Artist, curator and visual anthropologist Nancy Ann Coyne
recently created “Speaking
of Home,” a public art and environmental design project charged
with re-imagining the use and experience of the Twin Cities skyway
system—the most expansive one in North America—beyond a utilitarian
above-ground pedestrian thoroughfare. Three years in the making,
the 150-ft. pilot project employed the busiest of Minneapolis's
seven-mile network, at the heart of the city's financial and retail
center, to create a site of contemplation and discussion on the
diversity of Minnesota today and to explore the identity of place.
Children in the public school system speak some 120 languages—an
internationality one would usually associate with coastal cities
such as New York or Los Angeles—so the skyway became an apt venue
for bridging these disparate cultures. Coinciding with the state's
150th anniversary, or sesquicentennial, “Speaking of Home”
showcased the stories of 23 new Americans, as depicted through
13-by-10-ft. portraits printed on sheer white fabric, each
pronouncing their countries of origin, with text panels of each
subject's definition of home—as well as the word for 'home'
displayed in each native language—all along the corridors of the
IDS/Macy's Skyway. Although they came down in mid-November, we
asked Coyne to discuss the lasting ramifications of the
Skyway exterior view of a childhood portrait of Lobsang Dorjee,
in 1986. Today he is a teacher in Minneapolis, home to the second
largest population of Tibetans in the U.S. (photo: George Heinrich
Heller: You were responsible for transforming one of
Minneapolis's signature skyways into a temporary work of public
art, for the first time in the city's history. Along with Twin
Cities firms HartungKemp
(graphic design) and Larsen
(environmental design), you made the most prominent of these
utilitarian walkways into a 150-ft. journey into a celebration of
Minnesota's expanding immigrant population. How did this come
Coyne: Growing up near New York City and never having
experienced a skyway system, I was intrigued by their futuristic
appeal—like a Fritz Lang film, transporting pedestrians above
street-level—as well as pervasiveness upon my arrival in the Twin
Cities. I was further engaged that the seven miles of architecture
provided pedestrians little other experience beyond a place to get
from A to B: an institutionalized walkway connecting the public to
either their workplace or a consumer experience.
Later, in 2005, some years after my arrival—and imagining in my
own mind how they could be redesigned—I received an R+D grant from
Forecast Public Art,
a Twin Cities arts organization, to explore how one might use the
skyway for public art. I remembered my own surprise when learning
of the state's diversity as represented by the languages spoken by
children in the public school system. So, I became increasingly
interested in developing a project for the skyway that explored the
idea of home for new Americans in relationship to the power of
place and how affordable housing helps root new Americans as they
begin their new life in the U.S. This led to an active partnership
with the Twin Cities human service organization the Family Housing Fund on the project's
development and implementation.
Heller: What was the goal of taking semi-translucent
photographs, printed on fabric, constructed from 23
larger-than-life portraits and family photographs, and putting them
on display in such a well-traversed venue?
Coyne: The goal was twofold: the project's materials and
overall design endeavored to create a place for new Americans'
voices and histories—often overlooked and marginalized in greater
society—at the central node of power, namely, the center of
Minneapolis's commerce and retail. The latter challenge surrounded
how to humanize a utilitarian space and expand how audiences
I chose to construct the project using photographs printed on
scrim fabric through dye-sublimation printing (thank you, Portland Color). This design
choice enabled me to reference the dynamic character of the city's
public history. Seen from the street level, the images appear—based
on daylight and the time of the day—either opaque, as single
histories or due to their translucency, merge with each other, as
representing a shared identity of a city. In addition, its design
enabled the project to cast the audience, both at the street and
skyway level, as part of the piece, alluding to the ever-evolving
story of immigration in American society, whether four generation
ago or now.
Twenty-three citizens participated and shared their family
photographs from their country of origin, their personal artifacts
of memory and culture, for the project.
A view of the skyway installation as experienced by pedestrians
both on the street and above. (photo: George Heinrich
Heller: You say that the project enabled skyway users to
experience the city and its citizens through its newcomers' eyes as
the faces gaze out over the city while behind them a constant
parade of skyway pedestrians intermingle with each. What is the
single most important result of this display? Was there a
consequence that you hoped for or didn't know you would
Coyne: Well, in terms of urban design, skyways, in their
national context, have often, in recent years, been criticized by
urban planners and public space advocates as 1960s urban planning
gone awry. Critics
say skyways systems are too sterile and restrictive and have
transformed cities into places to pass through, not live in. But
the reality is, it is too costly and impractical to dismantle them.
