Collaborative art installation becomes window of hope for post-pandemic America

The decision to make it a collaborative project has opened up the doors for people to have conversations about our country’s response to the pandemic, which has been “very divided along political lines.” But in the end, Shearn says his goal as an artist is to bring people awe and inspiration.

Poetic Kinetics art studio in Los Angeles is pioneering a collaborative art installation in Washington D.C. that is bringing people from all over the country together, even as the COVID-19 pandemic physically separates people. The art installation, called Change in the Air, will be an aerial canopy of streamers, each one having a message of hope or a call to action written on it. The result will be a vibrant, dancing, breathing blueprint for post-pandemic America.

“The richness of the messages we’re getting, and the poignancy of this, it’s like a time capsule that we’re creating, that is celebrated and beautiful and intimate,” said Patrick Shearn, president and creative director of Poetic Kinetics.

Marnie Sehayek, creative strategist, said that the project is a response to the “unique circumstances of this moment” which, “devastating though they may be, also present us with new opportunities for creativity.”

Shearn began his artistic career doing visual effects for films, but wanted to do something more hands-on. He began building art installations at Burning Man, and was later recruited to build a project — a puppet show with a giant terracotta warrior and a girl — for Johnson & Johnson when they were sponsoring the Olympics. Shearn went to Beijing for six months and started the company in the process.

“Every project is site-specific,” Shean said, “depending upon the rigging that’s available and how big it’s going to be, so I work with Google Earth and I go on site visits and measure things and figure it all out.”

Change in the Air is different from the studio’s earlier projects because it gives the public an opportunity not only to engage with it, but to have their own messages woven into the installation (called a Skynet) itself. Shearn compared it to Visions in Motion, their Skynet in Berlin commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Peaceful Revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“I got to be very face to face and connected with a lot of the people that wrote messages on the streamers,” Shearn said. “Celebrating the wall coming down evoked a lot of emotion in people. I met people from 30–40 different countries and shared a lot of experiences with their time during the Berlin Wall being up and when it came down and what it meant to them. So as an artist, I’ve always believed in collaboration. That one was so impactful personally to just interact with people and to be able to give them an opportunity to contribute a voice.”

The Poetic Kinetics team has installed art all over the world, from the Middle East to Miami Beach. Even though Shearn has engaged with radically different cultures, he said he believes people respond to art and beauty in the same way.

“I want to believe that Neanderthals looked at a sunset and appreciated the beauty. I don’t think it needs to be taught in school. I don’t think it needs to be held in a museum. I think one of the mission statements of the company is to bring art to the people.”

He recalls the first Skynet he did in Pershing Square in Los Angeles. He installed it in one night, so it was a surprise to everybody in the morning.

“All the people in the office towers and skyscrapers were flipping out because it was just this big surprise, but one of the things that I cherish the most about that was, it was accessible so people could leave work and go down and have lunch next to it. You didn’t need to pay 40 or 60 bucks to go into a museum; you didn’t need to learn a bunch of big words to understand what the artist was trying to get to. It has a calming effect, to be there with nannies and businessmen and people that have flown in from out of state just to see the thing, and city officials and security guards and all kinds of people. I keep coming back again and again to how we all appreciate beauty.”

The website for Change in the Air has an option to send a message to Congress. Shearn decided to include this because “it is hard to not be political.”

The decision to make it a collaborative project has opened up the doors for people to have conversations about our country’s response to the pandemic, which has been “very divided along political lines.” But in the end, Shearn says his goal as an artist is to bring people awe and inspiration.

“The way that [Poetic] Kinetics prioritizes bringing joy to people in their everyday lives, is in and of itself, a radical proposal,” Shearn said. “There are a lot of not so lovely things in the world. And so to give someone a dose of surprise, wonder, amusement, an opportunity to play . . . We hope that nobody is too old to play. And we hope that we never lose that spirit of wonder and creativity in our lives. So we really try to create opportunities for that.”

Sehayek said the team has a lot of handwriting ahead of them with transmitting everyone’s messages onto the artwork itself.

“We’re seeking volunteer help for various parts of the project,” Sehayek said. “And then we really encourage people to be involved via sending a message and incorporating it. There are a variety of ways that we’re receiving them — primarily on the website on social media, but we’re also accepting letters to our studio. So it’s a big invitation for us.”

Shearn attributes participation in the project to a collective appreciation of beauty. The streamers, soon to be fluttering in the wind above the streets of Washington D.C., represent “threads in humanity that we can all reach out and touch.”

According to Shearn, “the machinations that keep us apart — the language, fear and the pressure to distrust each other is all a construct. Certainly there are dangers in the world and people with bad intent. But we would get so much further in a much more elegant way if we just lean on each other, trust each other and take care of each other.”

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Kate Brennan

Journalist, Newhouse grad, subpar snowboarder, rock climber, caffeine addict & 80s horror movie fanatic.