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A Public Art Installation Bridges the Gap Created by an Overpass

A conversation with the Arizona-based duo behind San Antonio's "Ballroom Luminoso," among other projects.

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Fred Gonzales/City of San Antonio

Joe O'Connell and Blessing Hancock are two Arizona-based artists who specialize in public art. But they're not the type to build your standard metal sculpture on a public plaza.

The duo operates a 14,000-square-foot fabrication facility in Tucson with 14 other artists, designers, engineers and craftspeople, making art out of fabricated metal, acrylic materials, LED lighting, and electronics.

Looking to find new ways for people to live and interact with art, O'Connell and Hancock create design pieces that help define the space they occupy and encourage interactivity. Their most recent project, "Ballroom Luminoso," debuted earlier this year under an elevated highway in San Antonio. Part of a neighborhood improvement plan, the project aims, through design, to bridge the physical boundary created by the I-10 highway, forming better connections between the different ethnicities and income levels in the area.

We caught up with one half of the duo, Joe O'Connell, to talk about their most recent work in San Antonio, how they approach placemaking, and what future projects they're excited about:

Can you tell me about your approach to "Ballroom Luminoso"?

We began with extensive research into the cultural and social threads than run through the neighborhood. We didn't want to represent the city as a whole, but we tried to delve into the specific neighborhoods surrounding Theo and Malone Avenues.

Through our research we discovered a long history of agricultural achievements and horticultural beautification efforts from the turn of the century and through the early 20th century. We were interested in the roots of the area as a haven for moderate income families and the strong Hispanic heritage. Finally, we wanted to connect the piece with the nearby eco-restoration and recreation projects along the San Antonio River.

"Ballroom Luminoso" in San Antonio. Image courtesy the designers.

Our piece was an attempt to span these histories and project an aspirational picture of the neighborhood's future. It's a piece about rejuvenation and reinvention. We certainly embraced the iconography of La Loteria, which we were drawn to because of it's flexible imagery and Mexican narrative. We adapted the designs in our medallions, and were able to communicate many aspects of the neighborhood through these simple graphics.

It is an area of mixed Mexican and Anglo heritage and we wanted to express that through the mixed-language name "Ballroom Luminoso." Ballroom dancing is also something that crosses cultures. When we first saw the underpass, we were drawn to its formal elegance and clean lines. It possessed a certain dignity and rhythm of its own that we tried to call attention to with the chandeliers.

What are you and the city hoping to achieve through this project?

The area surrounding our installation is in transition, and our artwork is part of a larger influx of government funds. We are the first project in a series to be completed as part of the 2012-2017 Bond Program. Both Public Art San Antonio and the city's department for culture and creative development were enormously helpful in developing this project from concept through installation.

Each chandelier is clad with recycled bike parts collected from bike co-ops from across the country. (Joe O'Connell + Blessing Hancock Public Art.)

The goal was to bring art to the city's south side as a means of enlivening the area for current residents and encouraging cultural diffusion beyond the city center. The cultural hub of San Antonio's artistic scene is directly north of our site, in the King Williams Neighborhood and downtown, however there is a marked difference between neighborhoods on each side of I-10. Although both the site and budget were humble, we chose the projective chandeliers to maximize the art's transformative impact in the space. That's the great thing about projection; it allows relatively small objects to activate a much larger space, and that has metaphoric meaning in this case.

With "Fish Bellies," a project you did for Texas State University, is there a difference in how you approached designing public art in an academic setting as opposed to a city park or plaza? What kind of interaction are you going for when it's students who come across it?

With that project we realized that the students would be living next to the sculpture for four years and spending a lot of time with it. That made it more important for us to build in a lot of variability in what they could do.

Fish Bellies Public Art Installation at Texas State University by Joe O'Connell and Blessing Hancock from Joe and Blessing on Vimeo.

For each Fish Belly, students can control both the hue and the saturation level of the inner and outer LEDs independently. This means there are a great many color combinations and these can include pastel colors as well as the super-saturated colors people are used to associating with LED lighting. We don't want them to get bored after just one year. And ultimately, it is not the sculptures that will keep them interested. It is the way Fish Bellies simultaneously encourages social interaction while respecting personal space. Ultimately they will be drawn back to the sculpture because of the kind of social interaction it fosters.

"Desert O" in Tucson, Arizona, is one of your first and most memorable projects. How did you design it to encourage interaction with passersby and what kind of legacy does it have now locally after being up almost a decade?

"Desert O" was one of those pieces where we must have been guided by muses because we made all the right choices unconsciously. Many of the strains that characterize our work came together in that piece: its human scale, the shape that encourages interaction with passers-by, the simple outward form with a complex inner skeleton, the translucency in the day and the intense color at night, the 7 color sequences that repeat on a weekly cycle, and its secret button - we got it all right, nearly by accident.

"Desert O" in Tuscon, AZ. 

 Images courtesy the designers. 

It is just the right size and height to encourage kids to climb up into it, dogs to jump through it, adults to sit in it and people of all sizes to hug it. We've even seen couples strolling by who stop to kiss through the donut hole. It is at the crossroads of a popular walking path and well-travelled road so people pass by it going all directions. The final judgment of public art comes from the public and most people have renamed it 'the donut' which is fine with us.

We did it shortly after Luxeon Star LEDs came out and started the greater-than-1-watt LED revolution. We used the very first generation of those LEDs and there have been problems with the blue LEDs losing strength. We will soon replace them with the latest generation of LEDs for greater brightness and longevity.

The sculpture also has a 'secret button' - one of the hundreds of fasteners that dot its surface is touch-sensitive and this button lets passersby control the lighting on their own. A minute after people leave the secret button alone, the sculpture returns to its normal programming for that night. We originally told 10 people and asked them each to tell 10 more. The Arizona Daily Star had a tiny article about the secret button once and it has slowly spread through the community. Probably the best testament to its legacy is when I happened to be walking through the neighborhood, a stranger came up to me and offered to show me the secret button. He had no idea I was the artist; he was just passing on a piece of secret knowledge.

What's the most interesting project your firm is currently working on?

We are making a very large format 3D printer that will print sculptures in a permanent translucent material. This will let us break almost completely free from the rectilinear world and design and build in the way that nature builds - only we will use it to create alternative natures. 

Another fascinating project is "Empire of Giants" in Dallas. Our interest in that project comes mainly from the fantastic site - a huge and desolate freeway underpass that sits in darkness right next to Dallas' world famous arts district and near the equally famous Deep Ellum neighborhood. We are hoping to create a tableaux so charming and out-of-this-world that it can bridge many cultural divides. And of course we are building a stainless steel cocoon that you can ride your bike through it - that is fascinating and a little bit scary because it will require moving telephone lines to bring it to its site.

Concept model for "Empire of Giants" in Dallas.

What kind of aspects of public space is your firm interested in exploring that it hasn't yet?

We are interested in many public spaces that traditionally have not had public art. For one, we are interested in spaces in the third world to create spaces in which entirely different interventions are possible that wouldn't be here.

We're also interested in creating beautiful public things that aren't identified immediately as art, but rather as useful and beautiful, and only afterward as art. An example would be a beautiful object that creates drinking water where it is desperately needed, or destroys land mines, or a gigantic weaving loom by which refugees could weave a huge tent out of scraps. We think every generation needs to revisit the argument for why art is necessary and the answer is slightly different for each generation. We certainly study past artists and learn from them, but our age has unique challenges and unique opportunities.

Top image: "Utah Bit and Mine," Bingham Junction Light Rail Station, Midvale, UT. Image courtesy the designers.

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