TBA:11/ ‘The Hidden Life of Bridges’: the coolest place in town

I spent opening night of the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Time-Based Art festival on the Hawthorne Bridge, knowing full well that the real TBA heat was at the old Washington High School, where the art installations were thronged and Works performances were  in full swing.

The north side of the Hawthorne Bridge was where the action was, a little more toward the west bank than the east. Below us, the Willamette River was alternately inky and sparkly, depending on the volume of light hitting it at any given moment and a strong, cool breeze blew in our faces. I’m using the plural here because I wasn’t alone. A small, ever-changing knot of people turned into the breeze in the same spot, where we could watch the video of “The Hidden Life of Bridges,” projected on the Morrison Bridge upriver and hear the accompanying soundtrack.

The video consisted of a series of interviews with people who work on Portland bridges, mostly the Hawthorne, but not exclusively. It also projected a visual representation of sound waves, often behind the interview subjects, but sometimes occupying the two screens on the Morrison Bridge by itself.

The soundtrack featured the words of the interview subjects, who described their jobs and responsibilities and told stories based on what they had seen around the bridge. At one point, one of the bridge tenders suggested that if she weren’t careful, she could “break” the bridge, which wasn’t a happy thought, there in middle of the span, the Willamette flowing darkly beneath me. The interviews were interesting and informative, mostly short hits, though some of the subjects spooled out longer stories than others.

Remember those sound wave projections? Well, at some point, it became clear that the Hawthorne Bridge had been miked, and that the sound waves corresponded to actual, real time sounds on the bridge itself. So, the wave line was flat when no traffic was passing behind us. A  single car was easy to track and the buses created quite a stir on the graph and in our ears. Those sounds were also projected through speakers mounted on the bridge, along with the interviews.  I say, “it became clear,” but really, I wasn’t fully convinced that we were seeing the actual sound waves and hearing the actual, real time traffic until one of the project artists, Tim DuRoche, told me that it was so.

DuRoche, who is a Portland man-of-many-parts (jazz drummer, art education advocate, director of programs at the World Affairs Council, we could go on…), and Ed Purver, a Brooklyn-based artist who specializes in digital art for public spaces, created “The Hidden Life of Bridges” together, with help from the Regional Arts & Culture Council, MegaPhone Labs and Multnomah County, which operates the Hawthorne and Morrison bridges.

Instead of getting too engrossed in the mechanics, which you can find out about on the project website, though, maybe I should elaborate on the experience a bit. When I first arrived, I focused on the “show” itself, watching the video and listening to the stories, barely aware of the traffic (though sometimes it was unavoidable) and even the night around me. Some of the viewers were doing the same, but a lot of them soon became engrossed in their own conversations, which was understandable. The breeze was such a relief from the warm, humid day we’d had. The lights of the city were a nice backdrop, and it was easy to drop in and out of the video. People naturally started talking among themselves.

After a while, some friends and acquaintances of my own started to show up, and so yes, I started talking, too. About the project, sure, but then inevitably about other matters of mutual interest, all the while gazing at the video, at the river, at the city lights, listening to snatches of interview and traffic noise, both acoustic (ha!) and amplified, all the while facing into that breeze, which as you can tell, was one of the stars of the show. I don’t think DuRoche and Purver would mind sharing top-billing with that breeze.

Lots of stuff happens on the Hawthorne Bridge besides people moving back and forth. It has become a “political” place, most recently for a large demonstration of support both for the victims of a gay-bashing attack and for the larger community itself: We refuse to see ourselves as a place where that sort of thing happens without comment or protest or support for the victims. Somehow a bridge was a perfectly reasonable place to assert those things, and the Hawthorne, the most pedestrian and bike accessible of the city’s bridges, was the natural choice.

Political campaigning and even a form of busking happen on the bridge, so this particular activity didn’t seem out of place at all. Bicycles and pedestrians who didn’t stop for the show slowed down and carefully walked around those of us leaning on the railing. A couple rode down the bridge a few hundred feet and then turned around to see what was going on. Sometimes those engagements don’t seem so pressing after all, maybe.  When I had watched the cycle of interviews through a couple of times (it’s about 30 minutes of interview, interspersed with those sound waves), I started walking down the bridge myself back toward the east side, and I almost turned back myself.


“The Hidden Life of Bridges” continues Friday and Saturday night, from around dusk to 11 p.m.

The photo is courtesy of PICA: The view from the Hawthorne Bridge during the ‘The Hidden Life of Bridges,’ Thursday night.

Brian Libby and Tim DuRoche’s email interview/exchange about the project is instructive.

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