Friday, August 08, 2014

On TV / Electro Umbilico

Today's adventure takes us to the corner of NE MLK and Graham St., Atop one of the buildings is a stainless steel frame that sort of resembles a TV screen, with a disembodied head (or maybe an Earth) floating in the picture. A big steel power cord coils its way along the side of the building. This building is home to Portland Community Media, the nonprofit in charge of our local public cable access channels, and the TV-like thingy is today's public art object.

The TV sculpture is titled either On TV or On the Air. Its Smithsonian art database entry gives a date of 1985-86, and claims "This is the first sculpture funded through Portland's Percent For Art Program."

Rooftop sculpture of an oblong box television with a revolving globe placed where the screen should be. The television sits on a fabricated carpet or table cloth whose corner drapes over the building. The set has an antenna, an electrical cord and a fishbowl on top.
Funded with a National Endowment for the Arts, Art in Public Places grant of $5,000 given in 1987 to Portland Cable Acess TV. Additional funding was provided by Portland's Metropolitan Arts Commission and the Oregon Arts Commission. This is the first sculpture funded through Portland's Percent For Art Program. According to the attached article from the Oregonian, the site address is 2766 N.E. Union Avenue. The sculpture is attached to the building, and the artist used the building's walls for portions of the work.
Don Merkt, the sculptor, also created Driver's Seat, on the transit mall near Union Station, and Water, Please at a city office next to Cathedral Park. Other works not visited by this humble blog include several indoor sculptures at City Hall and the local state office building, a giant urn structure in Culver City, CA, and a baseball-themed sculpture in Dublin Ireland. He also created a cool (but unbuilt, as far as I know) concept for Broadway Bridge lighting. I think we ought to build this, if only because Portland currently has zero laser-armed bridges.

It turns out the electrical cord is a later addition, added during remodeling in 2004. It was created by Portland's Blashfield Studio, and goes by the title Electro Umbilico. The website describes it:

A sweeping exterior redesign of the Portland Community Media building as part of the facility's new identity. An 80 foot aluminum umbilical cord droops languidly across the side of the building, seeming to connect the existing Don Merkt sculpture (an abstract TV set) with a huge abstract plug shape above the newly designed entryway facade.

The TV dates to the era when some people still thought cable TV might change the world for the better somehow. Or at least locally produced cable might have a crack at it. It was the era when MTV still showed music videos, TLC had educational programs, CNN had news, Max Headroom was a pop culture icon, and (in theory) anyone could create their own cheesy cable access show, a la Wayne's World, or I suppose the original MST3K. I mean, I certainly wouldn't trade the modern internet for that imagined TV utopia, but it seemed like an inspiring vision at the time.

I honestly couldn't tell you what the future holds for the public access TV model. There are still no HD public access channels in Portland, and I haven't heard of any proposals to create them. The proposal that would bring Google Fiber to Portland is said not to include any subscriber fees to support cable access channels. Which makes sense in a way, since Google Fiber is promoted as a broadband Internet service, not a competing cable TV provider, though it can certainly act as one. A news account I saw indicated that the Google deal might give Comcast some leverage to weasel out of cable access fees too, which I think would essentially defund the current system.

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