In February, artist Anne Bray took a small team of researchers into L.A.'s bus system, asking people how they felt about art. They spoke with 250 riders over a good swath of L.A.'s Metro system, which sprawls from Santa Monica past Pasadena and from Long Beach Harbor up into the San Gabriel Mountains.
Results ranged from unequivocal — 91 percent like art — to confusing. Fifty percent regularly see art on buses, while the other 50 percent — many of whom frequent the same routes — see no art at all. Twenty-six percent count posters and panels on buses as art, 22 percent count graffiti and 12 percent count ads. Three percent define some fellow passengers as works of art.
"It's a contradiction in terms — a survey about art," says Bray, who in 1989 founded the media arts organization L.A. Freewaves, which hosts public video festivals and gives free technology workshops for artists.
Still, she had to know her audience before launching "Out the Window," an ambitious video project set to begin this month on the system's 2,200 city buses, which serve 2 million people a day.
"Out the Window" began in early 2010, when Bray saw a posting for a digital media competition funded by the MacArthur Foundation. Immediately, she thought of buses. During a weekend in 2008, along Hollywood Boulevard routes, she had streamed videos on privately owned Transit TVs, those weirdly cheery monitors that hang in most L.A. buses, showing local news and weather along with gossip programs and brain-game spots.
This time, Bray had a more ambitious proposal: Transit TV would stream video art, much of it made by L.A. teens. Below the videos, in the bottom part of the screen, would be GPS-sensitive banner images created by the teens and artists, which would change according to the neighborhood the buses rolled through.
Bray roped in three other organizations, each as itinerant and under-the-radar as her own. Echo Park Film Center, a school and screening room, would work with the teens, along with Public Matters, a company that treats cameras as activism enablers. UCLA ReMAP would navigate the technical logistics.
Within a month, they'd made the competition's first cut. By May, Bray was flying to D.C. to accept a $100,000 grant. She hadn't expected Washington politicos in "gray suits with their Kindles under their arms" to back her.
I first encountered Bray five years ago during a series of arts lectures at the Claremont Colleges. She spoke just after another artist, who said he'd learned he can't make audiences care about his work. "I haven't learned that," Bray responded as she took the floor.
Most public art isn't really for people. In fact, some of the more famous public projects have seemed expressly anti-people — consider Richard Serra's solid steel Tilted Arc, removed because it cut across New York's Federal Plaza, making it difficult to get to offices nearby, or Pierre Vivant's Traffic Light Tree, a tower of flashing red, yellow and green that disoriented drivers when it appeared off a London street. Then there are those functionless objects plopped down in the middle of civic spaces to either be gaped at or sidestepped.
Meet any of the main players in "Out the Window" and you'll doubt they're capable of "plopping down" art. "Everything we do is about relationship building," says Mike Blockstein of Public Matters, who used social networking to help student video-makers connect with their audiences.
Lisa Marr and partner Paolo Davanzo of Echo Park Film Center helped 37 teens shoot two dozen 16mm films, encouraging them not to just make films they want to make but to consider where they'll be screened. "It seems important that students think about the limitations of the bus and take responsibility for the space they're working in," Marr says.
Fabian Wagmeister of ReMAP has created a way for riders to send text-message responses to questions posed by banner images or videos. "You could ask, 'What do you see out your window?' and they might reply, 'I see very ugly industrial buildings,' and you could computationally respond, 'Why are they ugly?' " The challenge, explains Wagmeister, "is that there's not a viewer who's on the bus just to view." A captive audience doesn't always make for a vested one.
Sun Valley company Tezo Systems bought Transit TV after its founders went bankrupt in 2009, and controls its content. Tezo head Maurice Vanegas says many potential Transit TV advertisers can't seem to accept the scope and upward mobility of the bus-riding population, which is why he likes "Out the Window" — it recognizes the diversity of Metro riders and takes advantage of the GPS-coded banner images. "We can do a lot that no one else can do," he says.
Maya Emsden, deputy executive officer of Metro's Creative Services, who has organized a number of Metro-based projects but had difficulty putting art on buses and trains since 2003 budget cuts, also feels confident. "It's great the way it's leveraging new technology," she says.
"Out the Window" doesn't provide much fodder for criticism. It has a laudable scope and refreshing lack of egotism. But when it launches later this month, the art itself will make or break it. What happens if people don't watch?
In her survey, when Bray asked riders if they would like to see videos by teens on Transit TV, only 24 percent said they would; 44 percent wanted artists' videos. "Out the Window" gives them both.
Students from the Echo Park Film Center filmed across L.A.'s downtown, canyons and tar pits in gorgeous black-and-white. A soundtrack by local classical musicians accompanies the otherwise silent footage. One lingering shot of Chinatown's Hop Louie bar has the allure of a noir thriller, while others recall early avant garde experiments. Even riders who don't care for arthouse are bound to appreciate the craft.
In addition, 200 professional artists submitted videos, and 30 have made the cut so far. "People is a big theme," Bray observes of those videos that work. In one, artist Micol Hebron drags a growing train of books through city streets and shopping malls. In another, Elana Mann, dressed in velvety black and wearing a life-sized donkey mask, gropes her way along a fence in South L.A. It looks wrong and dangerous, and echoes the quiet fixation "Out the Window" has on the freedom to move through spaces of your own choosing.
Picking which videos to screen posed a difficult challenge. "I love what I don't understand," Bray says. "But with public art, it has to be somewhere between accessibility and cliché."
The trick is to make sure it still provides some enlightenment. "If there's something unexpected on the screen, it makes you feel the whole institution of the city is open to play."
"Out the Window" videos will screen on Transit TV for five minutes an hour June 13-17, and for two 45-minute cycles a day June 18-19. The cycle repeats in October. The "Out the Window" team will be at ALOUD at the L.A. Public Library June 14 for the program We Are Here, We Could Be Everywhere.