September 2010 Issue
Cleveland's IngenuityFest delivers art and technology at a unique location.
Most motorists zipping across the busy expanse of the Veterans Memorial Bridge in Cleveland don’t know that below the road lies a lower deck — a labyrinthine maze of alcoves, tunnels and tracks.
Few Clevelanders have heard about the bridge’s streetcar level, abandoned except by the occasional tour group or curious youngster, since the streetcars stopped running in 1954.
But James Levin is determined to raise the public profile of the hidden span with the sixth annual IngenuityFest
this month. Levin is artistic director and co-founder (along with Thomas Mulready), of the festival, which melds art and technology through interactive exhibits, performances and visual arts. Formerly held in downtown Cleveland, this year’s fest, September 24–26, is moving to the lower deck of the bridge, connecting downtown to the Ohio City neighborhood on the city’s west side.
The festival’s venue has always been a vital component of its atmosphere, says Levin. “Part of our M.O. [has been] to invite people to rediscover downtown — its alleys, its old abandoned department stores. This year, we’re taking this M.O. and we’re inviting people to rediscover the streetcar level of this bridge.”
And if last September’s The Bridge Project was any indication, it should be quite a turnout. The Bridge Project was a smaller-scale festival held for the purpose of seeing if it was logistically possible to relocate Ingenuity there. With no advertising, a crowd of 10,000 people showed up to see the bridge and the art.
Ingenuity’s new location is a nearly one-mile-long sub-level of the bridge, underneath the upper deck that traverses the Cuyahoga River and the industrial Flats. The entrances to the lower deck are underground (one accessed by descending stairs in the lobby of a restaurant) and lead out onto the former streetcar tracks, which offer spectacular views of the city skyline and Lake Erie and a vertigo-inducing peek at the river below if you’re brave enough to look down.
Of course, years of neglect have taken a toll on the trolley level, and what once was a bustling hub of transportation now has crumbling tile and a flooded eastern end. But the stately confines are sturdy and safe, and the way its grittiness contrasts with beautiful art is what appealed to Levin.
This year’s festival artists will incorporate the bridge and its environs into their work. For example, “We’re going to have an opera being performed with the background being this pool of [flood] water, with columns reflected in the water and beautiful lighting behind it,” Levin says.
“Many of the performances are site specific, so they’re very much informed by the bridge, by the stairways, by the tunnels, by the acoustics,” he adds.
That goes for the visual arts, too. Take, for example, artist and Case Western Reserve University mechanical engineering student Alexander Boxerbaum’s project, “36 Views of a Bridge,” which he was inspired to create after accompanying Levin on a tour of the structure.
Boxerbaum’s work is a film comprised of high-tech time-lapse vignettes inspired by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai’s series of woodcuts titled “Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji.” While each of Hokusai’s pieces depict Mt. Fuji in both direct and oblique ways, Boxerbaum’s take applies the concept to the Veterans Memorial Bridge.
“It was a natural model for Cleveland in making this bridge the focal point, especially because of the way it’s a mode of transportation for people,” Boxerbaum says of his film.
“It has all these patterns in and around it that you don’t necessarily pick up on right away. There are two railroad tracks under it, the Cuyahoga River, there’s even a bridge under the bridge. With time lapse, it lets you look at things in a new way.”
Needless to say, Boxerbaum is enthusiastic about the festival’s new location. “I just think that space has so much energy and so much uniqueness,” he says. “Most major cities have a downtown, but most major cities don’t have a completely unutilized under-level of a bridge that’s almost a mile long.”
For three days the bridge will be packed with Ingenuity’s interactive exhibits, visual art, dance, live music (including a performance by the Sugarhill Gang), comedy, a meditation chamber that explores the science behind visual perception (also by Boxerbaum) and a family area. But Levin hopes the expected 50,000 festivalgoers, as well as the rest of the city, will see the potential the bridge has.
He envisions the streetcar level being reopened to pedestrian traffic, dotted with kiosks, vendors and exhibitors — all sheltered from the often harsh Cleveland weather by the road overhead.
“We’re hoping that Ingenuity is sort of a taste of that space and that it becomes permanently transformed, connecting the near west side to downtown,” he says.
“That’s really our goal.”
For more information, visit ingenuitycleveland.com.