Joe Scala firmly believes art supports individuals’ well-being. He also believes it should work properly.
Those dual beliefs have been in evidence for the past 15 years as Scala has voluntarily and dutifully looked after nearly two-dozen audio and video boxes at seven light rail stations along the METRO Blue Line.
Recording his observations in weekly spreadsheets, he’s reported frayed cords, stiff springs, faulty screens and hundreds of other repair needs for the public art installations, collectively known as “Small Kindnesses, Weather Permitting.”
“It’s been a little bit of an adventure and a learning experience for a lot of people,” Scala said before setting out on another recent scouting trip.
A nearly completed overhaul of the custom-designed and built boxes won’t stop Scala from making his near-weekly rounds. It should, however, make his laundry list a little shorter than usual.
Repairs to the boxes have been ongoing almost since the start. But over the past year, old technology has been swapped out, standardized and updated, making the system more durable and easier to maintain.
“After 15 years, things were becoming obsolete and the whole system really needed to be redone,” Metro Transit’s Public Art Administrator Mark Granlund said.
On a recent afternoon, Granlund and Max Hoaglund, an independent technologist helping with the updates, removed the glass cover of a box at the 46th Street Station, revealing a tangle of wiring connected to a small circuit board.
Behind a miniature red velvet curtain rested a video player that rotates through more than 80 short videos. At other locations, video or audio is triggered by pulling a lever, spinning a wheel or ringing a bell.
The custom nature of each box is what’s made maintaining the collection so tricky. But there are plenty of supporters who appreciate the efforts to keep them going after all these years.
Among the most excited is Brooklyn, N.Y.-based artist Janet Zweig, who was commissioned to create the interactive art project ahead of the Blue Line’s 2004 opening.
Zweig collaborated with others on the engineering, installation and maintenance, and helped solicit and curate content. She received hundreds of VHS tapes and CDs from local poets, songwriters, storytellers and others based on the themes of courtesy and weather – two Minnesota clichés.
“I’m really thrilled that there’s so much follow through on this,” she said.
Beyond the recent repairs, Zweig said she was especially grateful to Scala for his years of diligence, calling him a “superhero of public art.”
While Scala’s fully embraced the role, it came to him unexpectedly.
While overseeing an installation, Zweig worried aloud how maintenance needs would be documented. Scala overheard the conversation and volunteered to check on them.
He’s sent detailed reports to Metro Transit staff every week for the past 15 years.
Scala said his work has been motivated not just by a belief in the power of art, but by his friendship with Zweig. He’s also pretty fond of the stories the boxes bring to the community.
Because he’s seen every submission, he usually doesn’t stick around until the end. But he’ll wait for the next train if one of his two favorite music videos come up (one features a humorous song called “Commuters,” and the other is of two people fishing on a lake). Another, by the late Native storyteller Jim Northrup, also stirs memories.
“They’re serious, they’re humorous and, collectively, they’re a really great inventory,” Scala said. “I feel really good about the commitment to get them refurbished.”
Metro Transit plans to solicit new audio and video submissions to be added to the "Small Kindnesses, Weather Permitting" collection later this year. Watch for more details soon. Listen to existing audio clips here.
Attend an upcoming public art tour
Learn more about Metro Transit’s collection of public art by attending an upcoming guided tour. A tour of the Blue Line will run from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday, June 15. The two-hour tour will begin at the 28th Avenue Station. RSVP to the tour and find dates and times of future tours at metrotransit.org.
Above: Public Art Administrator Mark Granlund and Max Hoaglund, an independent technologist, finish repairs to a box holding a video player at the METRO Blue Line’s 46th Street Station.