Austin’s Hello Lamp Post project turns conversation into public art

The street light over there wants to know what your favorite game is. The nearby fire hydrant is curious what chore you wish a robot could do for you; and that bus stop is wondering where you’re going.

At least that’s the idea behind Hello Lamp Post, a modern art installation that launched Thursday in Austin that allows people to exchange text messages with inanimate objects scattered across the city.

Modeled after a similar effort in the British city of Bristol, the project sits at the “intersection of technology and culture,” said Ben Barker, who designed the installation with Sam Hill for PAN Studios.

A computer program responds when someone sends a text message to 512-580-7373 to any street object. The program asks a couple of questions and shares the things previous people had to say — turning a computerized conversation with an object into a way of connecting with other people who have passed that way.

“Often you can use a space and not realize the type of person you share it with,” Hill said.

The Hello Lamp Post project — with a name that’s bound to get Simon & Garfunkel’s 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy) stuck in your head — was commissioned by the Austin’s Cultural Arts Division of the Economic Development in celebration of the Art in Public Places program’s 30th anniversary.

The city is spending $55,000 from the hotel occupancy tax to contract the artists, implement the installment and promote it. In-kind donations and monetary donations were also helped fund the project, which runs through April 27.

The city wanted to mark Art in Public Places’ 30th anniversary with something unique, said the program’s coordinator Carrie Brown. This installation was not only unique but helped reach parts of Austin that they haven’t been able to reach before, Brown said.

“It’s the fact that this project can be experienced in any part of the city,” Brown said. “You can interact with it right in your own neighborhood.”

Art in Public Places partnered with the Austin Art Alliance, which is spreading the word about the project to residents. The art alliance’s executive director, Asa Hursh, thinks the project is unique on a more global scale.

“The definition of artist can be opened up to include people in the tech sector and designers,” Hursh said.It’s important to sort of change these roles and the definition of public art.”

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