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Local video artists may soon have a prominent new place to show their work: CityCenterDC, the glamorous, soon-to-be completed residential/hotel/shopping complex downtown. Today, Mayor Vince Gray visited the site to unveil a 25-foot high, 50-foot wide digital video screen, dubbed “The Gateway at CityCenter,” that arches over the pedestrian entrance to a central plaza. The screen will be active from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.

For now, the screen will feature a rotating array of live video clips, computer-generated images, photographs, sound art, and music from the arch’s designer, David Niles, a digital video pioneer who started the world’s first HDTV production studio in 1985. With motion sensors hidden next to the arch, a computer system will keep track of the activity in the plaza and the time of day, selecting and projecting complementary video clips and sound (upbeat and sprightly during the day, softer and meditative in the evening).

Designer David Niles

Some video bits are trippy: there’s an up-close shot of carbonated liquid and a whooshing sound effect that, under the arch, simulates the experience of sitting inside a Sodastream. Some are abstract: Swirling orbs, kaleidoscopic patterns, Mondrian-esque color blocks. Lots are green-screen gimmicks: three acrobats in a fishbowl with larger-than-life goldfish, filmed hanging upside down, then turned back around so their hair’s standing straight up. None of the clips are particularly inventive, and they lack an overarching vision or style. That might be an upshot of their modularity, though—-Niles touted the installation’s near-infinite number of permutations of video and sound elements, an immersive grab bag that shifts to suit the setting’s mood.

“You can’t intrude on the private space of people,” Niles told me. “[The installation] is like a New Yorker cartoon; it’s a little something to look at, but it doesn’t demand your attention… It just gives you an inside smile.”

Niles started work on the project three years ago at the behest of representatives from Hines, the real estate firm behind CityCenterDC, who were impressed by his “Comcast Experience” video wall inside Philadephia’s tallest skyscraper. Hines wanted Niles to design a single, smaller wall for CityCenter, but Niles insisted on a “gateway” inspired by the Arc de Triomphe. (He spent 15 years in Paris at the beginning of his career.)

“What makes a city great is not whether they have nice-looking buildings,” said Gray at the opening, likening D.C.’s cultural aspirations to those of cities known for their artistic output: Paris, San Francisco, and New York City. Gray praised the Smithsonian institutions for exhibiting world-class art, but called on the city, in general terms, to provide more opportunities for artists outside of federally funded institutions. Though a video screen on a ritzy shopping hub won’t make the same kind of impact as a new gallery space, and though D.C. is home to several formidable support structures for artists outside of the federal government, the installation does allow for wider participation and dynamism than, say, a mural.

Both Niles and Gray promised that, in the future, local artists will get their own turn on the screen—-but in a development this buzzy, art for its own sake isn’t enough. Harry Wingo, president and CEO of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, praised Gray for bringing deep-pocketed international investors to the city (CityCenterDC was co-financed by Qatari Diar, the development arm of Qatar’s investment authority).

“Look at the color of my tie,” Wingo said. “It’s green, like money.” He gestured to the video arch and the surrounding buildings. “And that’s what this is for the city.”

Photos by Christina Cauterucci