Digital Placemaking Sparks Human Connections in Denver

Forget iPhones and private Facebook pages. Digital arts can be big, brash and public to add another layer to urban placemaking efforts.
Working in large-scale public art in Denver has changed the way Ivar Zeile experiences other cities.

"Whenever I travel, I'm always looking for the LED screens," he says. "In places like Minneapolis, Dallas, they have screens but it's all marketing, all ads. In Denver, you've got five tremendous screens within three blocks of each other. It's remarkable."

Zeile is an artist and owner of Plus Gallery, a longtime staple of Denver's contemporary art community. He's also the founder and curator of Denver Digerati, an anchor of the city's thriving digital animation scene. Whether or not you know it, you've probably seen work by artists that Zeile has curated and commissioned over the past five years -- boldly flashing from LED screens on the 16th Street Mall and near the Colorado Convention Center, sandwiched between static ads for local dentists and happy hours.

"My very favorite thing is to watch, to see people stop and notice: Oh, whoa, what is that? It's mesmerizing. Usually they're on their way to something, so they don't stop for long. But the sheer fact that something stopped them in their tracks, it's so cool."

Through the Flash Friday and The Ten Second Film series, Zeile has invited leading local and non-local digital artists to create and premiere original works on Denver screens. With each new work, the Digerati's roster of artists expands, as does Denver's reach into national and international creative circles. Several works that premiered on Digerati screens have found broader audiences on the festival and gallery circuits; next month, Zeile will present at CutOut Fest in Queretaro, Mexico, the largest convening of digital artists and tastemakers in the world.

"We're building a network of artists across the globe, people who are doing the best work in this field," says Zeile. "Many of them are young and pretty awe inspiring. The digital arena is not yet common; it's just starting to infiltrate the contemporary arts sphere. Instead of a piece of fluff that is 10 seconds, we're looking for artists that are doing serious work and have something to say with their work. To be able to present that in public is unique to any other location that is doing the same thing."

Digital art captivates an audience at the Colorado Convention Center.Creative and collaborative

Denver Digerati is one of several projects that has elevated Denver's profile as a city that embraces and spurs innovation in creative placemaking. Over the past five years, public art in Denver has transcended the traditional and terrestrial -- think blue bears and red-eyed mustangs -- to include new technologies. As a result, we've seen large-scale digital works that range from whimsical and abstract to interactive and temporary: Kinetic murals on the sides of the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. Abstract and undulating waves of images wrapping the exterior of the Clyfford Still Museum and MCA Denver. And OhHeckYeah, an immersive series of video games that brought strangers together on the street and the screen.

Funded partly through a large and highly competitive grant from ArtPlace America, OhHeckYeah garnered international attention and opportunities to expand: OhHeckYeah founder Brian Corrigan and partner Justin Gitlin of Mode Set recently held a residency at Northeastern University, where they worked with students to build an OhHeckYeah prototype for the campus. In Denver, the latest iteration of the project can be found on interactive digital kiosks on the 16th Street Mall.

OhHeckYeah was Corrigan's brainchild, but it took a constellation of highly skilled artists, designers, gamers, technicians, and coders to pull it off. In particular, Corrigan worked closely with Legwork Studio and Mode Set, two of Denver's leading digital design firms, to create a design that would be technically correct, aesthetically pleasing, and fun and intuitive for the user. The collaborative spirit in Denver, as well as its talent pool, is so deep, he says, he was able to maintain a hyper-local approach to building the project from scratch.

"Honestly, the collaborative spirit in Denver is why I moved here," says Corrigan. "When you think about the creative sector, you can have all of the talent in the world, but without a culture of openness and curiosity it doesn't matter. Denver has both of those things, and a lot of bridges -- people from one sector who are able to help someone from another sector understand what the other one is talking about. It happens at so many levels, from the design and the technical to the city and public spaces, permitting, nuts and bolts.

"Denver is very fluid in terms of how people work together," he adds. "We just have that culture: People at first glance you would think would be competitors are actually collaborators."

Activating dead spotsZeile has curated works from an international cast of artists over the past five years.

Like Corrigan, Ivar Zeile works across cultural and civic spheres to claim public space for art. Since its inception, Denver Digerati has enjoyed broad support from the mayor's office and the Downtown Theatre District, which is charged with, among other things, activating often dormant spaces in and around the Denver Performing Arts Complex.

"The city really showed a lot of foresight at the time the LED billboards were being proposed. The question was: Do we want these billboards? The Denver Theatre District was created as the buffer to this. The idea was, if we're going to allow this, we need something that gives back to the community. I don't think there's another model anywhere in the United States."

"I think that our downtown stakeholders are open minded and aggressive and that has led to unique efforts that other cities are examining for their own downtowns," says David Erlich, executive director of the Denver Theater District, "At the DTD we can act quickly and we are flexible. Because we look at things differently -- an LED as an art platform, a street as a musical stage, an alleyway as a home for a Romeo and Juliet play -- we attract people like Brian and Ivar who look at things differently. Our mission is to activate the streets - it doesn't say how - so we prefer to do so in unique ways that others may not have tried. Plus we love working with cool, creative people."

Indeed, both Zeile and Corrigan have plenty of cool, creative ideas for how to continue building on momentum in the sphere of digital public art. Zeile plans to produce a two-day festival of digital animation on the giant LED screens downtown in 2016. "What we're doing is the future of public art," he says. "We hope we're the first to have a full-time dedicated screen."

Corrigan is leading efforts to build a six-city League of Playful Places, where interactive works like OhHeckYeah will bring people together through fun, easy interactions made possible by art and gaming. He also envisions Denver as the world's first open-source city -- wired with digital maps, projectors, and channels for citizen artists to upload and share digital works on a large scale.

"There are just so many opportunities for people to included in the placemaking," he says. "You still need infrastructure, but the stakes are just not as high when you're working with digital. It's not like building a park that, once it's there, you can't move or really change. Digital is fluid and, by it's nature, it's interactive. There's such huge potential to change the social dynamics of public spaces. Ultimately it's about bringing people together. Connecting. Showing what's best about a community. And having fun."

This story is part of a series on the impact of arts and the creative community in Denver. This partnership with Confluence Denver and Creative Exchange is underwritten by the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation. For more opportunities to connect, join the IdeaLab on Nov. 6.
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Read more articles by Laura Bond.

A former editor and staff writer with Westword, Laura Bond has written for Rolling StoneUSAA and Spin, among others. She is the principal of Laura Bond, Ink., a content and communications strategy firm that serves nonprofits across metro Denver.
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