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click to enlarge "Drum Machine Circle" by Greg Liebowitz

"Drum Machine Circle" by Greg Liebowitz

Art in Odd Places activates downtown's public spaces Thursday through Saturday 

Some blame online shopping and social media, others blame the car. Whatever the reason, our sidewalks and public spaces have emptied out in recent years, no longer the thronging arena of civic engagement. Aside from the daily office-drone lunch rush, the suburbanite crush before an Amway Center event and the late-night club traffic on Orange Avenue, Orlando's downtown has suffered the same loss of day-to-day foot traffic as many urban cores. If you, too, are wondering where all the people went, you will have a chance to see them return for Art in Odd Places, a worldwide project coming to downtown Orlando Sept. 17-20. More than 50 artists will reactivate our public space with performances, sound and visual art in an experimental reinvention of public space in the 21st century.

Gallery at Avalon Island director Pat Greene decided he wanted to be part of Art in Odd Places after meeting founder Ed Woodham in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 2013. Woodham's mission with AIOP is to remind us that "public spaces function as the epicenter for diverse social interactions and the unfettered exchange of ideas." Art in Odd Places tries to expand public communication by presenting art in various media in unexpected locations.

"We're becoming people who prefer to connect to things, rather than people," Woodham says in a phone interview. Greene echoes this observation, saying, "I simply want to see people having fun with their public space again." The sidewalk, it seems, isn't much fun these days.

Greene co-curated the project along with Voci Dance artistic director Genevieve Bernard, and together they've used the street as a giant-sized canvas-cum-stage. The artists of AIOP 2015 will dance, make music, carry banners, and erect temporary, intriguing works of art along Magnolia Avenue, South Street, Central Boulevard and elsewhere in the general proximity of the Rogers Building at the corner of Magnolia and Pine. Orlando's public space will, for a short time, be a place once again for spontaneity, surprise and delight, harmlessly interrupting the average pedestrian's tinyscreen flow for a moment or two.

Like a meteor shower, it is difficult to predict the trajectory and the impact that AIOP will have. The project has sited itself in a diverse range of locales, from Indianapolis to Los Angeles to St. Petersburg, Russia, and other cities are blossoming with recurring projects, so the impact does make a difference.

"A performance in a garbage-strewn Atlanta alley was so beautiful ... with the garbage!" Woodham says. "But even better was that people cleaned up the alley afterward, as it dawned on them that their public space was beautiful after all." That kind of subtle impact is difficult to predict, but Greene and Bernard are gambling it will happen here too.

This year's AIOP theme, Tone, was interpreted by many artists to signify an aural quality – a sound. Locative media artist Jeff Knowlton will debut an app called Sonify: Orlando that triggers specific sounds as one moves along the sidewalk, making the cell phone enhance your sense of place instead of negating it. Details are under wraps, but he reveals, "Your Android device will give you an imagined narrative of the street." Ivan Riascos' "Migration" will play birdcalls through speakers, extending the idea of tourism to our feathered friends who migrate through the city. Atlantan artist Klimchak will become a 21st-century Pied Piper, riding a "theremin-bike" around the area and luring followers.

Greene himself will invite you to be a part of "The Silence 101 Collective," measuring neural activity to create a "community call" unique to Orlando (kind of like a secular call to prayer, or church bells, one surmises). Land artist Tory Tepp will create a participatory sound-and-earthworks project along Magnolia Avenue, "Earth Tones: Magnolia." These are but a sample of the sonic artists turning the sidewalk into a musical instrument during the project.

Performance art will range from choreographed dance to interactive work. Katya Grokhovsky will surprise pedestrians by unfurling banners emblazoned with social-media-style messages along the sidewalk, gauging reactions. Rokaya Mikhailenko's more formal "Doormat" will feature 30-minute postmodern dances, exploring how relationships and emotions set the tone of our mental states. This choreographed movement will be complemented by Nikki Peña's Coby Project troupe, which will invite participants into an improvised dance.

More edgy performance art includes a tongue-in-cheek political campaign by David Matteson and Betsy Johnson titled "Rick Scott Is My Hero" and J. Ashley Miller's "The Magnolia Cup," a trophy to be won by a passerby who rapidly learns "focused dueling" and gets really good at it, really fast.

Meanwhile, noted local artist Chris Scala will be ... sleeping. Yep, in his "X-ray Camper," a teardrop trailer complete with furniture and built-ins, all constructed of see-through wire mesh, he'll snooze with little or no privacy. Will he get busted as a street person? Arrested for snoring? Stick around to find out.

Visual art is a part of the scene, as well. Temporary sculpture installations will include Nathan Selikoff's "Audiograph" mapping sounds onto a screen, creating a mesmerizing, ever-renewing digital "clock" of the last 60 seconds of street noise.

Much more tiny, yet also compelling, will be Ian Nolan's "Interruptions," in which he colorfully paints over details that he finds along the sidewalk – architectural details, or a weed perhaps – interrupting the monolithic surfaces we encounter. Adhering more closely to the theme of Tone, Dina Mack will create a witty sensory installation around cocoa-butter Tone soap, alluding to Florida with the soap bar encircled in delicate metaphors of our sense of place – Spanish moss, oranges – and also to Orlando's squeaky-clean reputation.

Lest the pedestrian be a passive viewer, many of these works are participatory, giving everyone a chance to test the idea of being an artist. In Tara Young and Ashley Inguanta's joint piece, "This Is a Safe Space," participants can record any emotion, "no matter how light or dark," beneath a large-scale wheat-pasted mural of Inguanta's photography.

For anyone old enough to remember the artist collective Fluxus, started in the '50s by George Maciunas, the notion of a series of loosely orchestrated "happenings" is familiar ground. In today's ultra-uptight regulatory climate, the idea of the sidewalk as a place for spontaneity is almost impossible to conceive. Fluxus events were planned in secret, happened in public, and were over before anyone could stop them. Today, we must partner with government from the get-go. It is to Greene and Bernard's credit that this is occurring without compromising the artists' voices, under the state's well-meaning but sometimes hamfisted control.

In spite of this control, Art in Odd Places has been a tremendous success, and Orlando's ascent into the tier of cities sponsoring this project marks a new era. The sidewalk, an ancient invention, badly needs to be nourished by the human spirit. Art in Odd Places will draw flâneurs, bystanders, artists and art fans into civic engagement, reinventing the sidewalk for this century. It is Orlando's great good fortune to be part of this new experiment, and invest meaning into urban space once again.

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