Pat Burt and Lydia Kou elected mayor and vice mayor of Palo Alto, rotating election system to be considered

Pat Burt and Lydia Kou were elected mayor and vice mayor, respectively, at Tuesday’s Palo Alto City Council meeting. 

Burt was elected into office with a 6–0–1 majority, with all Councilmembers except for Greg Tanaka (who abstained) voting for Kou’s nomination of Burt. Kou, who turned down Councilmember Alison Cormack’s nomination for mayor, was unanimously elected to the vice mayor position. 

A veteran of local government, Burt will be leading the council as mayor for the third time over his roughly 15-year career with the Palo Alto City Council alongside Kou, who will be serving the council as the vice mayor for the first time in her six-year city council career. 

Councilmember Alison Cormack originally nominated Kou, who declined the mayoral nomination, saying she thought Burt was better suited for the job.

“I really believe in the progression system,” Kou said during the meeting. “Pat [Burt] has … 8 years in the planning and transportation commission … he was elected to the city council, where he spent 9 years. [Burt was also] reelected again in 2020, having served 1 year, is on to 18 years.”

Despite the generally undivided votes for the new positions, Cormack raised questions about the efficiency of voting protocols at the meeting.

“This process is opaque, and it’s frankly become odious and it’s unnecessary,” Cormack said during the meeting. “Councilmember Kou every year suggests that we have a rotation process for mayor, and I will be supporting that this year at the retreat as I have before … It’s more straightforward.”

The specifics of such a rotation process are unclear, as different cities have varying term limits and procedures, but the council may clarify the specifics after its annual retreat on Jan. 30. 

(As a side note, Palo Alto residents can input priorities they think are relevant for the council to discuss during the retreat here.) 

Rotation processes in city council elections usually cycle councilmembers through the mayor and vice mayor slots every term,  ncreating a greater possibility of equal mayor terms amongst the council.

Tanaka supported this idea, saying he thought it made “a lot more sense” and resulted in “a lot less drama.” Former mayor Liz Kniss, who made a statement during public comment, also voiced her support for a rotational process for mayor during the election.

“I very much support the idea of a rotation,” Kniss said. “Greg [Tanaka] mentioned it tonight [and] it’s been mentioned many times in the past, maybe this is the year it will happen.”

765 Palo Alto Unified parents volunteer to fill staff absences; superintendent says “we’re staying open”

When Omicron hit Palo Alto Unified schools last week, Superintendent Don Austin was, in his own words, “terrified” — not of the virus itself, but that he would have to shut the doors to Palo Alto schools like March of 2020. Now, though, that terror’s gone. 

He’s confident, and with good reason: 765 parents across the district’s elementary and secondary schools have volunteered to fill food service, COVID testing, custodial, office assistance and classroom supervision roles left vacant by staff out on quarantine, as part of the district’s bid to keep schools open, dubbed “1 Palo Alto.”

“We’re under 100 away from having as many volunteers as we have teachers,” Austin said. “What that’s done for us is it’s allowed us to be able to tell everybody, ‘It doesn’t matter what happens. We’re staying open.’ And we can say that with confidence right now, when not everybody can.”

Austin said that though not all 765 of 1 Palo Alto’s volunteers are needed immediately, the plan’s always been as much about protecting against future contingencies as about filling immediate needs — in some unforeseen circumstance, the district could cover a sudden overnight spike by the next morning, he said.

Today, the district saw some 70 staff absences across its 18 sites.

“I’m asking Google engineers to empty trash cans for us and they’re just like, ‘Great, let’s do it,’ Austin said. “It’s been amazing so far.”

Austin said that shutting classroom doors and switching to remote learning was never much of an option for Palo Alto Unified. 

That’s partially because of the uncertainty of closing doors for two weeks — which became a year and a half last time, he noted — but also because doing so without first meeting strict county standards would be a violation of California education code; the injunctions that allowed schools to offer distance learning last year expired over the summer.

In the absence of an explicit state or local health order, schools can only offer virtual learning through independent study programs, and can’t require that families enroll in that. In fact, it’s illegal for individual teachers to let quarantined students Zoom into the classroom, even if it’s not part of broader school policy.

The only exceptions are if districts shut down using snow or smoke days already built into collective bargaining agreements with the teachers’ union, or if the virus causes a crippling staffing shortage that districts can’t fill (in which case districts must show the county office of education that they’ve exhausted all other options through a long-winded process. Just last week, county health officials, including Dr. Sara Cody, urged schools not to switch to online instruction). 

