I’ve been told, so I’m waiting for it.
As the streetcar crosses the Main Street Bridge, heading south out of the River Market toward the Central Business District, the long view of cars streaming below on I-70 is suddenly obscured and a two-dimensional human figure appears to be dancing exuberantly just outside the window.
Short gasps and long oooooohs erupt inside the compartment. Riders, interrupted.
“It happens every time,” said Donna Mandelbaum, spokesperson for Kansas City Streetcar Authority. “It’s fantastic.”
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The animated dancer is part of “Life Turning” by local artist Lauren Thompson. It is one of six temporary installations that make up Art on the Line.
Art on the Line, an expansion of Art in the Loop, is like a progressive dinner for art lovers — a feast of contemporary works that can be viewed in air-conditioned comfort from inside the streetcar as it loops from City Market to Union Station.
But you’ll have to hurry if you want to partake: The artworks come down at the end of September.
And while you’re downtown, you can check out more of the expanded Art in the Loop offerings: temporary installations and performances at Ilus Davis Park, 11th and Oak streets, and Oppenheimer Park, 12th and Walnut streets.
Artists were chosen in a competitive process earlier in the year. This is the first year for Art on the Line but Mandelbaum said it will continue next year, with the installation going up in late spring.
Even though the streetcar authority had a lot of questions related to installation and safety during the selection process, it was fully supportive of the art displays.
“Kansas City is an amazing arts city, and we have a board that supports art,” Mandelbaum says. Art on the Line “is a wonderful way to bring art to people who are not exposed to it on daily basis. We thought it was a no-brainer.”
The streetcar authority, a not-for-profit charged with maintaining, managing and operating the streetcars, is a major sponsor of Art on the Line. Asked why the authority would take on the added logistical and safety headaches of art installations while trying to get the new streetcars themselves up and running, Mandelbaum laughs and replies, “Art was the fun part!”
So print the map, or load it onto your phone or tablet, grab a friend — because art is so much better when you can exchange ideas about it — and pick your starting point: I like City Market or Union Station because of the free parking.
A fun strategy is to ride the whole loop (which covers 4-plus miles in 27 minutes) once to get your bearings. Then on the second pass, jump off at each installation to take a closer look.
Streetcars come every 10 minutes or so, so getting off six times adds an hour to the lap time.
On a recent afternoon, I met up with ride-along partners Ann Holliday, program director of Art in the Loop Foundation; Art in the Loop/Art on the Line curator Jessica Borusky; and Art on the Line artists Lauren Thompson and Andrew Lattner to explore the six artworks.
Here is a brief north-to-south guide.
“Life Turning” by Lauren Thompson
Where: Main Street Bridge over I-70, near southbound North Loop stop, Seventh and Main
Thompson’s ambitious installation flips the concept of a zoetrope on its head. The old-fashioned toy created the illusion of moving pictures with a series of images painted inside a metal drum with slots cut into it. As the drum would spin, viewers would see the image in motion through the slots.
“On a normal zoetrope the cylinder is moving and the viewer is stationary, and on the linear zoetrope the images are still and the viewer is in motion,” says curator Borusky, who also teaches at UMKC and KCAI.
Thompson explains that the zoetrope (which means “life turning” in Greek) will never look as good on video as live. “A zoetrope relies on your brain filling in the gaps — that’s what creates the illusion of movement, and video can’t reproduce that effect.”
Thompson relied on math and physics to calculate the width of the images and the slots in the curtain wall, based on the distance from the viewer to the image and the image to the slot. Because the zoetrope is on the same side of the bridge as the southbound track, Thompson calibrated the zoetrope to that distance. Because the northbound track is farther away, the optical illusion is not as effective.
“If you like it northbound, you’ll love it southbound,” Thompson quips.
Program director Holliday adds, “We do not encourage viewing the zoetrope while driving your car.”
That is another interesting aspect of Art on the Line: It engages pedestrians and riders in an experience that is unavailable to drivers, who have to keep their eyes on the road. It’s another example of how the way we live downtown is changing.
