Peter Wegner at Stanford: The art of innovation

The crowd standing in front of the wall-sized artwork looked mesmerized. For a split second, the 32-foot-long piece resembled an abstract painting by Ellsworth Kelly or another artist who works with grids of color. But it didn’t stay that way for long. Changing constantly, it plays more like a movie that’s about movement itself, generating suspense by developing and disrupting patterns of color instead of building up to car crashes.

At one moment, the whole “screen” floods with orange or blue; at another it disintegrates into a field of competing hues. For each small rectangle making up this large grid can change color with a quick flipping motion, the same way letters change on an old-fashioned train station departure and arrival board.

“Some people have told me it looks like fire,” says the Berkeley-based artist Peter Wegner, who called the flip-digit work “Monument to Change as It Changes” with his usual flair for paradox. “Others think it looks like liquid. Some have asked if it’s activated by wind.”

One young woman gathered before the artwork that day had another point of reference. “Is this made out of thousands of Post-it Notes?” she asked a friend.


“No, look, it’s plastic,” the friend answered.

“Well, that must say something about where my mind is,” she replied.

Her comment also says something about where the work is located — not at a major museum but at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. As part of its new $345-million campus, called the Knight Management Center after a grant by Nike co-founder Phil Knight, the business school commissioned Wegner to produce a series of artworks that were completed last month.

Filling out with forms

It’s an unusual project in many ways. Most public art is inserted into a landscape after the fact, but Wegner’s artworks were integrated into the campus — with “Monument to Change” built into the façade of an auditorium that had to be redesigned and re-permitted to accommodate its weight and behind-the-scenes apparatus. And though most university art tends to be committee-sanctioned or boring, Wegner’s suite of works for Stanford are thought-provoking in ways that his supporters have come to expect.

“Peter is driven by an interest in paradox and enigma,” says Henry Urbach, who acquired several works by him for SFMOMA when he was its architecture-design curator. “Artists can give us beautiful things to look at, maybe amazingly intricate things to wonder over, but they can also raise questions that allow us to think differently about thought and perception itself.”

Urbach mentioned Wegner’s 2004 series of upside-down Manhattan photographs, where the sky between the buildings takes the shape of a skyscraper, as typical of his blend of formal and philosophical interests. “It’s a simple gesture that turns the familiar into something unfamiliar,” Urbach says. “It also expresses his interest in the void, a metaphor for inquiry and doubt, the place where things have not yet settled into form, where all is contingent and in flux.”

The curator describes Wegner as a “protean artist,” perhaps most at home in painting but also comfortable making books, photographs, sculptures and architectural installations.

His new works, scattered across a town-hall-style campus designed by Boora Architects, take a range of forms. Near the campus center, Wegner took over an exterior wall with a giant LED display: some 300 alphabetized adverbs that light up in different arrangements to make you think about the different ways a single action could be performed. One sequence focusing on the word “wildly” cues up a slew of rough opposites, including “logically,” “soberly” and “precisely.”

The LED work could be seen to question the business school’s — or business world’s — emphasis on productivity. “It raises the question not of what you are doing, but how you are doing it,” says the artist.

Deeper in the campus, in a courtyard in view of the faculty building, Wegner has built a pair of wooden benches in the shape of a large “y” and “x,” the mathematical variables, flanked by benches in the shapes of brackets. They could be read as a very short concrete poem about uncertainty. They are also for sitting on.

And at the campus entrance, he has designed a cornerstone that reads: “Dedicated to the things that haven’t happened yet and the people who are about to dream them up.”

“I started thinking about what cornerstones signify — usually the moment of completion for a project,” says Wegner, a rail-thin, plainly dressed 47-year-old who could pass for the relaxed sort of philosophy professor. “But what if instead of looking back over your shoulder, you were looking ahead?”

This what-if, future-looking vision is something Wegner brought to the project from the start. Originally, the school was looking to hire an artist to engage in some form of “storytelling.” Nike Foundation President Maria Eitel, part of the artist search committee, says the idea was inspired by artwork at the Nike campus in Portland, Ore., used for “storytelling” or commemorative purposes, such as bronze reliefs of famous athletes. But Wegner had a different spin. “I’m not much of a storyteller, and there isn’t such a rich history here. Stanford is a world-class school, but what struck me is that it’s really a dynamic place about change, innovation and the future, not the past.” (For that reason, Wegner responded to the one traditional storytelling element on campus — a quote from Phil Knight engraved in the ground flanked by his footprints — by creating a set of anonymous footprints not far away.)

