Public Exposure

Portland artist and filmmaker Rose Bond is rethinking what public art means

An installation by Rose Bond on a building in the United Kingdom.
An installation by Rose Bond on a building in the United Kingdom.

If the Ridpath Hotel could talk, imagine the stories it would tell: of massive fires, of Elvis Presley, of debauchery and loss. Or the Spokane County Courthouse: it would tell tales of public hangings, stories of love and death and tragedy. They're histories most will never know, buildings that are only recognized for what they are right now. The Ridpath is decrepit. The Courthouse is where you go to pay parking tickets.

That's what Rose Bond, a Portland animation artist, was thinking when she had the idea to project her films in the windows of old buildings. Not through them, mind you. But into them: the windows serving as tiny, individual movie screens, almost as if the building were broadcasting its thoughts to anyone who happened to look up.

Bond, who had been making animations and films for years, held her first building installation in 2002 in Portland's historic Seamen's Bethel Building "at the request of someone who wanted to bring to life the stories of this building," she says. "She felt that the story really wasn't being told, and more than that, probably manipulated for city commercial reasons — that the real story was in the names and the historic record."

And so Bond researched what made the building special, then created one 12-minute film split over several screens to tell its story: one of sailors, Japantown, Chinatown and derelicts.

It didn't take long for Bond to realize that she had truly stumbled upon something big.

"We were doing a tech check. It got dark, we turned on the projectors inside, and I went out. And there were my images in the windows of this building moving," she says. "When you edit, you see the material. I saw them a million times. And when I stood on the street, there was this sensation that it wasn't really mine anymore. That it was emanating from the building."

She was hooked and started doing building installations around the world: from Portland to Toronto, across the pond to a castle in England and a city hall building in Holland. Through her multi-screen films, horses would gallop across the windows, birds would fly. Old buildings would suddenly spring to life.

What she didn't realize until that first building installation was that the idea of buildings telling their own stories could change the entire concept of public art. Much like the buildings she was using as her medium, works of public art — such as sculptures and fountains — are passed by unnoticed every day. But by manipulating those canvases that everyone is so used to seeing with her animated images, Bond realized she might be able to command the attention of those people who wouldn't usually stop to look.

"What I see when people are on the street and these windows are lighting up, they really can't see everything that's going on. They can't take it all in," she says. " And so their heads are moving, they're talking to each other. They say 'Oh! I get this! I get how this is linked to that.' I think it's kind of an active viewing. They're standing up, they're free to move.

"It becomes a little bit more of a communal experience."

People gather in crowds to look at what's happening, pulling out cellphone cameras to document the experience and share it with their friends on Facebook and Instagram. And that's what Bond loves: That people are not only seeing art, but they're having a shared experience with the people around them.

"It's a public experience. It's like who sees my work is a mix of people. Sometimes it's people who've heard about the art event, sometimes it's people who live in that neighborhood, sometimes it's people going out to dinner," Bond says. "It's bringing those people together and they take it in, they do videos on their cellphones. They talk, they look. I think for a lot of people... especially if they encounter this, they're like 'Whoa, I go past this building every day. I didn't notice this.'" ♦

Rose Bond's Poetics & Public Projection: Layered History - Redrawn Memory • On display through Feb. 7, 2014 • Whitworth University, Bryan Oliver Gallery • 300 W. Hawthorne Rd. • Open Mon-Fri, 10 am-6 pm; Sat, 10 am-2 pm (Gallery closed Dec. 18-Jan. 5, Jan. 18-20 • • 777-3258