Austin noted that 1 Palo Alto could’ve very well made it harder for other districts to say they’ve exhausted all staffing options when filing to switch to remote instruction.

Also key in the district’s bid to keep doors open through the Omicron-driven surge has been its COVID testing sites.

Yolanda Conaway — the district’s associate superintendent who manages its testing sites — said that because the district started expanding to offer testing to the broader community prior to the Omicron surge, it was prepared for the increased volume when students returned from the break.

“Without even really knowing it, we were planning for the increase, although in our minds what we were doing [was] planning to expand our service to the broader community,” Conaway said. “The shift was about shifting resources, not having to create new avenues. So I think the challenge was not as great as it could’ve been.”

The district has restricted testing at the Cubberley Community Center, which was previously intended to primarily serve the broader community, to district students and staff only. Still,, the district has been able to keep all its testing sites open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day, and even expand Cubberly’s hours to 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Mondays.

Lines are longer than before because of limited staffing, Conaway said, but thus far the district has been able to keep all its testing sites open throughout the day. Neighboring Mountain View–Los Altos Union has had to halve its testing hours due to staff shortages.

Conaway said that the district is even exploring the possibility of a second vaccine booster clinic for students ages 12 and up later in January; the district will release more information on that early next week or sooner.

“I don’t know what direction [Omicron is] going to go in, or whether there will be a new variant,” Conaway said. “But every time there is this shift, we learn more. So each time we do things a little bit better, a little bit smoother. We’re kind of always ready for the next thing.”

PAUSD pledges to continue in-person instruction, calls for parent volunteers amid COVID-driven staffing shortages

In response to Omicron-driven staff shortages, the Palo Alto Unified School District is calling for parent volunteers to aid the district in keeping schools open in a move dubbed “1 Palo Alto.”

“Our biggest challenge is staffing right now: [keeping] people doing the jobs that we do,” Superintendent Don Austin said in a video message. “We can’t keep up; there’s no labor pool. No amount of money can solve this issue. We need your help. My request is that until the surge passes, we need our community, ‘1 Palo Alto,’ to volunteer like never before.”

Data from PAUSD’s COVID clinic between Dec. 8 and Jan. 5 show that 141 individuals, including students and staff across all elementary, middle and high school sites, reported testing positive out of 6,001 tests administered.

“Look, we’re all tired of uncertainty and may be nervous about school districts closing,” Austin said. “So I want to be clear, unless we’re compelled by an outside agency with authority, PAUSD will remain open. We will not close. … ‘1 Palo Alto’ will make this happen.”

“1 Palo Alto” calls for parents to volunteer in COVID testing clinics, food services, custodial and office assistance, supervision and classroom support across all elementary, middle and high school campuses, through an online form.

High school students may also participate in roles that are “appropriate and do not conflict with their school schedule,” according to the “1 Palo Alto” website. All volunteers must submit their vaccination status.

The district’s own COVID clinic operates one day per week at each school site. Its daily site at Cubberley Community Center was recently closed to the general public, but will continue operating Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. exclusively for PAUSD staff and students.

12 books to read in 2022, according to Books Inc. and the Midpeninsula Post

There are a lot of books out there, so we asked the staff at Books Inc. in Downtown Mountain View for 12 essential books for high schoolers to read in 2022. This list is made up of their answers.

It’s a mix of fiction and nonfiction, made-up characters and autobiographies, mythology and realism, academic reads and just plain fun. There’s no central theme, nor an order in which you should read the list, just 12 really good books. 

Hopefully there’s something here for every kind of reader, but if nothing on this list in particular tickles your fancy, we’re sure the good people of Books Inc. will be glad to give you other suggestions. 

Note: All links in this article lead to Books Inc.’s website. 

KINDRED” BY OCTAVIA BUTLER

Dana, a 26-year-old African American, lives in 1970s California. Throughout the novel, Dana travels back in time (not of her own will) and barely lives through numerous near-death experiences before being wrenched back to her own time. Dana endures two different time periods, and two forms of American racism. In a time of racial reckoning, hearing the (albeit fictionalized) story of the past can help us understand the present just a little bit better.

ALL ABOUT LOVE” BY BELL HOOKS

“All About Love” is a guide to love in the modern age. hooks lays out a roadmap for how she believes society should interact with and use love. she criticizes the younger generations for being cynical and dismissive of love, and encourages all to “embrace the idea of love as a transformative force.”

