runway effectively envelop arriving and departing passengers -- who travel through the corridor on two moving walkways -- in an interactive environment.

According to Art in Public Places executive director Vivian Donnell Rodriguez, Harmonic Runway was originally commissioned for what, at the time, was designated to be a public-access corridor; that was before recently stepped-up security precautions restricted the area to international passengers. "I'd love it if we could open it up," Rodriguez contends. "I'd also love it if there were no terrorism. These are precautions an airport has to take."

Rodriguez maintains that Runway technically remains open to the public because Miami residents can see it by requesting a special pass. But according to airport spokeswoman Angie Torres, tours of the site can be arranged only for groups of ten or more, and those requests must be made at least two weeks in advance. Torres adds that even if the airport were not on special security alert, the connecting corridor would still be off-limits to all but Concourse A passengers, because MIA is a high-security airport with restricted access to gate areas. Regular twice-daily tours of the airport are open to individuals, but those do not currently include Concourse A.

"We haven't been overwhelmed with calls from individuals asking to see [Harmonic Runway]," says Rodriguez. She goes on to point out that, despite Torres's contention that only groups of ten or more can view Runway, anyone wishing to gain access to the installation should call Art in Public Places directly and a private visit will be arranged. Regularly scheduled tours of the site will be implemented if there is a large enough demand, she adds.

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