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Last weekend, Alberto Roblest held his version of an intervention, meant to jar Adams Morgan revellers out of their boozy routine.
Roblest, a Mexican-born, Takoma-based artist, mounted an installation of his signature “video poems” just off of Adams Morgan’s ground zero, in the alley and popular shortcut behind the SunTrust Bank at 18th Street NW and Columbia Road. The idea was to draw in neighborhood partygoers, and to do it with “Tequila,” the song—never mind that some of his visitors had probably had a bit too much of tequila, the drink.
One disinterested passerby, cutting through the alley with car keys in hand, said: “Hmm. It’s art.” But for the most part, visitors to Roblest’s “Present Interval/Intervalo del Tiempo” seemed to get an aesthetic tickle from the projected vignettes dancing across the walls.
While “Present Interval” was site-specific, he’d borrowed some of the video, as well as a system of mirrors spinning on disco-ball motors that moved the images along the walls, from another project he’d planned to stage this fall. It would’ve worked a subtler magic on its audience, he had hoped. Designed to be a three-evening installation, it was called “Circling the Issue”—“a meditation on the inner lives we all lead while going about our daily routines,” he wrote in a description of the project.
Roblest conceived “Circling the Issue” in 2008 and won grants to mount it. Two years later, he had to pull the plug. The problem? He’d hoped to stage this meditation on commuting in a small temple of commuting, the dramatic Q Street NW entrance to the Dupont Circle Metrorail station. Then he began a two-year acquaintance with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s MetroArts office, and its bureaucracy of one.
As with all public art, there is a process for creating work for the Metro system, and it’s a slow one.
Roblest—a published poet who eventually began translating his poetry into video art—won more than $5,000 in grants from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and the Mexican Cultural Institute for the proposal. For the project, he would’ve projected his video poems on the inner parapet wall of the Q Street entrance—which contains an excerpt of the Walt Whitman poem “The Wound Dresser”—as well as within the escalator tunnel just below it. Light sensors would have triggered audio: monologues of the characters in the video poems.
In May 2008, Michael McBride, the manager of MetroArts and its Art in Transit program, wrote a letter of support. It only mentioned the projections for the parapet wall, and included a number of conditions (the projections inside the tunnel were a later addition). Roblest would not be permitted to use Metro’s electricity. The project would have to be fully funded without Metro aid. Roblest would need to earn approval from Metro’s board of directors. “Circling the Issue” would be required to contain images “appropriate for public viewing” and relevant to surrounding communities. It would have to meet Metro safety and aesthetic standards and not disrupt the station’s normal operations.
McBride was excited about the project at the outset, he says. But “as the project evolved, we realized we couldn’t really do it for safety reasons”—the angles of some the projectors, for example, and the need to run an extension cable down the escalator tunnel, he says.
Roblest says he complied with McBride’s requests. He removed one video, “Jumper,” in which a man jumps in front of a train. He began arranging an expensive insurance policy. He devised a way to secure his projectors. He arranged for security.
Metro’s stipulations, though, kept getting in the way. The agency requires what it calls “climbers” to erect station installations. So Roblest assembled a team with professional mountain-climbing experience—only to be told that their climbing skills didn’t matter unless they’d been certified by Metro. Alas, Metro couldn’t help Roblest find people with that particular certification. Because it’s a governmental agency, McBride says, “we can’t make recommendations for personnel.”
What about providing a list? MetroArts doesn’t do that, McBride says. “Most public artists usually have a group of people they work with to install their artwork—we ask that they’re certified and we ask for insurance.”
Eventually, Roblest says, McBride began telling Roblest to wait. When Metro General Manager John Catoe resigned this January, McBride told Roblest that the project would have to be put on hold. McBride, for his part, had his own issues to worry about: Metro laid him off on Feb. 18 amid $8 million in administrative cuts. The layoff would have effectively killed MetroArts, of which McBride is the only staffer. He was reinstated a few weeks later following pressure from Metro’s board. But, says Roblest, the reinstated McBride was no more eager to get back in touch.
McBride says he simply had to move the project through the normal process. “It may have been perceived as radio silence, but it has to be approved by the board,” he explains. Before the board, he says, it has to be vetted by various Metro offices.
By this summer, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities was beginning to ask questions about its grant, and Roblest was getting worried. He reached out to Jackie Reyes, a staffer for Ward 1 D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham, who sits on Metro’s board. On July 1, Roblest, his wife Christine MacDonald (a Washington City Paper contributor), DCCAH Public Art Manager Rachel Dickerson, and McBride met. According to minutes from the meeting assembled by Roblest, they agreed to a testing of the project in July, a board presentation in August, and tentative performance dates of Oct. 21-23. Roblest agreed to secure updated Metro IDs for his crew, to finalize a $1 million insurance rider, and to provide McBride with presentation materials.
McBride sees things differently. “We attempted to set a schedule for the project but we were not able to,” he says. “You have to keep in mind that Metro is very, very focused on safety—so everything is geared to delivering safe service. Art is very important but there are other issues.” A test of the project never took place; Roblest says he was unable to confirm the test date with McBride.
McBride says that by this point, he felt the Metro station was no longer an appropriate venue, and that he had made that clear to Roblest. Roblest says McBride never made that assertion. At the end of the September, when McBride had not taken the project to Metro’s board, Roblest and McDonald wrote to McBride. In a Sept. 30 e-mail, McBride wrote a list of six requirements to “course-correct” the project. He also asked that DCCAH handle all future coordination of the project.
Frustrated, and with an extension from DCCAH about to expire, Roblest nixed the project, and, with the help of Graham’s office, the Adams Morgan Partnership BID, and the Greater Washington Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, found the SunTrust spot.
“Quite frankly, I think they should have withdrawn the project,” says McBride. “There are very detailed technical requirements, and the project evolved to the point because of technical reasons that it was no longer recognizable…I continued to raise concerns about the safety and he continued to pursue it…I applaud and appreciate his tenacity but at some point you have to set up camp elsewhere.”
I asked McBride about his own aesthetic preferences. “I kind of stay away from those sorts of questions. It’s my job to facilitate the selection of art based on what the community wishes.”
If Metro has become more focused on the safety of art projects, “it’s more kind of a lessons learned,” says Ed Riley, the manager of Metro’s Office of Architecture. “A lot of times artists don’t realize how much technical input is required for public art.” Temporary art projects have fallen through for that reason in the past. “I think we’ve steered away from things that have moving parts,” he says. “We’ve had stuff come down.”
Roblest counters that he was willing to do whatever Metro asked to realize the project, and that he’s engineered complicated installations in the past—including one in a historic building in Mexico City, in which performers descended from the ceiling. “The guy [McBride] almost killed me,” Roblest says. Artists who don’t make good on their grants don’t tend to get new grants. “He almost killed my career here in D.C.”
As the execution of “Circling the Issue” began to seem more unlikely, Roblest started chopping it up for parts, sending its video poems to a number of notable short film festivals. One made it to a festival in Mexico City’s subway. “In other countries,” Roblest says, “you can use the subway to project videos.”