Rail” by m.o.i. aka Minister of Information
Where: southbound Library stop, Ninth and Main
This tongue-in-cheek installation starts by taking another symbol of modern urban mobility, a BikeWalkKC B-cycle — those bikes you can rent from automated pay stations around town — and bolting it down, making it stationary.
But it has a function lacking in the rental bikes: A port where you can plug in your cellphone and recharge it by pedaling. Additionally, the bike is outfitted with a tablet that plays a bike safety video as you pedal.
“It invites you to sit on it and plug your cellphone in and pedal-power it up and get a view of the landscape going down to the River Market,” Borusky says. “This is a way to talk about different modes of transportation and different ways of seeing.”
“Alternating Currents” by Andrew Lattner
Where: northbound Metro Center stop, 12th and Main
Lattner’s installation has the distinction of being the easiest to overlook and also the one you can spend the most time with once you discover it. I missed it at first, mistaking two vinyl red rectangles applied to the glass shelter wall as generic decor. But then, spying another rectangle in an office window behind the stop, the aha! kicked in.
When I learn that Lattner’s installation spills out over two blocks, from 10th to 12th streets on both sides of Main, I’m locked in a real-world version of Pokemon Go! Gotta catch ’em all! Spoiler alert: It took me a long time to notice white stripes applied to the vertical surfaces of wide concrete steps on a small plaza.
Unlike the zoetrope, Lattner’s work works at any speed.
“I was thinking about the different pace as you travel through: the driver versus the walker versus the rider. I played around with different images on Adobe Illustrator to find that zone where it wouldn’t be too overpowering but enough to get your brain thinking and get you looking around,” he says. “I picked red and white because of how they blend in with the city — they aren’t too over-the-top bright, so they don’t get your attention automatically, but once you start paying attention, you start picking up on how red is used in all different elements of the city.”
Borusky is a big fan of the installation because, she says, “To me, Andrew’s work is about paying attention, something we need to do more of (laughs). It’s really exciting because Andrew has completely reimagined this landscape with his installation. His work is a great example of how, in general, with Art in the Loop, this may be the first time people engage with art. This might be their first contact moment. It is invitational, not invasive.”
“Soundshapes” by White Art Studio
Where: southbound Power & Light stop, 14th and Main
This light sculpture is the most interactive of all the Art on the Line works.
“What I love about soundshapes is that people can touch discs to connect different parts of the installation through light,” Borusky says. “It’s a playful setting in the Power & Light District, which we associate with play. It looks really good at night, and Power & Light is a place that is really active at night.”
“I See You” by Rachelle Gardner-Roe
Where: northbound Power & Light District stop, 14th and Main
This vinyl installation on the back of a shelter depicts two silhouettes facing one another.
“At first it looks like there’s an abstract line quality, but if you look closer the ‘lines’ are words and exchanges between the two silhouettes, which suggests broadly connections between individuals,” Borusky says.
“Intersections” by Rickey Moss with Imagine That
Where: southbound Kauffman Center stop, 16th and Main
The project investigates the connections between Moss’ vivid geometric drawings and the cool palette and rigid forms of the cityscape, Borusky says. The bold colors create a strong focal point against the grays and dark silhouettes of the surrounding area.
The risky enterprise of installing outdoor artworks while simultaneously launching the city’s first streetcar would not have been possible without large reserves of goodwill at many agencies, including MoDOT and the city.
“This was only able to happen because so many people believed in it,” Borusky says.
Mandelbaum says the Streetcar Authority is planning upcoming arts tours and other events that show that the streetcar can be a vital part of growing the arts community and downtown. “We see ourselves as more than just a transportation entity.”
Ridership numbers so far confirm their hunch. More than 870,000 riders to date and average ridership of 6,800 on weekdays and around 11,600 on Saturdays are evidence that people are loving the experience.
Embedding the streetcar firmly in the arts culture that is driving the downtown renaissance makes it more likely to survive and thrive.