Public art in the digital era


If you give an artist a digital camera, heâ''ll start taking pictures. Heâ''ll want GPS device, a digital compass, and a laser distance meter to code the pictures, a computer to analyze the pictures, and software that can run calculations on the billions of pixels. Heâ''ll want a building on which to display the pictures. And, eventually, heâ''ll come up with an answer to a question only an artist would ask: What color is Palo Alto?

This, in a nutshell, is a seven-year project that came to be called The Color of Palo Alto. It is public art in the digital age.

In 2001 the City of Palo Altoâ''s Public Arts Commission gave artist Samuel Yates $10,000 to photograph the cityâ''s 17,739 parcels. During 2005, he did so, riding an electric scooter charged at a makeshift solar garage. Since then, heâ''s been running calculations, determining the median, mode, and mean averages of the colors throughout the city. Throughout, thereâ''s been controversy about whether or not this project really qualifies as public art.

Meanwhile, with another $25,000 from the city and $40,000 from Hewlett-Packard, Yates has printed out a photograph of every house in the town and plastered the images IMG_1929.JPG

on city hall, in alphabetical order by street. Yates is also putting the images into the cityâ''s geographical information system; theyâ''ll be updated by the city whenever homeowners apply for building permits.

And what color is Palo Alto? Stay tuned; Yates will finish calculating the overall color of Palo Alto this month; in August heâ''ll reveal that information, along with the dominant hues of individual neighborhoods and streets. Yates expects these colors to be available at local paint stores.


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