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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Now the giant faces really are watching

Critics say Millennium Park cameras are a blight
By James Janega
Tribune staff reporter

Published December 19, 2006

What strikes you about Jaume Plensa's twin glass towers at Millennium Park are the faces, as big as JumboTrons, that appear to be looking at you.

And since late November, they actually have been.

A $52 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security bought the Chicago area a host of public safety improvements--including an obvious and ungainly camera atop each of Plensa's giant glass towers.

The city that put cameras in crime-ridden areas and at intersections to catch red light scofflaws has planted them atop Crown Fountain, one of its most prominent pieces of public art.

They are partly to keep tabs on burnt-out lights, park officials say. But the cameras are largely for security reasons, and art lovers don't like it.

"Oh my God, look at that. Not very pretty," said Paul Gray, a director at the Richard Gray Gallery in Chicago who has worked with Plensa on other exhibitions, as he looked at a photograph of the cameras online.

"It looks like a Martian sitting there with a little antenna on his head," said art and architecture enthusiast Mike Doyle, whose partner took the photograph.

"It is a temporary fix, so we can get a permanent solution installed next summer," said Ed Uhlir, Millennium Park executive director.

"But it is ugly," he agreed.

A permanent camera will go on a pole west of the fountains next summer, roughly where speed chess players set up their table on the sidewalk at Monroe Street and Michigan Avenue, said Millennium Park spokeswoman Karen Ryan.

Critics say the temporary ones cannot be temporary enough. "That is one of those `What were they thinking?' kind of moments," said James Yood, professor of art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

"This changes the whole idea of the sculpture, which is that these are our brethren," Yood said. "Now instead of looking at us, they're surveilling us, which I think is not exactly the artist's intention."

The cameras have created a stir since being installed around Thanksgiving, with versions of the following scene playing out downtown:

"We were walking down Monroe towards Michigan Avenue to go for a walk in the park. Then we got to the corner and noticed it," said Devyn Caldwell, a Loop resident and architecture photo blogger.

Next to him, Doyle looked up and saw it too.

"The first thing I see is these little black things sticking out," said Doyle, also a blogger. Their Sunday walk screeched to a halt as they stared. "I said `What in the world is tha--?' But as soon as the question was out, we knew right away."

Chicago is dotted with cameras. They roll near public housing complexes and videotape dangerous intersections around the city.

Mayor Richard Daley announced in October that he wants to add 100 police cameras to high-crime streets, expanding a camera system the city credits with 30 percent drops in local crime. There are already 200 cameras on the street, many with large, blinking blue lights.

The cameras at Millennium Park are almost as obvious but at least do not blink. And they haven't recorded anything unusual yet, said Ryan.

Though they will be relocated, setting them up on the sculpture was easier than putting in a new pole for them, she explained.

"This was a way to get them up there," she said.

Plensa, who is in Spain, could not be reached for comment Monday. Uhlir said Millennium Park cleared the cameras' addition with the architects who worked with Plensa on installing the fountain. The final cameras, assured Uhlir, "will be much less intrusive."


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and later today....

Millennium Park cameras removed after outcry

By James Janega
Tribune staff reporter
Published December 19, 2006, 12:24 PM CST


Millennium Park officials early today took down a pair of security cameras atop Jaume Plensa's glass-block video fountains, removing what art aficionados decried as intrusions in a prominent piece of downtown public art after the Chicago Tribune wrote about their concerns.

"When we found out there were so many people who found it more obtrusive than we expected, we took them down," said park spokeswoman Karen Ryan.

The cameras were installed as part of a $52 million Department of Homeland Security grant to the Chicago area, and the cameras atop the Plensa-designed Crown Fountain were only two out of about 10 in Millennium Park alone, city officials said.

But their location irked the artistically-minded, and bloggers began writing about and posting pictures of them online over the weekend.

The Tribune was the first to mention the aesthetic concerns to park managers, Ryan said. "Then we looked around for it (criticism) and we found it, found the blogs."

Plensa, reached in Spain by Chicago gallery contact Paul Gray, was relieved they were taken down, Gray said.

"He's happy that they've decided to seek a better long-term solution — and he understands the need for security in a public space," Gray said. "He and I have both worked in the public space a lot, and are aware that when you put art in a public space, it does belong to the public. You hope the city will be respectful."

The city was, he added. The problem was not with cameras per se, only with where they were located.

"People have to know that they're there to be useful, but that doesn't mean it needs to be on the nose of a sculpture," Gray said.

Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune


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