Thursday, December 5, 2013

Public Art Shakes Up Navy Yard Area

<old navyp> Michael Kirby and three other paint-splattered artists sat cross-legged in a parking lot next to the former intelligence agency, inside tall iron fencing, near the big security gatehouse, with the drab, almost windowless walls of a high-security building behind them.

Two of the outside walls were no longer blank: On one side, artists on this recent day had dumped more than 100 gallons of bright paint - SPLAT! - down the front of the building. On another, there was a five-story high mural, with two lederhosen-wearing figures grappling, little cartoon lightning bolts coming out of one of their mouths. One had a gleaming gold dinosaur skull head. The other might be a sock monkey, or, possibly, a gray, heavily tattooed, mustachioed little man wearing a ski mask.

So, yeah: It's no longer part of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Now it's art.

The building, once home to top-secret CIA programs, is empty, stripped, with cables hanging down from the ceiling. "Zombie paradise," said Kirby, who peeked in a door when demolition workers came out.

A public art project kicked off recently in the area around the Navy Yard in Southeast Washington, which is in the midst of a massive redevelopment - from a place by turns seedy, industrial and forbidding into a beautiful waterfront neighborhood. The Defense Mapping Agency moved to a secure location on a military base. The Navy shuttered the buildings it used to make boilers and anchors. The strip clubs buttoned up and left.

New apartment towers, the U.S. Department of Transportation and Nationals Park rose up. Now about a third built out, with construction cranes all about, it's a funny place, with bleak vacant lots, mountains of dirt, and a water treatment plant, as well as lovely parks, expensive homes and unexpected bright spots: an ice-skating rink glowing at night, bright kayaks bobbing along the river, a trapeze school, and one of the city's buzziest bars.

Forest City Washington, the massive real estate company that owns 42 acres and will be building here for many years, commissioned artists to help fill in some of the blanks.

Art Yards, an "evolving canvas" of a project that will stretch from late November to mid-December, happened kind of by chance, with D.C. street artist Kelly Towles pitching an ambitious plan that included inviting artists from across the country to try to shake things up. Both the developer and the Capitol Riverfront business improvement district have been interested in promoting "temporary urbanism," with pop-ups like the makeshift bar area outside the ballpark to fill in empty spaces.

On Friday and Saturday nights, DJs spun at a silent disco inside one soon-to-be-filled space, with dancers choosing channels on their headphones. The Art Yards project is focused on the building across from the ballpark, a monolithic chalky grayish block that, artists decided, was a perfect blank canvas. This week, Dabs Myla, a couple of Australian artists now based in Los Angeles who create a world full of fat, doughy letters, wide-eyed cheeky spray-paint cans, hotdogs, foxes and other cheerful characters, are painting a giant bat on the south wall.

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