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Joanna Weiss

$30 ticket? Just breathe

Cambridge’s artist-in-residence humanizes parking law experiences

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / September 26, 2010

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THERE ARE certain things that make Cambridge indisputably Cambridge, one of them being the world’s most miserable parking situation, and another being a superhuman tolerance for peace-and-harmony talk. So the outside world got a hearty laugh last week when the two of them converged — in the form of parking tickets that feature pictures of yoga poses.

Of course, this has been billed as the ultimate triumph of the yuppie-moonbat set. In fact, it’s part of a public art project, which isn’t precisely the same thing. Daniel Peltz, a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, has became the first temporary “artist in residence’’ at Cambridge’s Department of Traffic, Parking and Transportation. And while his goals are varied and airy, one of them is to change people’s relationship with parking enforcement — making it, as he has written, “one that includes gentleness, wonder, curiosity, and joy.’’

Well, good luck with that. And good luck getting the public to fully appreciate the project. Public art has long flourished in Cambridge, but it’s mostly associated with physical work, such as the sculptural installations in the Red Line stations. Peltz is a conceptual artist, which means his work is more likely to be something like the “communal urban nap’’ he once led in a courtyard near RISD’s campus.

For his current exhibit with the Cambridge Arts Council, a division of city government, Peltz spent weeks shadowing the oft-maligned workers in the traffic department. He sat at windows with ticket collectors, went out in the field with the guys who place boots on cars, and realized they were warm and funny people, after all. So he came up with what he calls a “suite of four gestures’’ to humanize the parking-law experience, from his so-called “citation salutations’’ to a series of plush “soft boots.’’

In the Arts Council gallery, Peltz installed a wall-sized mural of hand-transcribed “excuses:’’ people’s explanations for their parking violations, filed with the department and forgotten. And in a few spots around Cambridge, workers have posted faux street signs that say things like, “If You Can Read This Sign You Can Read This Sign.’’

Granted, one could argue that Cambridge would be better off posting a few more signs with actual meaning; have you ever tried to navigate the streets of Kendall Square? And someone who just got a $30 parking ticket might be thinking of a different set of gestures entirely. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for injecting humor and humanity into the most mundane routines. When the rare T announcer decides to tell some jokes, the mood in the cars shifts palpably. Commuters let down their guards and turn into people for a change.

It’s hard to put a price on that sort of transformation, but Peltz’s project hasn’t cost Cambridge much; his artist’s fee with the Cambridge Arts Council measured in the thousands, says executive director Jason Weeks, and the city had to print more parking tickets, anyway. And while it’s natural, and probably wise, to wonder whether avant-garde artists are getting a good laugh at our expense, Peltz comes across as genuinely earnest. He’s just a guy who’s determined to wring art out of bureaucracy.

I asked him to explain precisely what he meant, in a formal description of his exhibit, when he called Cambridge’s parking code “a deeply poetic document.’’ By email from Sweden, he offered a long explanation. It’s a link to the past, he wrote; there’s still a section dedicated to the care of horses. It’s a study of language: precise phrases about traffic can have entertaining double meanings. He pointed to the sections about “Clinging to Vehicles’’ and “Dropping or Leaking Loads,’’ and I have to admit, those are evocative.

Peltz’s exhibit will last through Nov. 19. After that, Cambridge’s public-versus-parking-department dynamic will likely revert to its usual standards of mutual hatred and simmering rage. As for Peltz himself, we have two choices, it seems. We could send him back to art school to consort with the pinheads. Or we could offer him a residency with the RMV. Goodness knows, a little yoga would come in handy during those waits.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.

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