In Minneapolis, the skyway system was established in 1962, however,
they remain fully underutilized beyond their use for
transportation. The hope with “Speaking of Home,” it provides an
innovative model in which to rethink how cities and urban planners
might expand and mine their use for temporary public art and civic
A portrait of Mexican-born muralist Gustavo Lira, taken in 1995
before emigrating to Minneapolis. (photo: George Heinrich
From the perspective of social justice, its design symbolically
inverted the relationship between the city's native-born citizens
and more recent arrivals here, as it situates the immigrants as
stationary onlookers, as the locals pass by and move through the
city in transit. During its entire history, Minnesota has been home
to a substantial immigrant population and has served as a safe
haven for refugees. Today, the United State's largest Somali and
Hmong population lives in Minnesota. However, although Minnesota is
a gateway state, historically, recent immigrants continue to face
overt and subtle discrimination. The hope is to sensitize the
general population to both their own immigrant roots and the
difficulties new immigrants face today.
Heller: Did you meet with any resistance—political or
otherwise—in making this happen?
Coyne: The use of the skyway had to be vetted by four
city entities and the building management; skyways in Minneapolis
are privately owned but city-governed. So there were multiple
layers of approval. I wouldn't say there was direct resistance but
as the skyway was being used for the first time, there were
questions surrounding precedent being set. In the latter part of
the project's development, I requested to allow text to be
installed on the outside of the bridge but since it was not in the
initial design that had been approved, the request was denied.
Another issue arose due to the security issues surrounding the
Republic National Convention. Although the project's design had
been—months before— pre-approved, at the 11th hour the building
management requested the redesign of a key design element. Two
weeks before the install! So, there was a bit of rolling with the
punches. But by and large there was an openness to the idea.
A portrait of Elsa Mekuria (left), taken with her sister-in-law
in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia, in 2001. (photo: George Heinrich
Heller: So, what has been the popular response?
Coyne: When I was on-site documenting or surveying the
piece, people would often come up to me and inquire about it, talk
about what it means to them, and then thank me. We also conducted
an audience survey through which to develop an impact study for
evaluation purposes. This will be an important tool to really gauge
the popular response.
However, I did get two calls from people: one nerved by what he
interpreted as my obvious “pro-immigrant agenda,” and the other, an
Ethiopian immigrant who didn't believe I was representing her
culture properly because the subjects were not wearing traditional
cultural dress and showed two women in tank tops and in an
Heller: What does “Speaking of Home” say about public art
installations? Is there a broader message or lesson that goes
beyond this initial event, which has been?
Coyne: Public art is a broad field that runs the gamut
from the monumental bronze memorial and other plop art to more
interpretive or interactive pieces that emotionally affect
audiences while broadening the experience of the built
environment—such as Maya Lin or Krzysztof Wodiczko's work.
“Speaking of Home” was an insertion, an intervention, into what
otherwise is a purely retail/office environment designed for work
and consumption. As a colleague pointed out, the project unfolded
like a thought process in space.
American cities and towns are increasingly interested in
creating places that imbue a sense of shared identity and public
history or create an experience for its citizens. The broader
message or question: in what ways can public art and environmental
design transform civic, utilitarian architecture and built
environments into places of meaning, intimacy and emotional
connection for the public through the power of design.
Interior view of skyway pedestrians passing by and stopping to
appreciate the installation. (photo: Mike Rebholz)
Heller: This installation coincided with a symposium on
democracy and public art organized by the Institute for Advanced Study at the
University of Minnesota. Can a project of this dimension
effectively raise the consciousness of passersby? Or is it more or
less wallpaper in the scheme of mass education?
Coyne: Due to the project's installation in a retail
environment, there are obvious challenges to the question of
effectiveness. Certainly, there is also the pitfall of a piece
being viewed as wallpaper—or an act of didactic tokenism. But based
on site interviewing, both long-time residents and newcomers
expressed how it made an imprint on their thinking and facilitated
a better understanding of and connection to the Twin Cities as a
place and the identity of its residents.
I think the key is to design an experience that draws audiences
in by creating an opportunity for emotional connections—in this
case, through personal photographs and thoughts—in a prototypical
public space. It will be interesting to see and hear how the public
responds to, experiences and perceives the skyways now that the
artwork is de-installed.
What language are you? Ralph Caplan considers how languages—within design disciplines and among cultural groups—can unite and divide.
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