Artist Kelley Bell uses animations and projections to light up Baltimore’s architecture
Bromo Seltzer Tower clock room transformed into an installation through Dec. 12
Published: November 2, 2011
Kelley Bell Bromo Seltzer Tower Projections
For more information, go to art.umbc.edu.
The 17th floor of the Bromo Seltzer Tower is dominated by mammoth cast-iron clockworks: massive gears; a labyrinth of intersecting cranks, chains, and poles connecting the central workings to the hands of each of the clocks; and a series of old-fashioned-looking circuit boards. At first, the whole thing looks like something out of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times—except it is decidedly no longer modern. As the sun shines through the four clock faces, the nearly motionless machinery casts distorted shadows across the floor. The atmosphere of the room is, in fact, more like the ominous expressionism of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
When Capt. Isaac Emerson, the inventor of the Bromo Seltzer headache remedy, built the Tower in 1911, it was the tallest building in the city, especially with the 51-foot lit-up, rotating replica of a Bromo Seltzer bottle on top. (It was removed in 1936.) In 1969, the city began using the landmark building as overflow office space, but eventually it fell into a period of vacant disrepair. A private consortium purchased the tower in 2006 and placed it under the management of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts (BOPA). The building now houses 33 artist studios, which will be open to the public on Nov. 5, when Baltimore will also have a chance to glimpse the most fascinating part of this historic building: The clock room itself will be transformed into an installation.
It all began with Joe Wall, the tower’s manager. Wall managed building maintenance at the American Visionary Art Museum before he started working at the tower in 2009 and was keen for the artistic opportunities his new job presented. “When I first saw the ground glass on the clock faces, I immediately knew I had to find someone who could project through them,” Wall says. He met Kelley Bell, a local animator and projectionist who agreed to create a series of projections for the Tower’s centennial.
This summer, Bell projected a series of short animations called “The Clock Strikes 100” through three of the four clock faces.
For the project, Bell created five different animations to light up the clock faces each night from within. In order to be seen from far below, the images needed to be particularly simple and clear. In one, moving pupils and lids turned the clocks into giant blinking eyes looking out over the city. Another sent seltzer bubbles with woozy-looking faces upward over the face of the clocks as if they were glasses of water. A century ago, people could see the lit-up tower from 20 miles away. Despite drastic changes to the skyline, Bell’s projections can still be viewed from far along Eutaw, across Lombard, and from I-95. “That’s the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like I’ve made it,” she says of seeing her work from the highway.
Now Bell is in the tower once more, preparing for a second series of projections. Wearing a flapper-style hat and tortoiseshell glasses, she sets up a projector atop a platform over an elevator shaft. While working on her last series of projections, Bell experienced some serendipity. “What really surprised me was the way the light from the three projectors intersected and reflected off of all of this metal up here,” Bell says. It is this effect that visitors to the opening will experience.
Bell points her projectors across the room at the clock faces, and the three different beams collide and reflect off the overlapping layers of metal in bursts of ricocheting colors. From within, the effect is dense, intimate, and abstract—everything the distant external projections aren’t.
As she walks around the tower, Bell herself is animated; she’s jaunty even as she climbs a ladder up two more dark stories and fights off nesting pigeons to reach the roof and the spectacular view of the city it offers.
Bell stands looking at West Eutaw Street nearly 20 stories below. It’s a month before the opening and she still doesn’t know what images she will project. “I tell my students, It’s not hard to use the [animating] software or a projector,” she says. “The hard part is finding a good reason to do it.” Many of the new animations will be inspired by the qualities of autumn and winter. But she will also use the Bromo bubbles again to draw attention to the history of the site. The clocks atop the tower tell time, but Bell’s work insists that they also tell us about time.
The Bromo Seltzer Tower was not Bell’s first artistic engagement with Baltimore’s architecture. She grew up in Washington, D.C., and went to college at the Pratt Institute in New York City. Then, in 1997, she moved to Baltimore and lived in a studio at the H&H building.
“It sounds dramatic to say living in that building changed my life, but I would not be the same person if I had not lived there,” she says of the studios and performance spaces above the H&H surplus store on the corner of Eutaw and Franklin. At the H&H, which was granted live/work zoning by the city while she was there, Bell began to see the intersection of the city’s architecture and its burgeoning art scene.
Bell began working in graphic design for the Creative Alliance and started graduate school in animation at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. (Disclosure: This reporter’s wife works at UMBC.) But she was also interested in making installations and found herself bothered by the square frame that often defines animation. She wanted the images to interact with the city around her.
“Place is really important to me,” Bell says, up on the roof. “I remember when they were tearing down a block of rowhouses on St. Paul. I could hardly drive down the road I felt so bad about it.”
In response, she created “White Light, Black Birds.” For this guerilla project, she strapped a projector to her car and drove around Baltimore, beaming ravens on buildings that were going to be drastically modified or destroyed in the hopes of sparking conversation. In one animation, a raven appears on the wall, pulls a quarter from the ground, and lies on its back, spinning the coin with its feet. As the quarter spins, it grows, and eventually falls, crushing the raven under its weight. In another, the bird’s neck elongates and its head becomes a wrecking ball.
The projections earned Bell a master’s degree and eventually a faculty position at UMBC. But for Bell, “White Light, Black Birds” was also an activist statement against gentrification. “The responses from the community were not all what I thought they’d be,” Bell says; many residents told her they supported gentrification projects, for a variety of reasons. “It left me with more questions than I started with.”
Her next project was “The Rise and Fall of the Land of Pleasant Living,” a short animated film about the various stages of building in Baltimore that tried to tackle the issue of gentrification again by depicting the continual change in urban space through an endless succession of building and destruction. Bell considers “Rise and Fall” a transitional point between “White Light, Black Birds” and her project at the Bromo Seltzer Tower.
“When I got to ‘The Clock Strikes 100,’ it wasn’t so much about activism,” she says. “I wanted to appreciate Baltimore’s amazing architecture. Instead of wagging my finger, I wanted to give people a really good reason to care about it.”
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