The corner of Forbes and South Bouquet Avenues transformed into New York City on New Year’s Eve as community members counted down the opening of the Forbes Digital Plaza.
On Nov. 16, at 6 p.m., around 300 Oakland community members gathered to watch the Oakland Business Improvement District — an economic development agency representing local businesses — flip the on switch for Oakland’s new, permanent digital plaza. The technology “smart” plaza will display digital art and community events on LED screens and serve as a place for people to interact and connect by offering free Wi-Fi and a communal space in the center of Oakland.
The plaza has been five years in the making, according to Georgia Petropoulos, OBID’s executive director, who said in August that Pitt donated the space for the project. Housed in an easily accessible area on Forbes Avenue, the plaza will highlight the innovation and creativity of the Oakland community by encouraging students and residents alike to contribute to art and events featured in the plaza.
“We’re in the backyard of universities and hospitals, but when you’re walking down the street, you don’t see that innovation,” Petropoulos said. “You’re going to see art changing constantly.”
Though the area where the plaza sits doesn’t quite have the magnitude or population density of midtown Manhattan, Mayor Bill Peduto said it needs to bring that same sense of community to Oakland.
“[This corner] is the center of Oakland, and it needs a Times Square,” Peduto said at the unveiling.
To display the innovation of the Oakland community, the plaza will function as an outdoor art gallery, and its LED screens will feature a different piece of digital art from community artists every four to six weeks.
Though the plaza has been in the works since 2010, the organization lacked funding to complete the project, according to Petropoulos. However, this year, various public and private community donors, including the City of Pittsburgh, Dollar Bank, Carlow University, Carnegie Mellon University and Pitt, funded the plaza’s creation.
According to Petropoulos, Innovation Oakland — a subdivision of OBID that combines information and art to create infrastructure solutions to attract customers to the district — hired Murray Horne as the curator of the plaza through a grant from the Heinz Endowments.
Horne, the curator of Wood Street Galleries in Downtown Pittsburgh, selected Matthew Biederman as the first artist to feature their work in the plaza.
Biederman’s digital artwork focused on an idea that everything is stored on the edge of a black hole, and all of what we see is a horizon leading up to that abyss. The work involves the complete transformation of the plain white stone plaza into a rainbow trip of acid with lights and sounds similar to that of standing near a jet engine.
“There are many horizons within the work, both formally and technically,” Biederman said. “And this in turn creates kind of a glitch in human perception sort of another biological or neurological event horizon which creates an image which looks 3-D, yet is not. It’s a bit like one plus one equals three.”
Biederman modified his piece to accommodate the layout of the plaza, the plants and the “rhythm of the public as people walk by.”
Biederman’s digital artwork also includes audio, which will play from surround-sound speakers every hour.
Jake Sternberg, a junior studying marketing, who will pass by the plaza on his way to classes, said the sound effects might be one of the plaza’s drawbacks.
“Considering it’s difficult to have a conversation from across the street, [the sound] might be an issue,” Sternberg said.
Biederman’s art will not remain on the screens at all times, according to Martin Potoczny, the plaza’s creative director. Pedestrians will be able to experience Biederman’s work every hour on the hour. From Monday through Thursday, the plaza will show artwork from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
When the digital art is not on display, Potoczny said, the boards will show community messaging, such as transit information, events in community parks and events at the schools. Organizations will submit their promotions to OBID, which will decide which local events to display. Potoczny said there will not be any advertisements at the plaza.
Horne said he has the next two featured pieces picked out but will not release the artists, or the art, until January. After those pieces, OBID has not determined how it will choose future pieces.
In the future, Petropoulos said she would like to include artwork from Pitt and CMU students, since the plaza is meant to showcase and include every facet of Oakland’s community. City Councilman Dan Gilman said he could already feel a sense of community at the unveiling.
“Look at who is to your left and to your right, and think about those relationships continuing here in the future,” Gilman said at the unveiling.
This plaza is the first of its type in Pittsburgh, drawing on other examples like Millennium Park in Chicago, according to a video shown at the unveiling. Petropoulos hopes this plaza is not the last of its kind in Oakland.
“We hope to compliment this installation with other installations,” Petropoulos said, though there is not funding for other sites yet.
Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said he was excited when he first heard about the plaza after arriving at Pitt.
“I think [the plaza] gives us a connection between our campus and the community, because this is more than just a Pitt site now,” Gallagher said. “This is a neighborhood center, a town square, a place where we can connect [to] the community and with each other.”