Never let it be said that artist Christopher Janney can’t take criticism. When his SoundStair exhibition was touring Europe, an elderly German woman said to him, “You Americans have no culture and never will.” When the interactive light-sound display triggered by movement was on display at a Tulsa festival, a bystander commented, “That’s like a burglar alarm.” But Janney, who has created notable pieces of public art for four decades, enjoys the provocative nature of his work. “I’ve been called enough different things that it doesn’t faze me,” he says, “I try not to let human ego dictate where the aesthetics of the work might go.”
It’s hard to categorize Janney of PhenomenArts Inc. He trained as an architect at Princeton and dropped out for a year to play in jazz-rock bands. He later entered a MIT fellowship program that encouraged site-specific civic art and the application of technology as an artistic medium. Janney, 68, doesn’t like to be labeled avant garde. He says that the closest profession to what he does is instrument making – urban instrument making. “It’s not about sculptures or finished forms,” he says. “The interactivity is pretty important. Basically, I build something, then take it out into the world and tweak it.” His commissions are for large scale, immersive environments like the original SoundStair at Boston’s Museum of Science, a kaleidoscope color corridor at Miami International Airport, and a New York subway sound array.
Thanks to the “one percent for art” government initiative – one percent of the cost of a publicly-funded building can be allocated to the cost of commissioning a work of art — public art is thriving. Janney said, but competition among artists has increased. “There’s more cherry pie, but more people who are competing for a slice.” he say. Working within a set budget, his rule of thumb for design project expenses is one-third for materials, one-third for labor (studio and consultants), one-third for profit and overhead.
In his Lexington studio, an idyllic farm homestead transformed into modern work space, Janney builds his prototypes and experiments with music and lighting. His team includes a shop chief, studio manager, and computer technician, as well as structural engineers and a studio manager.
He likes to quote Thomas Edison: “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” The same can be said for art, he says. “Once I have the concept and the form, I need to back up, unpack the ‘parts,’ decipher what gets made when and by whom, etc. I’m on a timeline and a budget. At that point, I’m running a business. and could be making or selling anything – cookies or computer parts.”
The Globe spoke to Janney about making art for a living.
“Being an artist is like deciding to be a priest. I’m not doing it to get rich, but because it’s calling me. It’s the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning and it eats at me all day. I have managed to combine composing, architecture, and art because of a possible attention deficit personality, mutual interest in these disciplines, and some great educational opportunities and mentors throughout my life. Creating these public installations is an awful lot of project management, almost the opposite of making art. I once fabricated a hat that was half a red beret, and the other side [was] a locomotive engineer cap. You have to train yourself to turn one side of the brain off and the other on. The trick is not to get the two confused.
“My first simple foray into experimentation was playing rhythm and drums in bands as a teenager while also working the light show. I was trained as a drummer and love the sound of brushes. Indian tabla has been my percussion instrument of choice for the last decade. I become inspired by everyday things, like a bubble toy that my in-laws gave their kids. It bounced around rhythmically on rubber feet. I was drawn to it – I liked the syncopated sounds and visual rhythms and have figured out a piece that uses bubble toys, Indian tabla and snare drum with brushes. I have a slight form of synesthesia which I’m trying to use to my advantage. It’s the mixing of the senses, where you might look at a field of yellow flowers and hear melodic tones or sounds; or taste food and see a color or pattern. It’s a very nice part of being inside my head. I was in New York and walked out on the street corner, and the buses, bikes, pedestrians were all like a rhythmic percussion event.
“I like to say I haven’t thought of a new idea since I was 26. I’m still trying to work through some of those fundamental things – using technology to find new ways to express the human experience and the spirit. My art is especially at home in airports and other transportation hubs because they’re high-stress environments. My work is designed to push against that energy, creating a soothing but stimulating space.
“In my limited down time, one of my favorite projects is converting a 1975 Porsche into an electric car. My father had a Porsche when I was growing up and I always loved the form of the car. I’ve been working on this electric Porsche for years. I call it Phred 1 after my dad — his name was Fredrick and that’s how he used to sign his letters to me, ‘Phred.’ Phred 1 also means that there could be a Phred 2. Hope springs eternal.”