Ivar Zeile has seen the future of public art, and it’s on 25′ x 60′ screens

Before launching Denver Digerati and becoming a national leader in digital placemaking, Ivar Zeile founded the contemporary arts gallery Plus Gallery in Denver in 2001. He had previously worked in design, film, and video, and had been the Presentation Manager for the Sundance Film Festival for 10 years.

“I have a history deeply embedded in understanding film as art,” Zeile says. “When I started the gallery in 2001, I felt those sensibilities might come into play. I was starting completely fresh from the ground up – the only thing that qualified me to own a gallery was having a passion for art and having purchased artwork, and that’s really important when you’re running a gallery.”

He entered the Denver market at the ideal moment, he says. “It seemed like there were fantastic things happening in the arts in Denver at that moment. Intuition and practical experience helped me create a gallery that made its place in Denver and is known as a really strong upstart for contemporary art.”

Being the owner of a gallery on the forefront of an exploding arts scene, Zeile was asked to be involved in a lot of community-level interests. He was asked to join the Mayor’s Commission for Cultural Affairs to help to guide policy related to public art and give some guidance in things the city could do to support the arts and give them a place in the city.

He was on the Commission for six years, during the time the Denver Theatre District was forming. LED screens were being installed along the downtown corridor, and they needed something to act as a buffer against the commercialism of the LED advertising billboards. In 2009, the Commission worked out a deal so that a portion of funding received from the LED screens’ commercial interests would be allocated to the Theatre District to do activations and screen programs on those same LED screens.

Denver Theatre District leadership sought Zeile’s advice as a community-minded arts leader in the city who had also previously curated experimental film and digital animation events at Plus Gallery, the only gallery in Denver to have done that.

“I told them exactly what I thought they needed to be cognizant of if they were going to put some of these resources into art in ways no one had ever done before,” Zeile recalls. “I said they needed a creative director or advisor to oversee the art portion. So of course they asked me to do it.”

Zeile was intrigued by the offer, seeing it as a way to do something visible for the public in a way that a commercial gallery owner – who is dependent on revenue earned entirely from private sales to individuals and is only “public” in the sense that people are allowed inside to look around – rarely has the opportunity to do.

“It was nice to take on the challenge of deciding the works that would be visible in public,” he says. “That’s really where Denver Digerati started.”

For the first couple of years, Zeile’s role was to select artwork for the billboards. The LED screens were a new problem to tackle; there weren’t exactly protocols for something like this.

“That opened up a lot of avenues of interest that related back to my film background,” he says. “An LED screen is a very peculiar vehicle for motion-based art. It’s a very strange system to infiltrate. I was given the reins to figure out how to use it in a meaningful way. That was a slow process to really understand.”

The Denver Theatre District’s first installment was “Frame of Mind” in 2011, showcasing 39 juried short-format works from exclusively Colorado artists in conjunction with Create Denver Week’s “Local Network,” an evening of creative new media sponsored by the Downtown Denver Partnership. This first official program was a precursor to Denver Digerati.

“I assumed there would be a number of artists who would submit who had never done anything like this before,” Zeile says. “I put together a 25-minute program that featured 39 works. They were presented on a 25′ x 60′ LED screen to the public in conjunction with other arts activations. It was pretty spectacular. We shut the street down and 1,000 people came out. Having this audience right in the heart of downtown looking at this giant screen on a beautiful façade was an ‘Ah-ha’ moment when I knew we’re really onto something here.”

They following year they did a longer 80-minute program that consisted of works from all over the world, which Zeile curated personally based on his knowledge of motion-based artists. “That also validated what the potential direction was for the use of these screens,” he says. “At that point it dawned on me we were onto something exciting, that this is becoming something specialized, so we needed to call it something.”

So, in 2012, Zeile formalized Denver Digerati as a unique program of curatorial activity that stands apart from the other activities of the Denver Theatre District.

While the LED screens are used primarily for commercial purposes, having been built and financed by commercial enterprises for the purpose of selling advertising, Denver Digerati imagines how these LED screens would function if they were just pure art.

“The only way to do that is to create an event and talk to the commercial company and tell them, ‘You’re going to turn the screens over to us for this event,'” he says.

The programs produced by Denver Digerati range from 30 minutes to an hour or more, and are held during the summer months. They typically hold three to five events per year representing the top level of contemporary artists using digital methods and animation for art worldwide. Digerati also commissions artists to create works customized to the unique aspect ratios of individual screens, making these pieces truly unique; an experience that cannot be replicated on a laptop or smartphone.

LED screens are used in busy city corridors all over the world, but the only thing you’ll ever see on them is advertising.

“This is more about what would the city look like if art was on these screens during the day and maybe at all times,” says Zeile. “Our goal is to show what a screen looks like showing art all the time. We keep really working towards discovering how the public perceives these screens if there’s artwork on them. If there’s artwork on them, people watch them. If there’s not, they ignore them.”

Zeile believes that this is the future of public art. Instead of cities funding (often controversial) $1 million sculptures and other static pieces of public art, as time goes on, public art will become more interactive. We see it already with indoor pieces that have projection components, and in public pieces like the towering Crown Fountain in Chicago’s Millennium Park. Right now, Zeile is focused on building a network of artists, so that screens can display unique programming for hours on end – if and when the time comes, and it seems like that time is now.

From the very start with the first Frame of Mind program, Zeile says, “We knew we needed to make this bigger. We needed to have a festival. So of course we chose to experiment more with events and happenings, all leading back to the original idea of having a festival concept where all the content is presented on LED screens.”

As of last week, Denver Digerati officially has approval for a one-day festival on all five LED screens in the Denver Theatre District in partnership with DTD and Denver Arts & Venues. The festival, called Supernova, will be held September 24, 2016 and will be an all-day public immersion in digital animation and new media culture. Examples of artwork categories include Flash, fantasy, surrealism, narrative, Lego, gaming, texture, and dance.

“No other city in the world has done something of that nature,” Zeile says. “This really is something that is meant to showcase the goal of the project, which is to show if you had pieces like this on the screens all the whole time, would it have a different impact? Would that inspire communities to do something different?”