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Juror Spotlight: A Conversation with Dan Byers, Mannion Family Senior Curator at the ICA and Northern Ave. Bridge Ideas Competition Juror

May 06, 2016

The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) announced Dan Byers as their new senior curator in 2014, noting his extensive curatorial experience, in depth knowledge of the national and international contemporary art landscape, and his collaborative spirit.

In this interview, he speaks with Gina Physic, Digital Media Specialist at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, about the roles of design and aesthetics in the bridge’s future, other inspiring bridges, and what he’s most looking forward to with the competition.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Gina Physic (GP): What do you hope to bring to the Northern Ave. Bridge (NAB) Ideas Competition jury? Any unique insights, ideas, etc.?

Dan Byers (DB): I approach the competition from two angles of interest and expertise. One would be as a person who works in the area and passes [the bridge] site every day on my way to and from work. I’m invested in having something interesting and beautiful and functional as part of my daily commute, in addition to [the bridge being] in a neighborhood where I spend a lot of time and will be spending time. As someone who uses the area, that’s one perspective.

Another one, which I suppose is why I was chosen to participate, is that I’m a curator of contemporary art. I think about the ways that people use public space and the ways design, form, architecture and art influence the way people interact with each other and interact with their environment, and the aesthetic and political implications of all of those things. Most of what I do at the ICA is organizing exhibitions within the gallery, but many of the artists I’ve worked with over the past few years also work outdoors and there’s a lot of overlap between issues of contemporary art and architecture, urban planning and open space.

GP: In your opinion what would constitute a win for the bridge’s future? Not necessarily what a winning project might look like, but if there was an idea that had community support or ensured that the bridge would be a destination for years to come – those sorts of things. It seems like you’re maybe more interested in the aesthetics of the bridge, can you speak a little bit more to that?

DB: Oh, good question. I mean, as much as I’m concerned with aesthetics and the ways things look and feel, a bridge has to be functional. A basic, successful definition of a bridge would be something that can get you over a perilous stretch of open water. Starting there, the bridge should actually do its job.

I’m thinking about the bridges in cities which are iconic and loved, and that people want to cross and look at. I think a successful bridge would be something that is beautiful and interesting from a distance, but also something that offers some kind of experience as you cross it. Before I moved to Boston, I lived in Pittsburgh for six years, and Pittsburgh has, I think, more bridges than the city of Venice. I think there are hundreds of bridges in the city… Those bridges are deep in the psychology of the place. People have their favorite bridges and you see the city from the bridges when you cross them. I remember, whether driving or walking, there’s a kind of cinematic quality – this view that you get of the city that you don’t usually get from the street. I think a successful bridge would really offer some things from the bridge itself as well as a kind of iconic design that you’d take in.

GP: You mentioned Pittsburgh, but are there other cities or bridges with similar histories that you'd like to see serve as inspiration or as a reference point for the future of the NAB? Are there things that you think could be interesting that you’ve seen before?

DB: Yeah, definitely. I think there are so many directions that this could go in. I can think of a few different models. Before I lived in Pittsburgh, I lived in Minneapolis and there was a great bridge connected to the Walker Art Center, which was the museum where I worked, and it was designed by an artist named Siah Armajani. He incorporated poetry into the bridge, so there was text. It was a pedestrian bridge that went over a very busy highway and connected to parks. The integration of text within the architecture of the bridge was incredibly beautiful and provided this narrative experience as you walked across the bridge. It framed the sky, it framed the city-line, and these words kind of brought you to this space. It was a really kind of contemplative, rich experience that also ensured that you didn’t get killed by ongoing traffic [laughs]it served both of those purposes really well.

Then, I can think of other iconic bridges in Europe in smaller cities that have people performing music on them, or hanging out. Ponte Vecchio in Florence, which is a huge tourist attraction and has all these stores on the bridge itself, creates a complexity and richness for walking. I think, in neighborhoods, the scale can be very dwarfing. It’s not a hugely pedestrian-friendly area [the area surrounding the NAB], yet. I think as more stores open that’ll change, but there’s a kind of scale issue. For me, I would like to see a bridge that feels very friendly and welcoming to pedestrians and walking activities.

GP: That makes sense. Do you have any advice that you’d give to those entering the competition?

DB: I guess my only advice would be to think about the different people that a bridge serves and the different functions the bridge serves in the way that iconic designs can attract people and can become well-loved over many years. I think statues and monuments get a bad name in cities because they usually glorify “one great man” or “great men” and don’t take into account the kind of social space around them. But, I think over time, things that are monumental or iconic become real meeting places and destinations because they are a common image in everyone’s minds. Coming up with a design that offers something everyone can remember and relate to would be great.

GP: Is there anything that you’re most looking forward to regarding the competition?

DB: Well, I’m looking forward to seeing the designs. I’ve never looked at hundreds of bridge designs before. It’s a form that I think about but have never really scrutinized in that way. I’m looking forward to really thinking about the language of bridges. Also, having conversations with the other jury-members. I’ve still only lived in Boston for around a year and a few months, so I’m looking forward to meeting interesting people doing interesting things in the city, and who have an interest in the civic fabric of the place. 

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