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Civil Vision

Artists explore the hazards of excessiveness in the city

   In 1909, architect and visionary Daniel Burnham published a new plan for the Chicago region. His bold plans and big dreams created Chicago’s sweeping lakefront, leading to a new tradition of thinking in urban planning. Today, Chicago is searching for inspiration. The Burnham Plan Centennial is a year-long opportunity for the region to engage in a broad-based conversation about the future. The celebration features hundreds of high-profile events that provide an opportunity for communities, leaders and institutions to come together and ensure that Chicago continues to be one of the world’s best places to live and work.
    From May 1 to July 5, the Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP) at Columbia College will be showing The Edge of Intent, a group show focusing on utopian aspirations of urban planners. The exhibition will present 10 artists whose works offer diverse perspectives on urban planning. The works selected by the curator warn the viewers of the hazards of excessiveness and consider the centrality of dynamism in successful urban design.
    A few years ago artist Christina Seely (b. 1976) observed the NASA map of the world at night, and reflecting on the beauty of the light on the map, she noted its remarkable complexity. The areas of light dominated the map and appeared to the artist to resemble the spread of bacteria. Seely learned that three regions on the NASA map were significantly brighter and identified them as the United States, Japan and Western Europe. She began to explore the complexity of excessive urban energy requirements and how it reflected on our relationship with the planet. Historically, man-made light represented progress, beauty, innovation and prosperity, but statistics have demonstrated the negative impact of lighting due to high levels carbon emission. Through a series of large-scale photographs she entitled Lux, the artist photographed the brightest cities on NASA’s global night map. In her work, she aimed to illuminate the beauty and danger of lighting in our global environment.
    Seely first photographed London. After a few nights and about four shots that had been taken from within the city as well as from a distance, she chose one for her series. The shot that was taken from a distance linked into the concept of the city as a point on the map. Seely continued the series with portrait-like shots that exposed the relationship of the cities to their natural terrain. She also entitled each work with the city’s latitude and longitude, so that the viewers would refer to the NASA map key in order to identify the cities. Her 2006 photograph Metropolis: 36°10’N 115°8’W, taken from the surrounding desert, is a portrait of Las Vegas looking radioactive. A light beam extends from the top of the Luxor hotel pyramid, eliminating any traces of natural stellar existence.
    Actively committed to brilliant simplicity, Berkeley-based Seely has been a member of Civil Twilght, a design collective. In 2007, the group won Metropolis Magazine's Next Generation competition with a proposal for lunar-resonant streetlights. The project proposed a new way of thinking about urban light, through the dimming and brightening of available moonlight. It illustrated how beauty and ambiance of moonlit cities could couple with energy saving and reducing light pollution. Seely says that she hopes these projects will inspire the public and motivate changes for a greener economy. In Chicago, on Friday, May 1, at 5 p.m., Seely will discuss her work on view with MoCP Associate Director Natasha Egan.
    German artist Simon Menner (b. 1978) photographed homelessness in the cities of Bombay, Chicago and Paris. His project Metacity probes the connecting elements of poverty in different cities around the globe. Menner is interested in the single homeless person and how he or she inhabits the modern city. His large-scale photographs document the quiet nightlife of brightly lit streets in great cities and the shadowy existence of the homeless under the glitz.
   Menner’s Chicago images were shot between August and December of 2005, while the artist attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He photographed street corners in the Loop and the Mag Mile. Each photograph shows at least one homeless person. In his artist statement, Menner notes, “All the images of this series show sleeping homeless persons. On one side because homelessness is most visible while people are sleeping, and on the other side this is the most intimate moment where it is most obvious if there is any chance for these people to find some privacy.” On May 27, Menner will be in Chicago for a panel discussion on urban planning and sustainable human settlements.

Published: April 04, 2009
Issue: 2009 Spring Green Issue