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Color Commons

by Danny McCarthy

Photography by Ece Yavuz

They look like something out of Arrival or the “Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century” series. 12 “Light Blades”, more than two-stories tall, surround the greenspace between Central Street and India Street. The flat, angular surfaces flicker between colors—luminous cyan, bright green, soft red. The blades are not, however, extraterrestrial space pods or those weird space cars from Zenon: Z3.

The “Color Commons” is an installation of New American Public Art on the Wharf District Parks in the Rose Kennedy Fitzgerald Greenway. The art series takes advantage of the free Wi-Fi in all Greenway parks by encouraging passersby to log into the Wi-Fi and text color names to a posted phone number at the site and change the sculpture’s hues.

According to New American Public Art’s press release of the sculpture, the Color Commons aims to make Boston “a more playable city” and utilizes “existing urban infrastructure” to enhance “person-to-city and person-to-person connections.”

“It’s exciting to have something so beautiful also be so interactive,” said Michael Manni (SAR ’17). “Literally anyone with a cell phone can take part.”

Manni said the installations make the Color Commons “more interesting than just walking through a gallery.”

The Color Commons does more than just change colors (although the system can recognize more than 900 color names). A letter-substitution puzzle is placed on-site, and once a user decodes the cipher, they can text the answer to the same number and “unlock” a color show.

“Because it’s free, it’s pretty cool,” said Natalie Kaufman (CAS ’17). “If it cost money, I’d call it some hipster nonsense.”

The Greenway’s free Wi-Fi network is one of the largest in the state. It was introduced in 2010 as an effort to evolve as a “21st century urban park,” according to former Mayor Thomas Menino. The Color Commons project and the upgraded Wi-Fi are all a part of the larger plan to get Bostonians interacting with the city and, through that process, with each other.

The Greenway, which runs along the waterfront from the North End to Chinatown, has hosted art projects before. In 2016, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei had his sculpture installation “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” in the Wharf District’s Ring Fountains. The Color Commons was previously on the Greenway in 2013. Currently, the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy commissioned temporary art named “MAY THIS NEVER END” from Chicago-based artist Matthew Hoffman. The graffiti-like textual piece stretches out across on the Greenway close to Faneuil Hall and reads, “Nothing’s for keeps. Except that we must keep going. You’ll spend your entire life searching, ok? We all want to belong. So let’s all get along. Make the most, and hope. May this never end.”

The push for an interactive city plays into Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s desire for Boston to evolve as a global city. In his opening letter for the new city plan, Walsh said he aims to change the way Bostonians interact with their city to improve quality of life and “enhance the vitality of our neighborhoods.”

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