Wegner first met with a Stanford team at the start of 2010. That March they signed him on to pursue his vision without a fixed budget. Garth Saloner, the graduate business school’s dean, says Wegner “captured the dynamism” of the school, which has the mantra “Change lives, change organizations and change the world.” (Nobody involved would say how much Wegner’s vision for change cost, except to confirm that production alone exceeded a million dollars.)

Wegner then sat in on a few business school classes, “just to make sure there was enough common ground to proceed — enough critical inquiry and attention to innovation.” One course was on entrepreneurship, and it made him think about artists as entrepreneurs, “innovating all the time.” Building “Monument to Change as It Changes” in particular had some of the challenges of creating a start-up, from managing a project team to developing new, proprietary technology.

Perpetual arrival’

Wegner first had the idea of using flip-digit technology in an artwork when he was 25, standing on a train platform in Berlin with his wife. The two met in San Francisco, after he graduated from Yale (where he majored in art and took Josef Albers’ famous color theory course). They later decamped for a 10-month-long trip backpacking around the world.

By the time he reached Germany, he was ill, having contracted dengue fever in Southeast Asia. “But maybe that uniquely qualifies you for the capacity to be mesmerized,” he offers, remembering being transfixed by the mechanical motion of the train signage “like any 3-year old would be.”

He was also fascinated by the appearance of language in flux, as fragments of letters appeared and disappeared. “For me, it felt like meaning or sense was assembling and disassembling itself. Language was prying itself apart and putting itself together while you’re standing there.” And then at a certain point, he says, the fragments “will coalesce into something recognizable.

“That really resonated with me. I go through life that way. There are moments where meaning seems really elusive and inscrutable and then momentarily falls into place.”

But being moved by a train-station experience is not the same as realizing an artwork inspired by it. Wegner first looked into the logistics of doing his own flip-digit work when he was based in Brooklyn more than a decade ago.

By that time he had just made his big break as an artist, thanks to a flurry of gallery shows: at Todd Hosfelt in San Francisco, CRG and Mary Boone in New York, and William Griffin in Los Angeles, all within a two-year period. One breakthrough series, also a study in color, consisted of canvases made to look like commercial paint chips and actually covered in house paint, complete with names like “blue horizon” and “fragile blue dusk” (“poetry written by commerce,” he calls it).

But when he looked into the idea of doing a flip-digit piece, the European companies who had the technology seemed unwilling. Having more connections in Europe this time around, after showing his work there, helped.

He ultimately found a company outside of Bern, Switzerland, willing to manufacture the piece for him. And he found an animation expert in Long Beach to help him program the piece using a mix of off-the-shelf and proprietary software.

He spent months perfecting the 80 different colors in each spinning module (picture a mini-Rolodex with colored polycarbonate flaps instead of white paper cards) that makes up each cell on the grid. He also drew numerous storyboards — even quick images on the back of envelopes — to map out key sequences in the artwork.

“No matter how many times I told myself it would be difficult, I underestimated the difficulty at every step,” the artist says. “But the one thing I had from the beginning was a very specific idea of what I wanted to happen.”

Above all, he knew that the colors needed to be constantly changing. “That’s one difference between my work and the train signage. The train signage arrives at a particular destination [visually], just as you would in a train, somewhere that’s specific and recognizable. The way I’ve programmed the board there’s never a moment of stasis or arrival — it’s perpetual arrival.”

Even when it seems static, there might be some dark blue rectangles flipping to a lighter blue on 10% of the board. And with those flips in color come sound, so the artwork makes a whooshing noise — an analog effect despite its digital brain.

Given the work’s location in the heart of Silicon Valley, visitors have already expressed interest in knowing exactly how the machine thinks, and if the patterns generated have particular meaning. They want to break the code.

One student asked Wegner if the visual patterns were “aleatory.” Another asked him if it’s delivering population information. “I’ve had to tell crestfallen engineers that it’s giving them metaphor,” he recalls, adding that the work doesn’t represent any one thing so much as it’s an engine for creating metaphors. “I want to open up their own chain of associations.”

In any case, Wegner likes the questions raised by artwork in a non-art setting. “Nothing says this piece couldn’t have happened at MoMA,” he says. “But my work sits at the intersection of disciplines: visual art, poetry, architecture and implicit philosophy. So it’s interesting to see how people respond to it when the context is more open.”