Monday, February 1, 2010

Vision To Visuals: Walk, Don’t Walk

By Baldev Duggal Published in The Business of Photography
Vision To Visuals: Walk, Don’t Walk
Art and real estate enjoy a unique complementary relationship. The depreciation of real estate prices inevitably creates a downward demand trend for art as well. This kinship was most evident earlier in this decade, when prominent art shows in the country were overwhelmingly attended by real estate developers, and realtors began creating residential buildings designed by artists. So when the downturn in real estate began, the art industry had good reason to be concerned.

One staple sight during this real estate boom in Manhattan were construction barricades surrounding new building sites in almost all neighborhoods. Large panels of plywood wrapping whole city blocks showed digital renderings of what the building eventually would look like. At one point, there were so many of these sites that an ordinance was passed to severely limit the size of these printed sales messages, leaving empty plywood corridors in their place. The wide expanse of these empty barricades always seemed to me like a missed opportunity to utilize that space to visually communicate with a large audience.

Fortunately, not-for-profit art organizations in the city saw these construction sites as a golden opportunity to interact with the public through art installations while providing essential support to artists. The Downtown Alliance is one of my favorite such organizations and through its public art program Re:Construction identifies sites in Lower Manhattan and creates alliances between developers, curators and artists to bring the most thought-provoking art to the public. Their goal is to "recast construction sites as canvasses for innovative public art and architecture with original and whimsical design."

In January 2010, we completed the installation of one of their largest barricades on 99 Church Street, a site where Silverstein Properties is building the tallest residential building and hotel tower in the city. Silverstein is one of the most visionary developers in the city whose commitment to rebuilding Lower Manhattan is unprecedented. Having personally suffered the loss of the most prized possession in their portfolio, the WTC towers, their commitment to rebuilding Lower Manhattan is driven by personal passion.

The artist who created this barricade is Israeli-born photographer Maya Barkai. For this installation, called "Walking Men 99," Barkai joined together photographs of 99 pedestrian traffic light icons from cities around the world. These images were created with the astonishing "crowd-sourcing" potential of the web. Barkai established a website where she asked people to submit photographs of walking men all over the world and then she put them together by city. Most of us who have seen these walking signs all around in our travels and perhaps even marveled at some of the unique ones have forgotten them when we left those places. It's a wonderful treat to be reintroduced to this diversity of a familiar concept from around the world—a great way to see how far a single idea travels and unites us all. What other place than Lower Manhattan, close to the WTC, to display such a strong symbol of unity.

The curators Ayelet Daniele Aldouby and Elinor Milchan from Artea Projects organized this public installation and described the motivation behind this work: "Maya realized that not only does the symbol exist in every city, but she discovered that many of them are different. In Dresden, there's a walking girl, and in Fredericia, Denmark, a soldier. East Berlin has a little man wearing a hat. She also has images of the silhouette of Hans Christian Andersen, the traffic symbol for Odense, Denmark, and Sophie, a pony-tailed female traffic sign in Utrecht, the Netherlands."

Barkai was introduced to us through Milchan, an exceptional artist and curator, with whom we've worked for almost a decade. Barkai's installation required a printed expanse of over 500 feet, all in a photographic-quality print that would withstand the test of weather—this installation will be up for a year. Barkai worked closely with our senior art executive Marina Stark to determine how these different images were going to be printed, stitched together and installed. When the conversation first began a year ago, we were in the process of buying a wide-format printer that offers the most exceptional photographic quality for outdoor printing. Luckily, for Barkai, we bought that printer right before her project, and the results were astounding. The special challenge in printing in large format is the proper reproduction of deeply saturated and consistent black areas of a photograph. Barkai's images are all set against a stark black background, so it was critical that the printing process showed no lines or patches of different tones of gray. Our new ultrawide printer isa six-color process, which created continuous-tone photographic-quality panels of Barkai's prints, as good as art prints.

The final installation was 585 feet wide and 8 feet high, and was installed on three street blocks wrapping Church Street. We first had to do a site survey to determine the exact size of each plywood panel that was to be wrapped, and based on these measurements, work with the digital files to create separate panels, making sure that we didn't create a seam through any of the 99 figures in the installation. This prepping process required a skilled coordination between our print technicians, retouchers, installers and the artist.

Barkai's project is also a nod to the brilliant inspiration that Mayor Bloomberg has provided to artists in this city. It was in 2004, during Mayor Bloomberg's initiative to replace the standard traffic light signs with "more pedestrian-friendly" symbols, that Barkai began photographing the different representations of similar icons around the world.

For me, this "Walking Men 99" installation not only is an international celebration of one of the most familiar pedestrian icons from around the world, but a true testament to my favorite city's diversity and resilience, which casts even a downturn period into the most cheerful and inspiring interaction platforms with a unique New York style.

When I asked Barkai about her experience working with my team, she made me immensely proud by saying, "Duggal brought my vision to life on the printed vinyl. I worked closely with Marina Stark, who was dedicated to the project in any way imaginable, hustling days and nights, always making herself available. 'Walking Men 99,' a site-specific public installation, required the skillful hand of Duggal's staff, from printers to installers, who all did above and beyond to ensure that the final result would match my expectations."

Baldev Duggal, president and founder of Duggal, has been innovating visual solutions for image-makers for more than 40 years. Credited with building and designing the industry's first dip-and-dunk processing machine, Duggal has maintained his status as a leader in the imaging business and is heralded for outstanding service by consumer and trade magazines alike. With digital capabilities reaching worldwide, his headquarters covers a block on West 23rd Street in New York City.
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