News & Features » Cover Story


Linda Voreland’s world experiment.


You are the girl who walks past the storefront window in that same building, posting notes of curiosity and encouragement to the man who’s living there, on display, for seven days and nights.

You are the college student who is told to buy not a textbook for art class, but a shortwave radio. Your assignment: Listen to international news for four hours a day and compare it to what’s on local TV.

You are the audience, perhaps unwittingly so, and you may not completely understand what’s going on here, but you sense — if you’re perceptive and idealistic — that this is something extraordinary.

This is just what Linda Voreland wanted.

Voreland, a luminous Norwegian artist with energetic tentacles that extend across the continents, has big plans and a world audience. And she’s starting in Richmond, a city she says has more talent and potential than anywhere else. “What a place this could be,” she muses.

Why here? Why us? And are we ready?

“What I hope to achieve is to build a sense of identity and community, not just in Richmond, but the world,” Voreland says, “to get the voices of the unheard out, to get people to express themselves, to get out all that energy that is hidden away. A lot of positivity comes from that.”

Before you reject this as yet another attempt at bridge building in a city not known for tolerance, hear the woman out. (If you’re swayed by such things, know that grocery magnate Jim Ukrop did, and he’s heartily on board.)

Voreland’s method is an organization called Urban Light Works and its ambitious plans to bring public art to urban settings. The goal: Ten years from now, Urban Light Works will be represented on all continents, displayed live via satellite at many sites simultaneously, and its events will unite audiences in lively, egalitarian celebrations of expression and humanity.

For now, Richmond is its epicenter.

Voreland, a Fulbright scholar with an M.F.A. in media arts from Northern Illinois University, specializes in public art and kinetic imagery — any art that moves in time. She was recruited to come here as a visiting professor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s school of the arts, where she has taught kinetic imagery for five years.

She uses newer technologies, such as video and audio and lasers, to create performances that are postmodern happenings. They are experienced in the moment — felt, seen, engaged-in. The messages are as personal as the perceptions of each audience member, but there’s a shared sense, too — a coming together of fringe and mainstream, of fearful and bold.

“People are people, whether you’re the CEO of Philip Morris or Bob on the corner,” Voreland says between puffs on a Camel Light. “By seeing these different expressions of art, you’re going to find something you can relate to, to make you feel a part of something greater.”

That includes breaking down boundaries — philosophically and geographically.

“It’s incredibly important,” says Voreland, whose demeanor is charismatic and coolly forceful, “to educate people not just about what’s going on at their back door, but what’s going on in the world. And to bring the world to their back door.” Hence the student assignment to listen to shortwave radio broadcasts of international news, to get beyond the message-as-usual in daily life. “What happens to our understanding of who we are and what we’re doing when we stand next to other cultures? What are our myths, and what are theirs?”

She brings the questions home, asking the same of taggers and suits, skeptics and converts. How best can we open ourselves to possibilities beyond our experience? And can’t we have fun doing it?

From Oct. 31 to Nov. 1, Richmond will get its biggest opportunity yet to find out.

Voreland became aware of technology’s universal power while working as a producer at a Norwegian television station, but her strongest image of its mesmerizing hold came in the Dominican Republic in 1996 where she created documentaries to educate and empower local women. In the village where she lived, there was no electricity, and darkness was cut only by candles and gas lanterns. One night, surprised to see a blue light glowing from one of the wooden shacks in the village, she strode over to investigate. There, in a small room, 10 villagers were crowded around a television set powered by a car battery. What was amazing, she recalls, was that they were transformed — not talking — and watching only static on the screen. “That television was celebrated as a shrine,” she says, “and it was a village event.”

But Voreland owns no television now. She considers it a numbing device.

She grew conscious of the potential to exploit the villagers with her unfamiliar technology. “I gave the children the camera to take home and tape their families,” she says. “What was interesting was what they focused on — their grandma’s big ears or their mother’s crooked toes. It’s easy to exploit people when you go into a Third World country, so I tried to give them the same power that I had.”

