Disembarking outside the newly renovated Union Depot in St. Paul, the Green Line passenger is pleasantly aware of the abundance of public space. Minneapolis’ downtown, generally abuzz with activity on the street level and in the Skyway, can feel dense and hive-like. Sleepier downtown St. Paul, on the other hand, offers a lot of elbow room. It’s more like an open range, where you can spot a fellow pedestrian a mile away. There’s something to be said for this expansiveness. Certainly, it means there is no jostling to observe public art installations up close -- my mission on a recent Saturday.
Union Depot’s interior is as spacious as is the square in front of its grand portico. On this particular afternoon, visitors passed by the Christos location in what the floor plan of the building describes as the main hall. The day I went, the restaurant was closed for what looked like wedding banquet preparations, and the white tablecloths and floral arrangements they’d set out for the occasion looked as timeless as the depot itself.
Proceed through a thicket of information kiosks along the concourse and you may notice what appear to be two large fossils embedded in pink stone -- perhaps on loan from the Science Museum, I wondered? They are mounted high on a wall over “informative” wall text which, as you read it, makes less and less sense until, finally, you understand what must be clear to the paleontologically educated viewer immediately. These are, in fact, faux fossils (fauxils?), and the story of their discovery in a shipping container mouldering in a “cave-like” hidden chamber within the Depot is a fake, too.
The fact that this is a work of art and not of science is actually plainly evident -- for one thing, the title (A Dream of the Great Northern Railway) and the name of the artist (Michael Bahl) are on prominent display. Nonetheless, it’s surprising how far I got in skimming the wall text before the lightbulb went on. I’m a sucker -- in every sense, apparently -- for authoritative-sounding confabulations. It calls to mind another such hoax: the Museum of Jurassic Technology, an entire institution dedicated to “artifacts” that seem more or less plausible, but are universally fabricated. Or, what about the phenomenon of Mystery Spots? In an unspoken pact, visitors and guides feign amazement at apparent violations of the laws of physics. Bahl’s “fossils” are well worth a close look, both for the amusing back story and for their visual beauty. And the work puts you in a playful frame of mind well-suited to the next piece of public art you’ll encounter at the back of the vast, light-filled waiting room.
Stroll past the ping-pong table, past exits for the “Historic Staircase,” past the frieze depicting antiquated transportation which reprises its theme endlessly like a wallpaper border in a child’s bedroom. Easily overlooked at the very back of the room are two related features: a tiered seating area in one corner faced with white-flecked green terrazzo, and what looks like an oversized throne made from the same material and situated nearby in front of the windows that overlook the train tracks. On closer inspection, you will find embedded in the terrazzo round brass speakers that bear the legend:
Amateur Intelligence Radio
The voice of Union Depot
powered by your stories
LISTEN HERE OR ONLINE
Twist a knob to turn on a speaker, and you will catch a robotic -- yet somehow warm -- male voice in the middle of telling a story or offering a piece of advice. “Hello, I’m the building,” it will add from time to time. LED lights shine from underneath and behind the listening stations when the speakers are on. The sounds coming from the two listening stations are slightly out of sync, so when both are turned on, the robot announcer of a minute ago talks over the robot announcer of the present. Pleasant musical intervals recall the little jingles that precede announcements over the PA in European train stations.
On this particular Saturday, a kid in Twins gear climbed on top of the throne-like listening station and asked his distracted parents, “What is this thing?” It’s a good question. It turns out that it’s a project by Daily tous les jours, a Montreal-based interaction design firm, in partnership with Minnesota’s own Northern Lights. You can see a slideshow of the installation’s construction here. The listening stations look so at home in the depot, it’s a little disconcerting to know that they were put up earlier this year rather than some forgotten fixture dusted off and resurrected during the renovation. Flipping through the slideshow online after my visit, I was also chagrined to find that I did not discover the third, hidden listening stationbehind one of the station doors. Even so, the best way to experience AIR is to stumble upon it and wonder -- like the young Twins fan I overheard -- what is this thing? It would surely sap a little of the magic away if one were to study up on the work’s secret nooks and crannies in advance.
Is that creepy? Maybe it should be, but the voice of Union Depot is so friendly and passive, even that declaration comes across as reassuring - like Hal 9000’s quirky little brother, all-seeing but devoid of evil intent. It just wants to be friends, or to give you a word of advice, like the robotic voice at light rail stops that is occasionally moved to reflect that “safety is a shared responsibility.”
Depending on how long you listen to the voice of Union Depot, you’ll likely hear stories and observations repeated. I would exhort civic-minded public art enthusiasts to go online and submit their own missives for inclusion. Doing so is a public service, and it’s easy -- after signing up for an account you can submit your thoughts in a number of categories that also serve as excellent writing prompts. You even get to choose what mood the voice of Union Depot should convey when it reads your piece.
As I sat at the communal listening station, a boy and his dad ran to the window to catch sight of a train leaving or arriving. The dad lifted the boy so that he could stand on a radiator to look out and took a video of his son’s reaction on his cell phone. After the train passed, he playfully swept the boy up in his arms and walked back toward the exit, pausing under another work, a canopy of round light bulbs suspended from the ceiling. Beautiful in itself, this piece by Jim Campbell becomes positively hypnotic as shadowy human figures start to swim across the cloud of LED bulbs. The father and son stared up at the swimmers suspended just below the ceiling, the son floating too, relaxed in the hammock of his parent’s arms.
Hannah Dentinger is rediscovering the Minnesotan cultural scene after a period of exile elsewhere in the Midwest. She writes about art and literature.