At a Highlandtown art unveiling last weekend, far from the crowds of Artscape, an artist from Madrid gave the best two-word description of Baltimore we’ve ever heard.
“It’s very rough-cut,” he said, noting the apparent realities of the city, and the openness and friendliness of its inhabitants.
Now if we could only get “rough-cut” stenciled onto all of the benches, the city would have a tagline both complimentary and realistic.
The description came from Alberto Alarcón, one of a four-person, Madrid-based artist-collective, hired to liven up the bus stop at Eastern and East, next to the Creative Alliance.
The collective, named “mmmm…”–which includes Alarcón, his brother Emilio Alarcón, and brother and sister Ciro Márquez and Eva Salmerón–came up with a whimsical, interactive design that is at the same time clean, modern, and rock-solid.
The giant steel-and-wood rendering of the word “BUS,” in block capitals, allows bus riders shelter from inclement weather while encouraging interpersonal interaction. It’s hard not to sit (or recline) in the bottom of the letters without getting a little closer to whoever else is waiting for the bus.
“This place makes you meet the people who are waiting with you,” explained Salmerón. “We wanted to make a fun place for waiting; normally the waiting is very annoying.”
The sculpture was funded through an ArtPlace America grant, with additional funding from EUNIC, a European Union organization. The Baltimore Office for Promotion and the Arts applied for the grant, which it administered through the Southeast Community Development Corp. The Southeast CDC and the Creative Alliance co-wrote the call for proposals for the bus stop project, which was advertised to artists throughout the EU.
The Goethe-Institut–a German organization with an international presence which encourages cultural exchange–provided the matchmaking.
“It was really a question of building a trans-Atlantic relationship for artists, which rarely happens, I have to say,” said Wilfried Eckstein, director of the Washington, D.C., branch of the Goethe-Institut.
Eckstein said that the exchange between Baltimore and Madrid provided two cities with similar “post-industrial” issues the chance to learn from each other.
He added that the project went smoothly, “thanks to Chris Ryer (president of the Southeast CDC), who from the start had a clear idea that he wanted something ‘done.'”
Eckstein hit the sculpture with the side of his fist as he said the word “done.”
Done it was, apparently well-within time and budget constraints, according to Kyle Miller, a local metal artist who, with fellow metal artist Tim Scofield, did the grunt work for the sculpture.
“It was incredible,” said Miller. “We were on the same page the whole time.”
The unveiling ceremony included a reception at the Marquee Lounge in which the members of mmmm… were invited to explain their work.
Márquez noted that it didn’t require too much explanation.
“Artists like to explain their work, but this is a piece of work very, very easy to understand,” he said, eliciting laughter.
“Our work is based on participation,” he continued. “People are going to use it, and people are going to invent their way to use it…Maybe this bus stop will become a small landmark in the community.”
Márquez and his fellow artists noted the friendliness of passers-by.
“We feel that everybody who came by had a nice word, a funny joke, or a spontaneous question,” Márquez said. “Almost nobody asked, ‘What is this?’ because this is very obvious.”
The collective received a large amount of media attention for its “Meeting Bowls,” a 2011 interactive installation in Times Square.
“We love Baltimore,” commented Márquez. “When we were in New York three years ago, we didn’t meet any New Yorkers, but here everybody who was working with us invited us into their houses and invited us to their parties. We met their families, their friends. Thank you so much for being so welcoming.”
Ryer noted the historical significance of the project, with a bit of irony.
“I’m glad we thanked the folks from the EU,” he said. “This neighborhood was settled by people from many different countries in Europe.”
Ryer noted that today’s Highlandtown, “for the first time in the life of this neighborhood,” is settled by people who didn’t grow up there. The overall goal of the place-making, he said, is to help them identify with the neighborhood.
Gina Caruso, managing director of the Creative Alliance, said that the sculpture is a perfect fit for her organization.
“We chose mmmm… because they’re community oriented,” she said. “Their project in Times Square and their projects in Spain were all interactive and all fun, which are the core values of the Creative Alliance.”
She added that, as in most Creative Alliance endeavors, collaboration was key,
“Everybody who did some part of it gave 100 percent or more–that’s why it came out as it did.”
by Erik Zygmont