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Stephen Glassman Wants to Create Billboards Made of Trees

Urban Air's Kickstarter page, showing a mockup of the billboards Stephen Glassman intends to make

Urban Air's Kickstarter page, showing a mockup of the billboards Stephen Glassman intends to make

The helicopter hangs in the air over downtown L.A. for what seems like a very long time, its whirring blades adding the slight chill of potential alarm over the otherwise quiet Sunday night streets. The airship hovers at around a hundred fifty feet, it's powerful bluish spotlight illuminating the roof of a building near the intersection of 7th and Broadway.

Bystanders below might think a fugitive is up on the roof, or perhaps criminal activity is going on inside one of the top floor windows. Closer inspection -- gained by an elevator ride up to the penthouse level thirteen floors up and then a walk up a grand, modern staircase -- reveals a crowd of well over a hundred on the roof, mesmerized by the floating copter, as well as an ethereal woman dancer, clothed in a gauzy white dress, who does a slow, mysterious movement piece on a blue-illuminated rooftop structure, opposite acclaimed guitarist Nels Cline, who accompanies her with abstract, interpretive musical accompaniment.

The helicopter's stillness in the air is impressive, its spotlight casting down an eerily powerful, modulating light that falls on the dancer and quite a bit of the roof and crowd, nearly turning night into day.

The smartly dressed crowd is a mix of creative cognoscenti from around L.A., and a smattering of tall, model-thin women in their best dresses. The Haas Building -- the setting of this event -- is equally impressive. The party rental space in the penthouse level is all sleek, modern, stylish grandiosity, with high-ceilinged, wide-open spaces and large windows giving fantastic views of the L.A. skyline. This party feels like it could be celebrating a hot indie film or edgy Internet startup. In fact, it marks the successful $100,000 Kickstarter campaign of L.A. artist Stephen Glassman for his project Urban Air, a quest to create small "urban forests" of bamboo trees on billboards in Los Angeles and other cities.

"If you put these tree billboards in an art gallery, people would say 'Oh, yes. Isn't that nice?'" declares the ebullient, expressive Glassman. "But what Urban Air is is a shift in the definition of context. It's an experience. It's experiential"

With the helicopter and the back-lit interpretive dance and the penthouse/roof party setting that looks like something out of a Batman movie, you believe that this guy knows something about the word "experiential."

Glassman's previous sculptural works include a piece in Seattle called Thornton Creek, a monument to a community's effort to reclaim an historic creek, made of wide steel pipe, opened up to catch rain into an underground cistern. His White Tail Plaza, in the West Valley's Warner Center, outdoor seating is integrated into two masses of rock, the whole thing overshadowed by a swirling canopy of thin steel lines, fringed in places with flocks of metal "birds."

"I've done a lot of work with devastated urban sites," says Glassman. "Burn sites, earthquake sites -- and I've used bamboo. It's got a very shallow base and it grows very high. It's structurally strong, drought-tolerant and they grow completely interconnected together in the ground."

Stephen Glassman

Adam GropmanStephen Glassman

On hand is Glassman's wife, Sarah Elgart, the aforementioned dancer.

"I've been wanting to do a dance with a helicopter, for a year and a half," says Elgart, also a choreographer and director, referring to the earlier performance piece. "I had this dream about it. I'm really interested in scale and height, and taking the eye to the horizon."

In 2011 and 2012, Elgart had a performance art installation at the Van Nuys Airport Flyaway, for which Stephen did film projections on a parking garage. In June she will be doing a performance piece at LAX, the first ever there, with Stephen and their close friend -- music video director Kevin Kerslake -- doing projections.

"An analogy I use is: If the world is a bell, then art is a hammer," proclaims Glassman, his gesture indicating the party, the Kickstarter campaign, the general interest. "This is a strike that really rang through."

For the Urban Air project, Glassman is having a billboard donated by Summit Media owner Alex Kouba, who Glassman calls a socially conscious businessman. "When his billboards are down, he'll throw up quotes by Thomas Paine," says Glassman. "And he's a real art collector. I am always in conversations around commercial partnerships and it's a funny line to walk. I'm trying to stay very true to the artwork of it."

Glassman and his team are currently searching for just the right billboard, which will be somewhere near the 10 Freeway, between the coast and La Cienega. His design for the small forests includes water misters for irrigation, and he believes that once the prototype is built, future replications will be cheaper and easier to make.

"I think it's a really clever trigger for a thought process to happen," says Kevin Kerslake, creator of groundbreaking videos for Rise Against, Nirvana and REM, of the urban forest idea. "It's a reminder. When we're surrounded by so many hard elements and fast elements, I think it's a very clever way to say 'hold on' and appreciate. There's a level of gratitude in it and meditation and consciousness that I think factors in, in a very smooth way."

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