On a bracingly cold evening in November, a small crowd gathered on the south bank of the Chicago River to stare at the side of a building.
Nighttime facade-gazing isn’t at all an unusual group activity in downtown Chicago on the stretch of the city’s Riverwalk between the Wells Street and Franklin Street Bridges (although on this evening snow flurries and subfreezing temps yielded a more modest turnout). Since fall 2018, the 2.5-acre river-facade of the historic Merchandise Mart has doubled as a throng-attracting spectacle of twin football field–sized proportions.
Dubbed Art on theMART, the ongoing (save for a pause early in the pandemic when large gatherings, even outdoors, were verboten) free public art exhibition transforms the southern face of the hulking art deco landmark into what’s billed as the world’s largest digital projection screen—a seasonally activated blank canvas that spans two city blocks and is brought alive by 34 massive projectors built into the Riverwalk. Since the inception of Art on theMART, the facade has hosted site-specific moving image works by a slew of multidisciplinary local, national, and international artists including Charles Atlas, Barbara Kruger, Bisa Butler, and Yuge Zhou. Notably, Nick Cave’s Ba Boom Boom Pa Pop Pop, a remix of sorts of the Chicago-based artist’s 2011 film Drive-By incorporating original footage, graced the exterior of The MART nightly over the summer and into the fall in conjunction with his first career retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.
Art on theMART’s programming, save for temporary seasonal installations and some partner content, is shepherded by a nine-person curatorial advisory board that includes, among others, artist Amanda Williams, the program’s executive director Cynthia Noble, and Lydia Ross, director of public art with the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. Works are commissioned via a variety of means including individual invitations, direct proposals, and theme-tied RFP processes.
Art on theMART’s newest projection, Chicago Design Through the Decades, which debuted November 18 and can be viewed nightly through December 30, isn’t the work of a single artist but a century-spanning celebration-slash-compendium of Chicago design, beginning with the city’s art deco heyday in the 1920s and ending in contemporary digital portraiture produced using neural networks, a subset of deep learning technology with roots at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) and the University of Chicago. “The breadth of creative works by Chicago designers shown in the time-lapse visualization illustrates the perpetual advancement of design, a field that continually expands, allowing members of the public to immerse themselves in design history,” reads a description of the “at once nostalgic and whimsical” work, which is based on the 3,250-work collection of the Chicago Design Archive (CDA).
Growing from a slide-based collection presented in 2002 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the Society of the Typographic Arts, the CDA, described as an “exclusive and permanent online record of design excellence created from the 1920s to the present,” initially focused on graphic design but has since expanded to include industrial, product, and experiential design produced in and related to the Windy City.
While multiple members of the CDA were involved in the creation of Chicago Design Through the Decades, the three-years-in-the-making project was initiated as a cross-institutional collaborative effort led by Daria Tsoupikova, professor at the UIC School of Design and faculty member at the university’s Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL); Sharon Oiga, a graphic designer and professor at the UIC School of Design who serves as a director of the CDA; and Guy Villa, Jr., a fellow graphic designer and assistant professor at Columbia College Chicago. Joining this core trio were fellow CDA directors Jack Weiss, Cheri McIntyre, and Lauren Meranda, along with NASA science animator Krystofer Kim, and the EVL’s Fabio Miranda. Like with past Art on theMART commissions, the installation features a musical element, which in this case was created by musician Louis Schwadron of Sky White Sound. (The project is dedicated to Wayne Stuetzer, a founder and director of the CDA who passed away in 2020.)
Embracing what Tsoupikova described to AN as a “overarching umbrella of human-centered design,” this mesmeric whirlwind journey through Chicago design history manages to cover a lot of ground in its 7-minute runtime. Propelled by “engaging characters and textual tidbits,” the work also tidily complements its architectural “canvas,” a building with its own unique design pedigree as home to a global design center featuring 150-plus showrooms along with the offices of architects, interior designers, creative firms, tech companies, and more. Completed in 1930 as a wholesale warehouse for retailer Marshall Field & Company with a design by Alfred P. Shaw for Chicago firm Anderson, Probst & White, the Merchandise Mart isn’t famous for its height (as many of Chicago’s most well-known buildings are) but for its remarkable heft. Rising 18 floors with a 25-story tower at its center, the rectangular Near North Side landmark, rebranded by current owner Vornado Realty Trust as simply The MART, reigned as the largest commercial building in the world upon its opening at a whopping 4 million square feet.
“I was interested [in the proposal] for a lot of reasons,” said Noble of Chicago Design Through the Decades. “For one, the idea made sense for what The MART is and its identity in terms of what happens inside the building as a place of art, technology, and design.”
Following Vornado’s introduction of Art on theMART in September 2018 as a singular new public art program wholly funded by the real estate giant with the City of Chicago serving as a close collaborating partner, the colossal limestone and terra cotta–clad exterior of The MART has been reborn as the latest—and certainly by the far the largest—Chicago site to pair public art with architecture. The program serves as an evolution of the city’s robust of tradition of peppering the public realm with accessible (and predominately sculptural) artistic commissions.
Noble described Art on theMART as having a layering effect that draws thousands upon thousands of eyes to the facade of the historic building while showcasing artistic visions that present what she called a “new path forward.”
“Like any architectural form that addresses a certain style or emerges from a vocabulary of style—art deco, in this case—certain narratives of the period from which it emerged come attached,” explained Noble. “I see Art on theMART as adding to the narrative and in some cases even changing it.”
Noble added that Nick Cave’s recent projection, an exuberant and visually sumptuous work that explicitly addresses systemic racism, as being a prime example of this public art–driven narrative shift.
“Here’s this architectural form, this kind of base narrative—what does this projection-slash-proposal do to that narrative? And what does the next one do?” said Noble. “Ideally through this kind of compilation of proposals, we’re catalyzing dialogue about the most important and relevant issues of our time.”
Chicago Design Through the Decades is on view nightly through December 30 at 7:30 and 8:00 p.m. Also now on view as part of the winter season of Art on theMART is a special holiday projection inspired by Joffrey Ballet’s The Nutcracker. Art on theMART is best viewed from the Chicago Riverwalk between Wells and Lake Streets. The full collections of the Chicago Design Archive can be viewed here.