Bridget Quinn On Pay Phones, Open Spaces & Urban Renewal
By Katie Inglis
I got in touch with Bridget Quinn, a sculptor of whimsical things and painter of beautiful scenes, to talk about the next chapter of her ongoing installation, the Pay Phone Revival Project, which is kicking off this weekend!
[KI] So tell me about the project you’re working on.
[BQ] The Pay Phone Revival Project reanimates abandoned pay phone booths by commissioning artists and designers to use them as the epicenter for creative interventions in the urban landscape. The resulting installations transform abandoned pay phone booths into objects that inspire play and interaction, create a new function, or tell a story.
Where the idea came from?
I have always loved pay phones. I began photographing them about 4 years ago for a school project. I was particularly interested in the way the photographs captured the sometimes awkward placement of pay phones relative to their surroundings. Some of these photographs highlighted some pretty poignant and humorous expressions of our need to be connected to each other.
As time progressed I began noticing more and more pay phone booths without phones in them. Many pay phone companies would de-install the phone and just leave the booth. For some reason these empty pay phone booths seemed invisible to everyone else. Business owners wouldn’t even be aware that there was an empty pay phone booth outside of their business. I tend to anthropomorphize objects, so I started to see them as sad little ghosts of a phased out technology. They looked like little empty frames. The phone booths needed a new function, a new reason to exist! Ideas flooded into me, so – that’s when I realized I needed to bring other artists and designers into the process of reclaiming and re-purposing these forgotten objects.
What inspired you to create this opportunity for very public interactive experiences?
I made the decision to encourage interactive art and design interventions because most public art opportunities are very conservative. Most entities that commission public art expect the artworks to last forever and to be graffiti-proof. This requirement is extremely limiting. I wanted to encourage artists and designers to innovate and experiment. I want artists and designers to think about creating new functions for these abandoned objects that suggest a level of interactivity.
About half of the installations are interactive. The artworks that are not intentionally interactive are still responsive to their environment and tell some sort of story about their context. It was my hope to support very diverse approaches to art-making, hence the range of materials, concepts and aesthetics.
What kinds of interactions and experiences are you hoping the Pay Phones will generate with people in the community?
At a minimum I hope that the installations will cause people to look more closely at their environment. I want people to re-engage with their everyday surroundings. Oftentimes we take our landscape for granted…we see it as something static and unchanging, when in reality it is a complex and evolving – or, at times, devolving – ecosystem with all sorts of narratives embedded within the structures, both natural and man made.
The best possible scenario is that the installations will cause pedestrians to interact with each other. I hope the artworks will spark conversations and interactions between pedestrians.
I’m really into a growing trend in public art that has been called “tactical urbanism”. This entails the creation of small interventions serve the larger purpose of making cities more livable and humane.
It sounds like you guys are using some new electronic gadgets to make these mini play-spaces really unique and even working! What kinds of challenges have you and the artists experienced in making this work?
Three of the installations incorporate electronics, but most of them are actually really straight forward. Overall, most of the artists whose work incorporates electronics collaborated with experts to help them realize their visions.
Kate Watson and Gabriella Levine’s piece incorporates Arduino components. Arduino is a pretty exciting product that makes creating electronic interactives much more accessible to DIY makers and artists. This piece is already installed at the Longbranch Inn if you want to check it out. Beth Ferguson of Sol Deign Lab worked with a solar electrician to help her design the solar charging station.
Generally interactive artworks that incorporate electronics are much more expensive, so I would like to continue to grow my project budgets to foster more of this kind of work in the future, thus allowing for more complexity and innovation.
How will this project continue to improve the Austin urban landscape after the installations have been completed?
Most of the artworks are temporary. This was a very conscious decision on my part – permanent artworks can become irrelevant to the people who use the space. Also Because the landscape changes overtime, the artworks should grow and evolve with these spaces. I’m not arguing against permanent public art – there is an important role for permanent artwork in public spaces. I am more drawn to temporary and ephemeral public art because it is better suited to deal with controversial issues and changing spaces – it feels more democratic, more responsive and less arrogant.
I hope that these interactions will encourage ordinary citizens to feel connected to our shared spaces, and feel empowered to make positive interventions of their own. Or at least think about the public spaces as places rather than just space between destinations.
That being said, I would love to have a more persistent and enduring effect on the landscape of Austin by working with the vast creative community here. I will continue to produce projects like the pay phone revival project, and look at other successful models that inspire me to help me grow and evolve my projects.
Is there anything else you want to tell the world about the Pay Phone Revival Project?
This project was made possible because of the generous support of over 120 people and organizations and the artists have all been really generous with their time and talents. I will continue to advocate for and facilitate more of this kind of work, and I am so grateful for such a supportive community!
I can’t wait to see them in action! When does everything begin?
The installations will be going up this week! We have teamed up with the Fusebox Festival for an opening Bike Tour of all of the art installations! It’ free and open to the public! The bike tour will lead you on a meandering route through central Austin, past all 9 of the brand new Pay Phone Revival Project art installations. The ride will last between one and a half and two hours.
The tours begin at El Chilito (2219 Manor Rd) on April 28th at 11am and on April 29th at 4pm, and end at The Tops Building (1100 East 5th). You can also take the tour on your own and a map can be found here.
For more information about the participating artists and locations check out the Kickstarter campaign!
So many thanks to Bridget for her contribution to making Austin a more creative city and a better place to live, work and travel! We can’t wait to see what the next round of Pay Phone Revival brings…