Art in Public Places

New public art installation is a 'choose your own adventure' through downtown Austin

New public art project is a 'choose your own adventure' through Austin

Austin Central Library
The journey begins outside Austin's Central Library.  Austin Public Library/Flickr
Wander Art in Public Places
An example of the interactive digital experience.  Courtesy of Art in Public Places
Wander Art in Public Places
The "Wander" stories begin when the user is near "Beacon," the red sculpture outside the new Central Library. Courtesy of Art in Public Places
Austin Central Library
Wander Art in Public Places
Wander Art in Public Places

A new public art project combining local writers and artists, technology, and, of course, the beloved new Central Library, has just launched in Austin — and you're invited to join the adventure. The brainchild of two local architects and a developer, "Wander" is an interactive art installation that invites users to choose their own adventure as they follow clues throughout downtown Austin. 

To start the interactive experience, participants must go to the Central Library and stand near the red sculpture entitled Beacon. Using a location services-enabled phone, type wanderatx.com into the browser to unveil four storylines (all written by Austin authors), and the journey will commence.

After selecting the story and reading the first chapter, the user is then presented with two options. "Depending on what you choose, it changes the course of the story," co-creator Chris Gannon tells CultureMap. "As the reader, you get to guide the story along. Each choice you make leads to a different ending."

And it also leads to a different place around town. When designing the project, Gannon and his co-creators, Chadwick Wood and Brockett Davidson, decided they wanted to highlight three different types of Austin destinations: historically significant places, public art, and what Gannon describes as the city's "weird nooks and crannies."

To craft the stories, Gannon and crew tapped four local writers: Lucas Schaefer, Jessica Topacio Long, Janalyn Guo, and Fernando Flores, all of whom were selected through a citywide competition in 2015. Each were given a stipend and asked to create stories that would appeal to a broad audience. The authors were then paired with local illustrators to bring the pieces to life. 

"With public art, people usually think of sculptures or murals, and digital things are usually projection-based or sound-based. It’s never literature," explains Gannon. "This is a way to pull the writers out of these books and put them right into a digital world."

In addition to highlighting local creatives, the city hopes the project allows people to experience parts of downtown they may otherwise never see.

"It gets people out walking, which I appreciate," says Susan Lambe, program administrator for the City of Austin's Art in Public Places. "It’s something that people can use to invoke conversations, have a shared experience." And it's meant to be a shared experience for all ages. Two of the tales, Time Machine Freakout and Tinaus, were written for younger participants, while The Lost Bowie Silver and The Oswald Variations are suitable for more mature audiences. 

Shared experiences are the intention of all Art in Public Places projects, says Lambe. "Public art creates a sense that a city cares about the experience of being in that space," she says. "It’s a way for us to engage with our creatives and see what things look like — what the city looks like — through the creative mind."

Austin believes so mightily in these public art projects that for nearly every capital improvement project the city undertakes, 2 percent of the budget is given to Art in Public Places. That ambitious protection of the city's culture led the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to designate Austin as an official "City of Media Arts" in 2015. 

Because it uses taxpayer funding, the artists were careful to ensure the adventures are accessible to as many people as possible. In addition to English, the stories are available in Spanish and are enabled for blind and visually-impaired readers. Beginning in January, folks without access to smartphones can check out a physical copy of the stories from any Austin Public Library Branch. Says Lambe, "Whatever we bring forward, everyone should be able to enjoy it."

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"Wander" is now live and scheduled to run through the next five years. It is free and open to all.