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.

As for future Art in Public Places projects, Rodriguez notes the majority of those currently in the planning stages are earmarked for MIA. Several artists' installations already in progress will help to diffuse the airport's kitschy pastels and neon decor, reminiscent of a Miami Vice set. Incorporated into the walls and other elements of the existing architecture, these works include Maria Martinez Ca*as's engaging 40-foot-high photo mural in Concourse D (depicting evocative images of pre-Columbian statuary, historic maps, and ancient documents), as well as Bob Huff's intricate, abstract tile work in Concourse B. Both projects are nearing completion and will officially open next month.

Some of the most ambitious projects are, logically, destined for the parts of the airport now under construction or renovation, and that includes the international terminal. Also in Concourse A, Michele Oka Doner has created A Walk on the Beach, which consists of 2000 flat bronze sculptures of algae and microscopic sea creatures, crushed shells, and mica, all of which have been embedded in the concourse's expansive terrazzo floor. Designed to evoke South Florida's beaches and shallow waters, the artist's elegant "tidal basin" lends a contemplative, calming sensation to the new area that will eventually be crowded with passengers waiting out long layovers. It too is accessible only to international passengers.

Oka Doner and Janney have succeeded in creating a sensuous oasis, one that reflects the area's natural resources but omits any reference to its grittier contemporary realities. No roar of traffic or Tower of Babel shouts are heard in the Harmonic Runway; no body parts wash up on Oka Doner's terrazzo shores. At the airport, travelers can experience an enviable alternative to the bustling strip malls, violent neighborhoods, and constant clash of cultures that are part of Miami residents' daily bread.

"Airports are gateways into cities," says Rodriguez, explaining the curatorial philosophy regarding works chosen for MIA. "This is the first thing a lot of people see when they get to Miami. In some cases the passengers never actually set foot in the city -- they're just changing planes from South America or wherever. We're giving them the opportunity to experience some of the area's unique qualities and to give them a little glimpse of who we are.

"These artistic environments can create little pockets of positive memory about Miami that people can take home with them," she adds. "And for people who live here, they're sources of civic pride that say something about our community."

Like Miami, other U.S. cities are converting their airports into cultural showcases through art in public places projects. Similarly, those cities are cultivating a kind of site-specific airport art that carries a particular message. "It's sales. Part of what we do is sales," allows Susan Pontious, a curator for San Francisco Art in Public Places's airport projects. "Miami, like San Francisco, is heavy on the tourist trade. Where do you get your first impression of a city? In the arrivals corridor."

On a recent afternoon in MIA's Concourse A, the connecting corridor was sparsely populated. Maintenance personnel, by now oblivious to the bird calls and croaking frogs emanating from Janney's installation, dusted parts of the moving walkway, onto which stepped five Indian gentlemen on their way to London. They looked around with thin smiles and embarrassed shrugs when they heard the animal sounds, and giggled when they passed through the light sensors that triggered a string of high-pitched notes. "Strange, very, very strange," one of them noted. A Miami couple on their way to Mexico came through the security checkpoint and looked around with delight, donning their sunglasses and turning their faces to the ceiling to catch the colored rays.

Having returned from Tampa, Gustavo Matamoros says he'd still like to visit the Harmonic Runway. "I can't say how this piece reflects Miami because I can't see it," he grouses. "I want to know what people coming into Miami are looking at."

Individuals wishing to view Harmonic Runway and A Walk on the Beach should call Art in Public Places at 375-5362.

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