Philadelphia building flashes time, temp, and works of art

Posted: September 23, 2011

About 10 the other night, Chris McManus and Tim Wingert were hanging around the Walnut Street Bridge, staring at the top of the Peco building at 23d and Market Streets. A bridge away, on Market, James Simpson was doing the same thing.

Up there, where ribbons of community-service text are the usual fare, were videos these three artists had created - newly liberated from their computers to become part of Peco's five-month "Art in the Air" exhibition, which employs the iconic crown lights atop its building.

Wingert's The Green and Growing City put an insouciant ring of animated birds, leaves, and general organic fecundity. McManus' Cool Waves crackled cyan and magenta, giving a funkified Sorcerer's Apprentice energy to the building's edges. Simpson's Dancers, originally filmed at street level on Market, now did a break dance through cutout animation 27 stories above it.

The three artists rode around by bike and car, marveling at the way the Peco setting cast their art starkly into the middle of a city, the middle of a night, the edge of a traffic jam (which, as the eastbound Schuylkill slows approaching 30th Street, might be the best vantage point of all).

"You think about Web traffic, traffic to your site," mused Wingert, 34, a video editor and technician from West Chester, his enthusiasm for this odd and exhilarating canvas fairly popping out of his red hoodie. "Here, it's literally traffic that is your main audience. Traffic on the road. Whoever's coming into Philly is your main audience."

The videos were visible from the Linc, the Walt Whitman Bridge, the Art Museum gazebo, Lemon Hill in Fairmount Park, the zoo, the expressway. They were visible to IRS night-shift auditors on smoking breaks outside their 30th Street building.

And they reflected, on this still night, seamlessly in the Schuylkill below.

"I moved around a few places," said McManus, 33, a teacher of animation at Moore College of Art and Design who bicycled to the bridge with his wife, Jessica Chiu.

"I wanted to see it in the context of the city skyline. I could see that from the new South Street Bridge pretty well. I went to the Walnut Street Bridge, watched from West Philly, by the train station. I rode my bike all around to see it from so many places. It's neat to see your work displayed like that."

 The videos, displayed each Friday, are the first selected for "Art in the Air," a collaborative effort by Peco, which recently converted the crown lights to video-friendly color LEDs, and Breadboard, a University City Science Center group that looks for the intersections of art and technology.

"For a long time, it was really just a message board," David Clayton, curator of Breadboard, said of the Peco lights. "Now, with the new display, it takes an artist to realize the full potential."

New videos will be selected each month through December, with the three best - selected by Peco and Breadboard - to replay in January for a $1,000 first prize.

The cycle - along with Peco's usual time, weather, and public-service message - repeats about every eight minutes between 7 p.m. and midnight. "It's a bit of a chance encounter," Clayton said. "We like the idea that there is the surprise factor from what people are used to seeing."

Peco estimates that in an evening, 100,000 people will see any one message.

The crown lights underwent their makeover in 2009, leading to the state-of-the-art display that caught the attention of video artists in the city. The "aspect ratio" of the video screen - one screen wraps around two sides in an L-shape, with east and south one screen, west and north another - is pretty mind-blowing.

"The dimensions are 2,224 by 360," Wingert said. "It's a weird aspect ratio. This is a superwide screen. You have to think outside the box."

McManus imagined a flickering, energetic, wavelike fusion of his favorite colors flickering blue flames atop the building.

"I think most electronic-media artists struggle with how to show work in gallery spaces," McManus said. "YouTube and home viewing are shifting the way we're consuming media more toward private viewing. I think the Peco building is a really great opportunity for public viewing."

That said, for the first two Fridays, he watched the video alone on his bike.

Wingert said he wanted to create something that would be interesting to see on top of a building, not just visual effects. "Something organic, fire, smoke or explosions - but that might be weird."

Instead, he went more Garden of Eden, with a video of "things growing out of the top of the building, tree leaves, flowers, and vines.

"It's cool to see them slithering across the industrial sky," he said.

As he watched from the Walnut Street Bridge, he realize that angle showed a split screen - the beginning of his video and the end, but not continuous. He was already dreaming up another submission, to take more deliberate advantage of the right angle in the screen and the odd and partial views. The LED lights also have two-foot gaps.

Chiu thought the split screen added another dimension. "It makes it more dynamic," she said.

Added McManus, "If it looped [completely] around, everybody would be making worms or snakes."

"I knew there was an angle there," Wingert said. "One of the flowers is around the corner. I tried to place that where it would work with the edge. It was fun to look at this canvas and try to figure out what will work."

Simpson, 21, a student at the University of the Arts, was the only one whose video had been made without the building in mind, and the only one to use non-animated footage. The original has music, but Simpson said he liked the new incarnation, with the street as soundtrack.

"That's a venue you'll never be able to get, with that many people who won't have a choice but to see it," he said.

And after seeing the video himself, he said it was "actually more readable" than he thought it might be, with the final scene working best as it focused in on the dancers' feet.

"A reasonable amount of the content was still intact," he said in an e-mail later. "If all else fails, the colors and rapid shifts between each frame were interesting."

He added: "The most incredible part for me was just watching something that I pieced together in my makeshift home studio be on display in such a massive way."

Watch some of this month's PECO 'Art in the Air' video at



Contact staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg at 215-854-2681 or at and on twitter @amysrosenberg.


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