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Silicon Alleys - Gary Singh

Silicon Alleys

Agents of Change

By Gary Singh

SAN JOSE has a long history of public art fiascoes, and many folks are skeptical whenever a new project emerges, but here's one that will strike a chord with a wide variety of people and it's so Silicon Valley that even the nontechnologically inclined just might dig the goods. It's called the San Jose Climate Clock Project—a major public artwork that will use information and measurement technologies to gather and display massive amounts of complex climate change data—including CO2 emissions, water levels and gas consumption—for 100 years, to help folks change the way their behavior affects the earth's climate down the road.

The artwork will be located somewhere in downtown San Jose and will be a collaboration between a team of artists, scientists and network engineers who work with data visualization and climate measurement. Prospective teams will put together their proposals and present them for public display during this year's biennial ZeroOne Festival of Global Art on the Edge in June. Three finalist teams will then be awarded residencies at the CADRE Lab for New Media at SJSU for the 2008/09 academic year to develop their proposals. In July of 2009, the winning team will be announced, the contract will be awarded and the final project will be unveiled during the 2010 ZeroOne festival—the point being that the collaborative process of how the whole project comes together is as equally a part of the art as the final outcome is.

Since the project relies on a unique pool of talent that exists only in Silicon Valley, San Jose will host the first such climate clock and the idea behind the project is to establish a global program that will encourage the installation of several similar art clocks in cities throughout the world—climate change being a global issue, of course. Sustainability and clean tech appear to be part of the next wave of technological innovation, and Silicon Valley again should lead the way.

If San Jose really wants to be the capital of Silicon Valley, this is precisely the type of public art project that it should have been involved with all along. It will bring together media artists, climatologists, statisticians, programmers, industrial fabricators and who knows who else—a truly interdisciplinary collaborative project, which is what Silicon Valley is supposed to be about. So no more embarrassing poop statues and no more of those hideous specters of schlock on Fifth Street that look like rejects from the kids' playground at Burger King.

But wait, I hear the old-timers howl. What about when this was the Valley of Heart's Delight? Why don't we have public art that references San Jose history before Silicon Valley?

Well, here's the answer: The prospectus for the Climate Clock rightly cites another landmark public art project, the San Jose Electric Light Tower, as a historical precedent. You see, way back in 1881, a tall pyramid-shaped light tower was installed at the corner of Market and Santa Clara Streets. It rose from the four corners of the intersection and stretched to the sky. You can see a replica at Kelley Park. The tower was designed to showcase San Jose as the first city west of the Mississippi to have electricity and to help inspire the spread of electricity throughout the city.

The entire process of creating the tower—from conception through design, fabrication, production and display—conveyed its message. It was a showcase of new technology for the public good and a catalyzing symbol of the town as it was then, just as the climate clock aims to be for the 21st century and beyond. Even better, the prospectus cites former Metro columnist Eric Carlson's Notes from the Underbelly as a source of info on the Light Tower. Yeah! Even though the project soaks in high tech, it acknowledges the underbelly. San Jose should be proud of such an endeavor.

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