Student group brings art to communities

Minneapolis Art on Wheels is an expanding group in Minneapolis

Betsy Graca

T.J. Barnes likes the fact he can give a local Somali woman the chance to write “Peace in Somalia” on city walls just as large as the nearby Rush Limbaugh billboard.

Barnes, a University graduate student, is a member of Minneapolis Art on Wheels , a group that uses mobile projectors to display artistic expressions on both manmade structures and natural ones.

“I was interested in bringing art outside the walls of an institution,” Barnes said.

MAW uses a powerful laser pointer hooked up to a projector to create images on surfaces in real time. Images can be as large as 60 feet.

The group began as a University course this past spring where they put projectors on bikes and created temporary graffiti using technology rather than paint – an idea initiated by the Graffiti Research Lab , based in New York.

“When else do you get the chance to build equipment and do art in public spaces?” group member Andrea Steudel said.

The Graffiti Research Lab created the software and bike designs for the mobile broadcast units, making their designs free to the public.

The bikes play a large role in the group’s mission, emphasizing the importance of mobility. Barnes said the group has begun to be recognized around the city as “the bike people.”

Some of the group’s projects are funded by the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs , an initiative to connect students with nonprofit organizations and neighborhoods.

Kris Nelson, director of neighborhood programs , said Minneapolis Art on Wheels is an ongoing resource for art students to engage the community in new ways.

MAW recently spent an evening in the Lyndale neighborhood , allowing people of all ages to create their own artistic expressions on city surfaces.

The group, which prides itself on documenting its work, posted video on its Web site of the night in Lyndale showing neighbors writing various messages. The words “I love you ma” and children’s drawings scale a large cement building.

Earlier in the summer, MAW traveled across the country to the Redwoods and Badlands, projecting art on natural surfaces rather than urban ones.

On Thursday, group members experimented with lighting up the oldest tree in Minneapolis, located in the Seward neighborhood. Light exploded through the hollow branches, creating a “troll in the tree” effect, Barnes said.

While the messages aren’t permanent, the ability to create art on huge spaces, such as mountains, is the real trade-off, Streudel said.

MAW used their mobile projectors to express the phrases “save the trees” and “stop the spray” on the threatened Redwoods in California. Though the group says it are nonpartisan, members will also take part in Republican National Convention demonstrations, giving the public a chance to create political expressions of their choice, Barnes said.

“We don’t have a core political view in the group,” he said. “We just want to give people a voice.”

MAW has been experimenting with other changes, Steudel said, including using renewable energy for the projectors as well as creating a backpack to hold the projectors for increased mobility.