REVIEW: "Murmur Wall" on view at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts displays what’s trending in real time
By Joe Ferguson
Warhol tried to warn us, but we didn’t listen. I admit I didn’t really get the Soup Cans when I first saw them. Why, I wondered, would someone paint a portrait of a can of soup? Of course, I recognized the image--I had consumed countless amounts of Campbell’s soup by the time I saw one of the paintings. If Warhol had painted a portrait of then President and CEO William Beverly Murphy, I would have had no idea who it was, which was precisely the point was--images of consumption had become the icons of the modern age.
In order for art to have relevance it must hold some tangible quality recognizable to its contemporary audience. Anything we want to know is available right now. Whether that information is important, simply popular, or it reveals too much about us, should be part of our discussions. Art can act as a catalyst for discussion, and a great example of an artwork that provides such a catalyst just opened in San Francisco.
Murmur Wall on view at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is a large-scale, outdoor sculpture made of galvanized steel, illuminated fiber optic rods, digital displays, and 3D-printed components. Words harvested from local online activity via search engines and social media are briefly displayed on the wall, creating a pastiche of what’s trending or what is likely going to matter most to the city in the very near future. Whispers can also be interjected into the wall through anonymous, online contributions--they appear as bright blue streams and are text that appear only once and are not collected, reused, or shared.
The sculpture is the work of Future Cities Labs, an experimental design and collaborative research studio in San Francisco. It was commissioned by the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts as a public art work and is installed on the plaza of the center’s Mission Street entrance. Viewers can gather to view, reflect on, and discuss the artwork and the projected words and phrases that appear upon it. Click here to see what is currently trending.
Murmur Wall functions spectacularly as a public art work. In the evening, the brightly-lit sculpture seems to be one of the few objects capable of pulling the eyes of passersby away from their phones. It’s impossible to tell if viewers are reflective or simply amused as they pause to look at the projections.
A few minutes of looking at the projected phrases was disheartening--almost all of them were related to sales or entertainment. Still, I have hope. The internet represents one of the greatest technological developments of our time, and while it can be used simply as a marketing tool, it also places more information at our fingertips than has ever been accessible before. Murmur Wall can be viewed as a warning, a pessimistic looking glass, or as an example of how technology can be used as an instrument of change when placed in the context of art.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
Be part of the conversation. Contribute your “murmurs” here: murmurwall.net
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