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Two new art projects defy tradition

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, Seeing Things

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Perhaps there's no better symbol of our technology-driven, rapidly changing world than the public pay phone.

Once ubiquitous in urban spaces, pay phones have become nearly obsolete thanks to the rise of personal cell phones. Only a few pay phones survive, though, if you look closely, their remnants dot the built environment.

Artist Bridget Quinn finds empty, abandoned pay phone armature fascinating.

"They have a human-size stature," she says of the rectangular metal boxes. "They're pedestals with no sculpture, pieces of the urban landscape not being used."

Quinn launched the first iteration of the Pay Phone Revival Project in 2010, inviting a handful of artists to transform seven empty pay phone sites around East Austin as part of the East Austin Studio Tour.

Now, Quinn has rebooted the venture with a different group of artists as part of the Fusebox Festival.

The Pay Phone Revival Project is one of a pair of beguiling and slyly presented public art gestures infiltrating Austin this month.

The other is the Red Swing Project, which anonymously hangs simple red swings in public spaces.

A few swings popped up temporarily downtown, sponsored by both Fusebox and the Austin Art Alliance.

But mostly the swings appear in unexpected locations, a guerrilla effort started by a few young Austin-based artists as a means to draw attention to interstitial public spaces.

Since the project's launch in 2007, more than 150 red swings have been installed in places in India, Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea, France, Haiti and Poland. In Austin, red swings hang underneath the East Seventh Street overpass near Tillery Street and in the tiny Willowbrook Reach pocket park, among other spots.

Pay Phone Revival and Red Swing epitomize a kind of public art practice propagated by a new generation of socially-minded, collaboratively oriented artists.

Rather than occupy prominent civic places like so many public art projects do, they turn attention to under-used urban locales — the empty lots, dusty corners of public parks or the forgotten pay phone sites on lonely intersections.

Both projects have a DIY, social media-inspired ethos that jibes with Austin's free-spirited personality.

Quinn, for example, has no organizational structure per se behind her project and funded it partially through a crowd-sourced online Kickstarter campaign. And it's not a solo art project for herself: The last iteration had seven participating artists, and this time there are nine.

And in a very practical, socially minded twist, one pay phone site will play host to a solar-powered charging station ready to recharge electric bicycles, laptops, cell phones or other devices. Perched in the parking lot of El Chilito restaurant at 2219 Manor Road, the charging station, designed by Sol Design Lab, will be free.

The Red Swing Project organizers — who asked to remain anonymous — crowd source in a slightly different way. A website (www.redswingproject.org) offers an instructional video and a manual, empowering anyone to make a swing and join the project.

Indeed, by eschewing individual authorship, the Red Swing instigators subvert ego-related authority altogether. Anyone, anywhere can be a Red Swing artist.

Aesthetically and philosophically, the pay phones and red swings are opposites of more traditional public art in Austin that carves a brasher profile.

Consider the Austin GuitarTown Project, which effectively branded the town with Gibson Guitar corporate logos in the form of artist-decorated 10-foot tall guitars. GuitarTown isn't even unique to the self-proclaimed "Live Music Capital of the World." Gibson launched identical projects in Orlando, Cleveland and Waukesha, Wis., among other cities.

Many of the red swings have disappeared, the project's organizers report. But given that some are installed illicitly, that's to be expected, and the destruction of the swings is just a part of the open-ended parameters of the project.

Some are well-used: The red paint and project logo on the swing in Willowbrook Reach have been worn off from use.

Quinn plans to keep the series of pay phones in place for six months and will consider another iteration of the project.

One artistically re-purposed pay phone will remain as it is for the foreseeable future, though.

At the East 1st Grocery on the corner of East Cesar Chavez and Chicon streets, a large, vibrant, mirrored mosaic mural by Stefanie Distefano features images of the Virgin of Guadalupe and of Mahatma Gandhi. The iconic images surround two empty pay phone boxes, in which are smaller mosaic murals.

Next to the abandoned yet decorated pay phone boxes is something hardly seen these days: an actual working pay phone.

What a bedazzled place to make a call.

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

Alberto Martinez /American-Statesman | Click here for more photos

Bike tours of Pay Phone Revival Project