It's not every day that you see modular public urinal planters, multicolored stair slides, and human-scale game boards dotting city streets. Those are just some of the projects shown off last year at San Francisco's Urban Prototyping Festival, an exhibition of 18 small-scale replicable projects for public areas. One of those projects, Pulse of the City, has made its way to Boston, where officials have set up the interactive public art installation at five sites across the city.
Pulse of the City, a cartoonishly oversized heart with handles that turns heartbeats into music, was one of the most popular entries at the UP Festival. It's designed to "help people reconnect with the rhythms of their bodies," explains creator George Zisiadis, a San Francisco-based interactive artist and sociologist.
When someone grabs on to Pulse of the City, the solar-powered device immediately detects a pulse. An algorithm chooses complementary music that synchronizes with their heart rate and continues to adapt in real time for one minute, so someone jogging by will have a very different experience than someone who has been walking slowly.
Boston officials first discovered Zisiadis' interactive art piece at the UP Festival and were immediately intrigued—this was a perfect artistic twist on Boston Moves for Health, Mayor Thomas Menino's health and fitness campaign. Now, less than a year later, there are five Pulse of the City installations. "Jeanne-Claude and Christo took 24 years to make The Gates happen in Central Park. This shows the power of cities to be rapidly experimenting and innovating," says Zisiadis. "It's a new model for how cities can approach enhancing streetscapes, activating public space, and including public art as part of the built environment."
The Boston version of Pulse of the City, constructed from fiberglass casing built over a steel skeleton, is much tougher than the UP Festival version, which was made out of cardboard and autobody putty and meant to be temporary. The installations are also reinforced—something that became necessary after someone ran off with one of the 15-pound metal hearts soon after it was installed in the city's North End.
When Zisiadis traveled to Boston in mid-September to oversee the installations, he was struck by the public's reactions. "It's a very curious object that people are magnetically drawn to. It's rare for people not to smile or light up," he says.