Coalescence: The Magic of Site-specific Art

San Francisco Art Commission Gallery, San Francisco

I’m a sucker for site-specific art installations. It all started with Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Running Fence, which for two weeks in 1976 traversed 24.5 miles from Highway 101 to the sea along the rolling hills of Marin and Sonoma counties. That was more than 40 years ago, but it had a lasting impact. Memory traces of the shimmering nylon fence pop up when I drive along the same roads today.

Since then I’ve experienced Kara Walker’s A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby at the Domino Sugar Refining Plant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, David Byrne’s Playing the Building at the Battery Maritime Building in Lower Manhattan and @Large, Ai Weiwei’s tribute to prisoners of conscience at Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay. Those and other installations have left me in awe of what a designing mind can do with an existing space.


Recently I had the good fortune of meeting Annette Jannotta and Olivia Ting, creators of Coalescence, a site-specific installation commissioned by the San Francisco Arts Commission for the entryway to its gallery in the Veterans Building War Memorial and Performing Arts Center in San Francisco. The piece, small by comparison with those other grand projects, is built from a series of long white tubes suspended above the gallery’s reception desk. A related video is projected on the tubes. But that description is too reductive. There is so much more to the work, all of which gets to the heart and soul of site-specific art.

Entrance to the San Francisco Art Commission Gallery with the Coalescence 2017 exhibit above

“I get so much joy from discovering the feeling I want to impart. How do I want people to feel when they enter a space?” asks Jannotta, an architect and designer as well as an installation artist. “People are much more sensitive to space than they are aware of.” Coalescence was on exhibit for a year in 2016 and 2017.

Colorful tubes with projected images from Coalescence, on exhibit at the San Francisco Art Commission Gallery in 2016-2017

Olivia Ting, currently studying for her MFA at UC Berkeley, has a background in graphic design, fashion design and photography. With David Hockney’s panoramic images as inspiration, Ting explores visual memory by weaving together images of the same place or object taken from different points of view. She designed the video projection.

Cubistic experience

“It’s a cubistic way of experiencing the set-up,” she explains. “Cubism is the depiction of one object from multiple points of view at the same time.” Coalescence works on many levels because it offers the viewer the potential of experiencing the piece from multiple, fractured, points of view.

Projected images from Coalescence, on exhibit at the San Francisco Art Commission Gallery in 2016-2017

Viewers can see the tubes from the front, with the full projection visible, or they can walk underneath the tubes and look up at the holes.

projected images from Coalescence, on exhibit at the San Francisco Art Commission Gallery in 2016-2017

Or they can have yet another experience viewing it from the side, where slivers of the projected images generate more of a texture.

projected images from Coalescence, on exhibit at the San Francisco Art Commission Gallery in 2016-2017

The tubes themselves tell another part of the story. The gallery was under construction when the artists took their first walkthrough of the space. “The floor was filled with these tubes. There were stacks of them, like a mountain,” laughs Ting. The concept grew from the tubes, which were originally used to ship the lighting grids. “The entryway connects the outside to the gallery, so we brainstormed about what the transitional experience should be. We talked about caves, tunnels and stalactites.”

Jannotta, who designed an installation made of toilet paper rolls for the restroom area in Singapore’s Changi Airport, likes to repurpose things in unexpected ways. “I can’t help myself. I like to be a little cheeky and have a sense of humor. It’s really enjoyable to create an experience out of something completely different.”

Projecting bits and pieces of  the building

The video projected on the tubes was taken of places within the building, from the basement to the top floor. They went backstage in the theater and up to the Green Room, the site of many of San Francisco’s civic receptions. “Each space had its own rhythm. I loved the Green Room where we shot down the room with a window, then quiet and then another window,” comments Jannotta. Ting loved the lights in the building. “The lights are like a common denominator. There are so many interesting chandeliers, each with a different design. The lights became a transitional point connecting the spaces.”

Projected images from Coalescence, on exhibit at the San Francisco Art Commission Gallery in 2016-2017

At its heart, Coalescence is about “spatial memory.” Ting explains: When you walk into a place, how do you know where you are? We get cues from details that we notice, but can’t necessarily articulate. It might be the direction of the light or the placement of an outlet. There is a tremendous wealth of information that most of us don’t even notice, what Ting calls peripheral memory.

Jannotta reminds us that the tubes themselves are relics of the construction site. “It’s all about the story of the space. When you design you’re literally writing a book, but the language is space, light, texture, your surroundings,” she says. “I like to create strong experiences for people, in this case coalescing different memories and moments of the building into a variety of experiences that, well, coalesce for the viewer into something entirely new.”

You can learn more about Annette Jannotta here and about Olivia Ting here. And here’s a link to Olivia’s video of  the installation.



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