Voreland spent a year traveling through Asia and Africa, working on a project called Media for the Disadvantaged. In Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, India and Malaysia, she honed her perceptions of self and technology, and experienced the fragility of the human condition. “To treat people with respect — that is what matters,” she says, describing the wild cacophony of spirituality and chaos that formed her lasting impressions of the places and people.

Those experiences led her to this, Urban Lights Works, and her daily exercise in seduction and resistance, reeling out her ideas of pageantry and spectacle, hoping to pull in backers who see the larger goal. “Public art speaks about the culture of place,” she contends. “What kind of public art do we have here? We have a challenge to educate people that art is a lot more about the community than a sculpture of that hero.”

Voreland honors Richmond’s history and chooses to live here because she’s charmed by the challenges and opportunities. But statues that commemorate war don’t reflect the city’s only interest, she says. “Public art communicates on several levels,” she says. “It needs to cross all institutional barriers such as race, class and status, and speak about the culture of place. If we are going to get peace and communication across the borders, this is one way.”

Sometimes that’s a delicate balance.

After all, public art invites a dialogue and often jousts with controversy and politics. Witness Richmond’s flood wall, where Robert E. Lee’s image has been harshly divisive. At Urban Light Work’s next production, that same wall will become the backdrop for a video curtain of old- and new-wave film projections. Sensitivity to the site and its underlying social dynamic is a primary consideration when the group plans its performances.

“Urban Light Works has to be in good taste,” Voreland says, “and we have to know the context of where we’re showing our work. There’s stuff we’re showing that’s political and edgy, but in public art we are a borderless gallery, and we have to always be aware of that. I don’t like shock art. I don’t think it’s very effective. It may be the easiest way, but it’s a cop-out. There’s so much that is actually shocking around us I think we have a longer way to go to present ideas. We want to create dialogue and contemplation instead of aggression and defensiveness. I don’t want to be a censor, but some things are inappropriate in a public space. Controversial issues must be presented with artistic merit.”

“Part of our agenda is social reform,” Urban Lights Works co-founder Allison Andrews says, “to help people learn they are more similar than different, that everybody wants and needs the same things. Artists are important to a culturally rich environment. But people have trouble with this because it’s such a big idea with so many elements. People try to fit it in models they’re familiar with, and there’s a level of discomfort from these unknowns. Getting the point across has been our biggest challenge.”

It’s a pitch that alternately works and stalls out, depending on the audience.

“What we’re doing is a whole new concept,” Voreland says. “The artists are behind us, 100 percent, but the business community is having a harder time getting it. They respond to my passion, but get lost on some of my ideas. But Jim Ukrop understood immediately what I was trying to do.”

Earlier this year, the group approached Ukrop’s, hoping to tap into its corporate philanthropy, and came away with its first long-range commitment: space for a headquarters and a tacit endorsement of its mission.

Ukrop says he was impressed with the group’s persistence and vision, and gave them use of a former print shop at 317 W. Broad St., near the 1708 Gallery. “I had an empty building there, and I really like to see Broad Street reinvent itself. There’s a momentum moving there, with First Fridays and restaurants and galleries and more and more people, so having something in the building makes sense to further that cause.”

“I’m Richmond’s cultural klutz,” he laughs, “but I like their global ideas. I know they’re out in front of a lot of people, with street activities and costumes and things going on. From what I’ve seen it’s hard to put a boundary on it.”

Voreland, in her gentle Norwegian cadence, acknowledges that pioneering requires sacrifice. “I’m doing this for free. I’ve given myself one year to do this, spending my savings. Now I’m waiting for the business community to step up to the plate. If Richmond is going to get on the world map of art, we can’t just sit on the fence.

“Artistically, I want the so-called elite arts to keep their integrity, but to make art more democratic, more accessible. Art is changing all over the world. When it comes to funding what is considered good art, what is safe, you have these establishments, and not as much for the new thinking. I just really believe in what I’m doing, and I get frustrated at lip service. I’m so stubborn, I never give up. This is for the right reasons.”

Those reasons, in short, are to give life to public spaces and abandoned areas, give a voice to marginalized communities, give artists a forum and create a fun, eye-opening place for the general public.

