In an area of Richmond, California known for high crime and a struggling economy—The Iron Triangle—the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts wanted to activate its entry plaza with an eye toward increasing visibility and foot traffic. Timed to coincide with a major renovation of its historic building, the building’s interactive media installation supports community activity on the sidewalk and in the plaza. The center has its sights set on creating a safer and more beautiful urban experience for the neighborhood.
Situated on the east part of California’s San Francisco Bay, Richmond is a hilly waterfront city with a population of over 105,000. Just north of Berkeley and Oakland, Richmond is linked with the Bay Area, and, historically, has been a center of manufacturing and industry. In years surrounding WWII, it was an important hub of shipbuilding. Because of this manufacturing tradition, the city has a lot of railroad infrastructure and multiple tracks run through the city. In central Richmond, three of these lines form a triangle, encompassing the downtown with surrounding residential areas. This district has become known as the “Iron Triangle.” Within the triangle, and in the downtown area, the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts has been an important anchor of cultural activity, headquartered in the Winters Building, an early 20th century structure with an ornate facade.
Perceived by many outsiders as an unsafe community, Richmond has struggled with high crime rates over the decades. When the shipbuilding and other manufacturing-related industries moved out of the city, they left a languishing economy in their wake - a quarter of Richmond’s population lives below the poverty line. The area is demographically diverse: 38% African American, 37% Hispanic, 11% Asian/Pacific Islander, 7% Caucasian, and 7% Multicultural/Ethnic.
With streets that often seem quiet, even desolate, Richmond was in need of activities and programs that would “activate” the sidewalks and support a more vibrant pedestrian experience. With more people on the streets, Richmond could move toward another major objective: making the city’s public spaces safer. Most of all, however, the city wanted to address it’s public image. In order to attract investment—from both outside the city and from the community itself—Richmond needed to transform its image from a city prone to crime, to a place of emerging economic and civic potential.
Dovetailing with the Center’s renovation project, its artistic director, Jordan Simmons envisioned an ongoing public art program on the building’s adjacent high-profile plaza. The central vision for the project was to connect with four main audiences. The first core audience would be the residents of the Iron Triangle (it set a goal of attracting 200 such residents). The second target was the 3,000 employees of the nearby Social Security Administration and Kaiser Permanente offices, who, despite a proximity to the center, tend to stay sequestered in their office buildings. The third target was the residents of Richmond beyond the Iron Triangle who may not typically spend much time in the neighborhood. The fourth and broadest audience would be residents of the San Francisco Bay Area interested in the arts, but otherwise unlikely to visit Richmond.
A key partner for the project was Scott Snibbe, an acclaimed San Francisco-based media artist that Simmons commissioned to design an interactive media installation for the center’s plaza. . While his work can be found around the country, this piece is Snibbe’s first major work in the Bay area. Also, the City of Richmond was a committed party from the beginning, providing a matching grant and integrating the Center’s project along with other ongoing city projects. Other organizational partners worked alongside the City and the Center, including the Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization, which assisted with community engagement efforts.
Snibbe’s installation consists of four interactive LCD screens in the corner storefront windows of the renovated building, which happens to be one of Richmond’s most visible intersections. Three of the screens display abstractions of choreographed performances of the Center’s faculty and student artists, but, as visitors and passersby approach the fourth screen, depth-sensing cameras capture their movements, integrating their silhouettes on the screens and introduce color patterns on the other screens. The permanent installation encourages visitors to move and interact on the plaza. “Every type of art is some kind of interaction,” Snibbe said, “but interactive art actually requires you to move, breathe, speak or interact with other people in order for it to really come alive.” The center held a community charrette as a way to integrate the community’s voice into the process. Closely organized with the city and other arts organizations, the installation was unveiled as part of Richmond Arts in Motion festival.
The art installation provided an emblem to mark the completion of the Winters Building renovation. Though the East Bay Center is a well-known part of the community’s landscape, the installation will serve to further heighten its place in public awareness. By placing a bold and interactive installation on a highly visible intersection, the project will increase foot traffic and draw new audiences to the performing arts center. The increased pedestrian activity and the activity of the plaza will help to encourage other art practices and economic development in the area. As Snibbe puts it, the installation “is a kind of x-ray view into the heart of the center, showing people from the outside the kind of joy and interactive play going on inside with music, dance and performance.”