Face Value

Let’s keep it real: while a necessary component of a strong civic plan, convention centers aren’t typically the source of excitement in a city.

Even in Columbus, where Peter Eisenman’s off-kilter, colorful menagerie of brick and glass changed the face of a vanilla cityscape in the 90s, the building’s interior, mostly invisible to the average resident, has lacked much flavor—local or otherwise.

Today, as Columbus continues to refresh its wallpaper, CCAD’s Mathew Mohr has not only contributed to the center’s offerings—but put “us” back in Columbus.

His contribution is “As We Are,” a 14-foot, 3-D universal human head made of ultra-bright LED ribbons, the housing and the canvas for 3-D photo booth that displays a rotating slideshow of what is now thousands of visitors.

The ultimate selfie machine? Yeah, “As We Are” can lay claim to that, sure. But it’s much, much more. Not only is it Mohr’s vision to showcase Columbus’s openness and diversity (the algorithm for photos selected runs on reverse skin-tone), but it’s his ultimate goal to spark a a thread about public art and its interaction with the capital city.

(614) stepped inside the booth with Mohr to capture a portrait of the artist’s vision for a new way for Columbus to see “us.”

Since people are comparing this to something like Chicago’s The Bean and other city’s landmark photo ops, this is the perfect time to broach one of my favorite subjects: Is Columbus sort of preoccupied with its image? Is that something that you thought about when concepting this?

Preoccupied seems a bit strong, but Columbus has achieved quite a bit as a result of its positive attitude. I’ve noticed that people are proud of what others accomplish instead of speaking about themselves. After bashing my head against the sidewalk for 10 years working in New York City and accomplishing some, but not nearly what I’d hoped, I have to say I’ve grown to like the rah-rah spirit of Columbus. Even with its many challenges, it’s a culture of yes. For “As We Are”, there were far too many variables in play as I developed the concept for the sculpture. I dare say, the momentum of the city played a part.

Other pieces of large-scale art in Columbus have been mentioned along with your new addition. Do you have outdoor public art in the city that you are fond of?

I’m challenged in a great way by Todd Slaughter’s work. My family and I live up in Dublin and his “Watch House” is a great example of fundamental appeal with conceptual levels layered in. Malcolm Cochran’s “Field of Corn” made me laugh at first, but the history supports the concept very well and every time I pass the field, it engages me through rhythm and form. Public art needs to be enough of a mental burr to provoke thought in more than one way and as a result, entrench itself as a memorable icon of the community it represents. A very tall order. Columbus has some very good examples and I hope there will be many more to come.

I think I can ask this without hurting feelings, but does it make “As We Are” extra special that it gives a human, local element to such a building, that in many cases has a faceless, transient feel?

No hurt feelings! Actually, quite an opportunity to champion the whole renovation. As I understand it, the Board of the Greater Columbus Convention Center were very aware that even though the beauty of Eisenman’s architecture made the building unique, the interior needed more warmth and soul. There are just over 200 original works of art by local artists throughout the center and the color palette and materials used in the renovation make everything feel less institutional and more comfortable. The atrium and new addition are stunning but what most excites me is the art. The thought of being in the same collection with Aminah Robinson, Denny Griffith as well as so many of my peers is thrilling and heartwarming. “As We Are” may be the the largest piece in the collection, but considering the whole of the work throughout the building, it blends right in with a welcoming message of engagement through ideas.

I also love that in a time where we are debating monuments, something like this not only remains current, but also serves a diversity function. Can you elaborate on how faces are selected by the piece?

Turbulent times for sure. The builders, the Board and my team worked on “As We Are” for two years so we couldn’t have seen all of this coming. It’s not a political piece—it takes a humanist approach. After your portrait is displayed, it goes into a database with every other portrait made inside the camera booth. If no one is using the booth, the sculpture displays portraits randomly based on an equal representation of skin tone.

Along those lines, does the current climate in which it has been unveiled take on a new synergy with your artist statement?

Public monuments elevate significant people and events; some individuals need to be recognized for the truth of their deeds and should no longer be elevated in our culture. In my opinion, these monuments need to be preserved and presented in a context that considers perspectives on how we continue to evolve as a culture and species.

“As We Are” is intentionally monumental. It elevates every individual who magnifies their presence through the booth. All are welcome to participate. In seeing someone from another culture displayed on such a large scale, it is my hope that observers consider who that person is and the life they’ve lead.

With a design professor as its architect, I can’t help but take a nuanced view of technology from it, and a personal challenge to prove that selfies and Instagram should not just be dismissed as millennial narcissism. Am I onto something there? Putting it more informally, I love that people will stop and look at a random person’s face with wonder, even though self-portraits are near constant in our social feeds.

I’m all about new technology in service of communication. It has an amazing ability to amplify meaning through interaction and you are absolutely correct about social media. It is a seismic shift in our culture and this piece asks questions about identity and presence. By far, most people react with delight. Some are not comfortable having their picture taken and some find it very strange. We are glued to our feeds but considering how well humans read faces, it’s no wonder. Thousands of years of portraiture point to something deep within us that finds social media endlessly fascinating and complex.

“As We Are” makes portraits in the same way that a painting or a photo is an artist’s representation of their subject. They are edited interpretations, removing some information and recontextualizing identity. In this instance, technology is part of the form and an automated system to which I’m drawing a parallel with social media. There is narcissism, drama, achievement, the whole ball of wax but what I’m commenting on is the evolution toward acceptance.

And finally: I heard tell of the sculpture at some points facing High Street—at night! When will that happen, and what fun and weird stories do you expect to come from that?

You heard correctly! It will very soon rotate to light up High Street at night, bright enough that it will be quite a spectacle. Seeing what happens is impossible to predict and that’s part of the fun.

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Travis Hoewischer

I've been working in journalism in central Ohio for more than a decade, and have been lucky enough to be a part of (614) Magazine since the very first issue. Proud to live in a city that still cares – and still reads.

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