The utility of public art

Art for empowerment
Art for research
Art for growth

I never quite really understood art in order to see it as something worthwhile to devote time to, until attending a keynote recently featuring Bevan Weissman from the New American Public Art, a group of artists that creates art installations in urban areas. His talk reframed art in my mind as a tool that can be used to (1) empower people, to (2) collect behavioral data, and to (3) help us grow.

Art for empowerment

Humans instinctively want to have a sense of control over their environment. The more control people feel over their experience, the less they assume the role of passive “consumers” of an engineered experience, and the more they think of themselves as active collaborators in the ongoing shaping and reshaping of their own experience and other people’s experiences. Two of the projects that Bevan Weissman worked on illustrate this point.

Blue Hour

Blue Hour is an interactive lighting installation composed of ten light towers that respond to the motion of people around them.

Color Commons

Color Commons is an interactive public art work where the public can change the color of the Boston Greenway Light Blades by sending text messages to them. Write any color you can think of and send it to the Light Blades number (917.525.2337) and instantly all the Light Blades will change to your chosen color.

Steve Jobs famously said,

“When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and you’re life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family, have fun, save a little money.
That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.”

If art can give people the power to change how something as permanent as public infrastructure looks, it can allow people to experience what Steve Jobs was trying to tell them, that “Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.” It can move people from consumers to collaborators in an experience, and help them realize that they can take part in shaping the world the way they imagine it.

Art for research

By making art interactive and hooking it up to the internet, copious amounts of data can be gathered about how individuals and populations engage with it. By having people text from their phones or using their MBTA transit passes to activate art installations — see Culture Tap installation below), you are able to gather demographic data and link it to behavior. l This data can be used for both social science research and as evidence for pitching for future funding.

Social scientists have a need for data, but large amount of high quality data can be difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to get. Rather than making a cool piece of art and then find out how the data can be used, how might we create interactive public art that’s specifically designed to study human behavior?

A while back I came across an interesting challenge that the Office of Tourism faces: when tourists land in your country, where do they go? How do you collect the data to figure this out? This is a challenge that public art installations like Color Commons and Culture Tap can address.

Art for growth

Jason Severs, Creative Director at Frog Design, proposed this way to look at the world. Our lives used to be a constant struggle for survival. In today’s world where we are no longer concerned about survival, we spend our lives seeking new experiences to grow as individuals before our time is up.

Everything we do — in both our personal lives and our careers — are experiences that we put ourselves through to fulfill these desires for growth. Sure — we do things that serve a practical purpose, but the underlying drive for the majority of our actions is a desire for growth. With no “practical” purpose in mind, Art is a direct route to growth, which ironically is its practical purpose.

Artist William Kentridge compares the activity of mark-making on a sheet of paper with “making of a mark.” Interactive public art can allow people to grow not only as individuals, but also grow beyond our nature as individuals.

Something astonishing happens when we [make a mark]. We have a shift in something both inside and outside of the body. We have an immediate splitting of the self into two parts. There’s a sense before one makes a drawing, of ‘how do you know that you exist?’ You are aware of your body, but as soon as you leave the room, in that room there’s an absence of where you once were. There’s no trace of you having been there. One of the things that the activity of mark-making is simply the making of a mark. It gives one an external proof of existence.

It is really human nature that Bevan observed when he said “When you give people a way to express themselves, they’ll do it in a creative way, and an unexpected way.”


One of the major challenges that Bevan faced when installing public art was going that the city has set up around modifying public spaces. Putting a nut into the ground involved months of approval processes and costed thousands of dollars. To reduce the barrier of entry for other artists to install art in public places, Bevan created the Artport, a standardized mount that can be installed once in public spaces and be reused over and over for different installations. The mount provides structural support for the art piece, as well as access to power and data. Inspired by this innovation, I’m curious to see what I can find by asking this question: What other kinds of human activity burdened by high startup costs and regulatory barriers that could benefit from having a standardized “adapter”? Amazon Web Services is one.

Like what you read? Give George Wang a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.