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'Play Me' Pianos: Way Better Late to L.A. Than Never

Pianos by ManOne and Stuart Vaughn at LACO offices waiting to be delivered I Courtesy of LACO

From Jeremy Rosenberg's "City / Culture" column, in 2010, in Next American City:

"It's not often that ABC News' "Person Of the Week" is an artist. Earlier this summer, Luke Jerram bucked that trend.

The British-born Jerram is the man behind the ongoing global "Play Me, I'm Yours" street pianos phenomenon. Three score of the keys-hammers-and-pedaled instruments were installed last June in fifty public places throughout NYC's boroughs.

That's the long and short of it. Put pianos where people are, and let 'em play. There was no charge to users, no busking, no street performer permits required for players. Just the pleasure of tickling the 88s. And for the tone deaf and the diffident, the chance to listen, enjoy, applaud, ridicule, trash talk, meet, and even fall in love or be moved by your daughter's skill.

"Who plays them and how long they remain is up to each community," reads the text on Jerram's project site. "Each piano acts as sculptural, musical, blank canvas that becomes a reflection of the communities it is embedded into."

The text continues: "Questioning the ownership and rules of public space 'Play Me, I'm Yours' is a provocation, inviting the public to engage with, activate and take ownership of their urban environment."

Jerram's also known as an artist who works with glass. Here, in keeping with the City / Culture manifesto, he become a defacto city planner and organizer. Earlier this year, "Play Me" took place in cities in Spain and England. Also on the 2010 calendar: Belfast, Ireland; Pecs, Hungary; and stateside Cincinnati next week, San Jose, and Grand Rapids.

Still, most U.S. cities don't tend to bend over backwards to make street (or subway) music accessible. More should. Maybe this ephemeral project will open civic eyes nationwide the way it did Big Apple ears. To call "Play Me" well-received in New York would be like calling the Chrysler Building "okay, but not pointy enough." Or the freshened Coney Island "not really popular."

Even New York magazine's irascible "Approval Matrix" graph landed "Play Me" in the desirable "brilliant" and "highbrow" quadrant. Then the pub doubled down, placing the fact that "Play Me" had ended on the top of the "despicable" axis. Talk about praise--pigeons could only dream of this much cooing. The only way to top Jerram right now would be to turn the High Line into a xylophone, or give the Statue of Liberty a Guitar Hero controller.

In addition to its own simple and obvious merits, a participatory project like Jerram's is a significant improvement over that plague of sprawling and pandering so-called public art projects that spread for a few horrible years like some public space pandemic. Quarantined in plain site, the fiberglass pieces were hollow in every imaginable way.

That plague produced a seemingly endless nationwide (and beyond) parade of cows, bears, dogs, moose, and here in Los Angeles, biblical angels that were painted by presumably well-meaning but rarely if ever A-list working artists. \

Back when L.A. trotted out the trashy fiberglass idea as a supposed way to unite, inspire, and fundraise, City / Culture's columnist took Coagula's Mat Gleason out on a field trip. The resulting LA Times.com "Secret City" column carried this teaser: "Maverick
art critic and curator Mat Gleason loves the Angels. Unfortunately, he's talking about the baseball team, not what he believes is a lousy public sculpture project." Read the column here.

The lesson learned from Jerram's ain't they grand pianos vs. the old animals and angels junk? If your city insists on taking on "plop art," make sure it's at least done by the best creative minds in your burgh. And better still, whether it's a public fountain, skate park, or dirt patch without a plethora of prohibitions, the best that a city can do is to provide residents and visitors with legal, safe, and sufficient public opportunities to improvise and create. The rest, then, is up to us."

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