Carnegie Museum of Art

By Jessica Walker

Inside the lobby of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA), three teenagers test out a new interactive space. One of them plants her feet inside a red circle on the floor. In front of her are large screens that display photographs of CMOA’s outside plaza.

She spreads her arms and circles to the left. The photographs spin to give her a 360-degree view of the plaza and museum. Her friends point at themselves in the photograph, one taken when they entered the museum just minutes before.

The girl circles to the right. Different images speed by: some show summer days like today, others glisten with rain-slicked sidewalks, and still others reveal a snow-covered Forbes Avenue.

The tireless photographer? None other than a clock.

Called the Light Clock, it guards the plaza. It has a single hand, but no numerals. It ticks, but doesn’t count seconds. Equipped with two 180-degree cameras, the clock takes pictures 24 hours a day and sends them inside the museum.

The Light Clock symbolizes the second Cycle of the Hillman Photography Initiative at CMOA. Started in 2011, the Initiative is supported by the William T. Hillman and Henry L. Hillman Foundations. It operates in two-year Cycles, each one consisting of one year of planning followed by one year of programming. CMOA invites outside experts, called agents, from interdisciplinary fields to engage in the planning process. These agents collaborate on themes that reflect the ever-changing field of photography.

“We’re pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a museum today,” says senior program manager Divya Rao Heffley. “Inviting in outside voices is key. Through our externally-focused planning process, we’re able to provide project prompts to the artists. Then doing whatever we can to make the projects happen with the artists is the goal.”

Entitled LIGHTIME, Cycle Two features four artist-led projects. They each will investigate photography’s measurement of light and time, and how this concept leads to broader discussions about contemporary social issues.

“None of these projects are traditional photography,” says Heffley. “None of these artists would consider themselves a photographer, solely and primarily. Photography is a part of every single one of these artists’ practices but it’s very interdisciplinary.”

From November 2016 until January 2017, the Light + Environmental Sustainability project experimented with photographic visualization of data to address environmental issues. For Pittsburgh residents, Santa Fe-based artist Andrea Polli’s name might be familiar due to previous public art projects such as Particle Falls and Energy Flow, which illuminated the Benedum Center and Rachel Carson Bridge, respectively, to convey pollution’s effects.

For the Initiative, Polli conducted two workshops. In November, she discussed the background of Energy Flow. In January, she led a multiple-day workshop to show participants that they already have the means to become citizen activists within their neighborhoods. Armed with Speck air quality monitors, smartphone apps, and knowledge from design workshops, participants created group presentations that proposed how they would turn the boiler plant behind CMOA into a beacon for environmental change.

Another unique exhibit is the Light + Perception project. Just a short walk from the Light Clock’s rotating images, the Hall of Architecture now houses virtual reality headsets among its plaster casts. These headsets transport viewers into both the past and future. After donning a headset and headphones, the viewer starts in a virtual cave aglow with firelight, designed to reflect the beginning of man. An ominous voice directs the viewer into one of four possible realities, all set in the 2020s.

Light + Perception blends efforts from New York artist collectives DIS and Scatter to examine how biases manifest in virtual realms. “Each of the four scenes is made by an artist from a different part of the globe,” says Heffley. “In doing so, they get away from this singularity of vision. Those multiple voices are what make the virtual environment so rich.”

Light + Movement, the third of the four projects, launched in summer 2017. Tunnels are iconic symbols of Pittsburgh, perhaps second only to its bridges. Through a multichannel video installation, cinematographer Bradford Young examines how Pittsburgh’s tunnels symbolize the Great Migration, the mass movement of African Americans to northern cities in the early 20th century.

Young’s video installation REkOGNIZE features footage from Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood, home of photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris who served as inspiration for the piece. Teenie Harris’s photographs were translated into metadata, and transposed into a musical score by jazz pianist Jason Moran.

“[Young’s] work is really invested in issues of community and memory, ancestry and heritage,” says Heffley. Young used CMOA’s Teenie Harris Archive for research, but he also was very invested in speaking with people from the Hill District. The result is a piece that Heffley describes as “a cinematographer and a jazz pianist having an ongoing conversation about one man’s body of work, Teenie Harris.”

Light + Social Justice will close Cycle Two. In September 2017, local artist Alisha B. Wormsley will examine how past, present, and future collide within the Pittsburgh community of Homewood. She will activate vacant and community spaces, and gather local women to offer events focused on the concepts of cleansing and healing. Her project will conclude with a video that will premiere at Wormsley’s artist talk at CMOA in December.

“Alisha proposed a project in which the people are the light,” says Heffley. “The project in Homewood involves gathering people together in conversation.”

Part of the Initiative’s design is constant evaluation from month-to-month and cycle-to-cycle. During Cycle One, the projects launched simultaneously and all lasted for the full year.

Getting a mass of attention for all of the Cycle One projects throughout the year was a challenge. “We decided [for Cycle Two] we would have no more than four projects, and each one would launch sequentially so each one would have its three or four months in the sun,” says Heffley.

The strategy appears to be working. Young’s kick-off for REkOGNIZE and its accompanying screening of Black America Again with hip-hop artist Common was sold out.

Whereas a traditional exhibition has anywhere from two to five years for planning, LIGHTIME’s four projects developed within about eight months. They also lack gallery space, which is reserved years in advance. Heffley says it “forces us to think outside of the box.”

“The Hillman Foundation has been incredibly generous with resources, but even more so with the time they gave us to evolve the structure,” she says. Cycle Three will usher in new agents, new artists, and new voices to continue evolving the photography field.

“Whatever we come up with is going to be really exciting because we’re creating the perfect conditions for experimentation and innovation,” says Heffley. “It’s been a collaborative effort from the beginning.”

Learn more about CMOA and the Hillman Photography Initiative at www.cmoa.org.