Kathy Emerson, manager of the 17th Street Farmers’ Market, cooperated with Urban Light Works for its earliest events and applauds Voreland’s tenacity. “She’s fresh, she comes to this with a different way of looking at things, she’s optimistic and believes anything is possible, and she’s worked against a lot of odds,” Emerson says. “Financial backing would give a lot more strength to their projects, because they require a lot of technology, not just bodies.”

Emerson recalls a project nearly four years ago during Richmond’s official opening to the holiday season, the Grand Illumination: “At the Spaghetti Works, it was raw, and beautiful, and it was great,” she says “… the drums, the students, the fashion, dance and sculpture people all wearing things that lighted up, people suspended and wrapped in lights, a lot of the projections on columns and walls. It really was wonderful.”

And where were you?

Halloween weekend brings you, the audience, another chance to experience this phenomenon firsthand when Urban Light Works International unleashes its flames and costumes and noises on the Turning Basin at the Richmond Canal.

In an event produced in collaboration with downtown events group CityCelebration and the VCU school of the arts, more than 600 artists — from children to international figures — will dance on stilts, project films, perform music from Asia, Africa and South America, parade among moving sculptures and fashions and lighted hairdos, and use the canal’s water and structures as props for performance-art pieces.

Ceramic artist Ole Morten Rovkam of Norway will work with VCU graduate students to fire a 15-foot sculpture in an outdoor kiln. During the two and a half days, people will be able to watch the kiln, and the sculpture’s riblike archways inside, glow through a fiber blanket.

“It will be an incredible happening,” Rovkam says, “and the exciting thing is, we’ve done a lot of planning but the actual process has a lot of unpredictables. We’re giving it up to the unknown very carefully. It’s an intense feeling when you’re firing a wood kiln. You’re part of a living organism. You can hear it as it breathes and whooshes. Seeing that will be an experience.” And to top it off, the events will be simulcast via computer streaming to the Sorlandets Kunst Museum in southern Norway.

Voreland predicts that attendance here could reach 10,000.

“It’s a huge undertaking,” Rovkam says. “It’s got to do with breaking down barriers between arts and crafts, young and old, different cultures. This is very important to bring understanding to the world, and once it expands, it will build a lot of bridges. We have important work to do because there are barriers everywhere. Linda brings pure enthusiasm and energy to this work.”

Events that are ephemeral, no matter how brilliant their imagery and motion, risk being lost to a mindset that’s more familiar with a daily drive past Stonewall Jackson. Voreland resists any suggestion that hers is a disposable enterprise. “It’s what the audience takes with them from each event that matters,” she says. “The piece might last only a few minutes, but their impression can last a lifetime. How do you sell an experience?”

Word of mouth and media coverage are the obvious answers, but grassroots momentum is also fueled by Web-streaming and Urban Light Works’ relentless networking within academia, and business and civic organizations. What Voreland wants for her volunteer-run, not-for-profit group is legitimacy within the city’s cultural establishment — a place at the table. Funding is part of that validation, and audience support for innovative public art is the other.

It’s not just bucket drums and glowing hairdos; it’s a big, vibrant cause.

When Voreland first came to Richmond six years ago, she traveled not the main boulevards but the back alleys, scavenging for information about this historic and complicated city. She pitched a tent and slept under the bridge at the Spaghetti Works to envelop herself in its throbbing environment of sounds. “It was an industrial symphony, the rhythms of the cars, the echoes, like being in the middle of a big boombox,” she recalls of that night.

Since then, she has convinced herself and a band of followers that Richmond, at this place, at this moment, is the world’s most ideal setting for unorthodoxy and peace. S


What: Urban Light Works International 2003.

When: Friday, Oct. 31, 6-10 p.m.; Saturday, Nov. 1, 3-10 p.m.

Where: Turning Basin, Richmond Canal.

You can expect: Performance art, a wood-fired kiln international music, dancers, drummers, moving sculptures, film installations and projections, artists in illuminated suits and a remote-controlled boat race for children.

On the catwalk: Fashion show and performances by students from the fashion design and dance departments at VCU, with fashion designer Nick Cave. Both days, 7-9 p.m.

Most elevated sight: Expect to see a “laser ceiling” over the Basin.

More information: By phone,648-5237, or online at