New video artwork at UT graces Cronkite Plaza

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New video artwork at UT graces Cronkite Plaza

You really have to be there.

"And That's The Way It Is" is the impressive and massive new video artwork by Ben Rubin now a permanent feature of the University of Texas' recently dedicated Walter Cronkite Plaza.

Projected onto the south facade of Building A of the Jones Communication Center, "And That's The Way It Is" spans the entire width (approximately 120 feet) and four-story height of the building, which is a prime example of 1960s Brutalist modernism, a kind of impersonal architectural style imposed on many public university campuses.

The video is the first site-specific commission for UT's permanent public art collection. Every night, from dark until midnight, ribbons of projected text will spill over the building, illuminating the Cronkite Plaza.

Projectors installed across the plaza shoot out the words, which come from two sources: archival transcripts of Cronkite's CBS "Evening News" broadcasts and transcripts of the closed captioning of the day's television network news.

Text is selected randomly via software Rubin developed specifically for the project. Whole sentences, phrases, single words are randomly culled and move in varying speeds and patterns in two- or three-minute segments. Sometimes a thin stream of text scrolls slowly. Other times, words collide in rapidly moving streams. Words spill out horizontally or vertically, always appearing on the mullions that define the building's grid-like exterior.

Cronkite attended UT in the 1930s, writing for the campus newspaper, The Daily Texan. While anchorman for the CBS Evening News for nearly 30 years, he coined his own signoff, "And that's the way it is." UT's Briscoe Center for American History holds Cronkite's archive.

Like Cronkite's broadcasts, the video changes every evening. Daily news collides with news of the past, though Rubin deftly gives us a means to understand that collision.

The Cronkite material appears in Courier, the font used by IBM's electric typewriters, once a newsroom staple. The current news flashes in Verdana, a digital typeface.

Rubin — whose background in computer science and film has led him to make large-scale public artworks for The New York Times Building, among other commissions — spent several years working on "And That's The Way It Is."

The contrast between the static, imposing architecture of the building and the kinetic, light-filled projections makes for an intriguing moment on an otherwise rather impersonal institutional plaza.

"This piece rewards just by looking at it," says Douglas Dempster, dean of UT's College of Fine Art, which oversees the university's public art program. "It's constantly changing and renewing. It describes our world today where virtual information dominates and drives our knowledge of things."

UT announced the formal start of its public art program in 2008 when it received 28 modern sculptures on long-term loan from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they had been in storage. The sculptures — by such noted artists as Louise Bourgeois, Jim Dine and Mark di Suvero — now dot the UT campus in locations outside and in, including 11 that are exhibited in the Bass Concert Hall.

Called Landmarks, UT's public art program is a directive of a campus master plan the university adopted in 2007. It includes a percent-for-art initiative with 1 percent to 2 percent of costs for new construction and major building renovation dedicated for art commissions.

The percent-for-art approach is a long-standing formula for public entities of all kinds nationwide. Austin became the first Texas municipality to earmark construction funds when it began its public art program in 1985. The Texas Tech University system started its percent-for-art program in 2001.

"And That's The Way It Is" is tied to the College of Communication's new $54 million Belo Center building. The allocation for the Rubin project was $495,000.

There are two equally progressive art commissions in the pipeline for UT.

Later this year, a video installation inside a six-foot spherical screen by Monika Bravo will be unveiled in front of the new Jackson School of Geosciences building.

Next year, on top of the new Student Activity Center, a rooftop "Skyspace" by groundbreaking artist James Turrell will be completed. Framing the sky, Turrell's Skyspaces are outdoor rooms with open ceilings that offer a contemplative place to observe the fleeting ever-changing nature of light. In Texas, Turrell has created Skyspaces at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas and at Houston's Live Oak Friends Meeting house, a Quaker facility. Later this year, Rice University will unveil a Skyspace on its campus, a gift of Rice alumna and Austin resident Suzanne Deal Booth.

Such progressive, forward-thinking installations go far beyond the typical figurative bronzes or stone statuary of famous figures that characterize so many campus public art projects.

Every night "And That's The Way It Is" will challenge passers-by to capture their own meaning from the streaming information. It's a timely, modern way to reinforce how art can be as much about an experience as about an unmoving object.

Contact Jeanne Claire van Ryzin at jvanryzin@statesman.com or 445-3699

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