SCYTHE” BY NEAL SHUSTERMAN

In the far future, advanced technology has led to natural death being practically eliminated and the world is controlled by an omniscient computer. There’s just one issue. If people never die, the population doesn’t stop growing. The dystopian novel follows two teens, Citra and Rowan who become apprentices to a Scythe, who “gleans” individuals in order to prevent overpopulation. 

LAST NIGHT AT THE TELEGRAPH CLUB” BY MALINDA LO

17-year-old Lily Hu, a queer Chinese-American, lives in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1950s. The novel, named for a lesbian bar in San Francisco, follows Lily as she grapples with her own identity and navigates discrimination. The novel will create context for readers surrounding anti-Asian hate in this country yet in a style relatable to many high schoolers: teenage romance. 

SADIE” BY COURTNEY SUMMERS

Sadie is a teen seeking revenge for her sister’s murder. The book is split into two perspectives: that of Sadie, and a true crime podcast that discusses both her mysterious disappearance and her sister Mattie’s death. This book is dark, and haunting. For those fans of true crime, this book can shed perspective on the other perspective of true crime: the victims.

A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES” BY HOWARD ZINN

Published in 1980, Zinn presents what he believes is an alternative to the “fundamental nationalist glorification of country” present in many other history curricula. The nonfiction work tells the stories of American women, laborers, people of color, the working poor, immigrants and other disadvantaged groups.

CEMETERY BOYS” BY AIDEN THOMAS

Yadriel is a young transgender man fighting to get his Latino family to understand his gender. While he wrestles with his identity, he sets out to free the ghost of his murdered cousin but instead frees the ghost of Julian Diaz, his school’s “resident bad boy.” As the novel progresses, Yadriel begins to fall in love with Julian, and a romance between a dead boy and a living one emerges.

THE DAWN OF EVERYTHING: A NEW HISTORY OF HUMANITY” BY DAVID GRAEBER AND DAVID WENGROW

“The Dawn of Everything” presents a different understanding of human history than we might be used to. The book is as much history as it is historiography — the study of history in and of itself. The authors look to the unheard true origins of the Enlightenment to make sense of human history today and the origins of civilization itself.

DEAR AMERICA: NOTES OF AN UNDOCUMENTED CITIZEN” BY JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS

Jose Antonio Vargas discovered at age 16 that he was an undocumented immigrant, when the choir team he was a part of at Mountain View High School was going on a trip abroad. His memoir tells the story of making a life in a foreign country, learning and hiding.

CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONES” BY TOMI ADEYEMI

“Children of Blood and Bones” is a mash-up of American-style young adult writing and Nigerian mythology. The novel delves deep into racially-motivated violence, while balancing a family tale. This is also, after all, a fantasy novel filled with magic, princesses, royalty and divine power. 

A SNAKE FALLS TO EARTH” BY DARCIE LITTLE BADGER

Nina is a 16 year-old member of the Lipan Apache tribe in Texas. Oli is a cottonmouth snake living in the reflecting world — a mythological place where animals live. When Oli travels to Texas seeking help, he finds Nina. While much of the literature surrounding iIndigenous experiences is about the centuries of oppression they’ve faced in the Americas, the culture, traditions and stories have remained in the shadows over the years. The novel takes advantage of traditional Apache storytelling techniques to weave together reality and mysticism.

PLATO AND A PLATYPUS WALK INTO A BAR” BY THOMAS CATHCARD AND DANIEL MARTIN KLEIN

Most high schoolers are taught a little bit of philosophy through the lens of history — and that’s about it. “Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar” is a funny read that will help you understand the basics of philosophy, and have some fun while doing so.

Trinkets and treasures: The importance of Paly’s seasonal glass sales

Glassblowing isn’t a common high school course, especially in public schools. So how does Palo Alto High School manage to incorporate it? The answer is through sales and workshops. The fiery arts sales and weekend workshops available to the public have generated most of the roughly $50,000 a year needed for the department and made the glassblowing program possible.

“All the proceeds go to the fiery arts sculpture department,” said ceramics and glass sculpture teacher Steve Ferrera. “The glass is super expensive, all the consumables we go through cost a lot. It’s pretty much self-funded so we have to raise a lot of money. We just do that by doing the glass sales.”

Paly added a glassblowing program to its slate of art electives in 1996, offering another way for students to express themselves through visual art. The Fiery Arts Winter Glass Sale this year took place on Dec. 3 and 4, and repeats biannually during December (for the holidays) and September (for Halloween and Thanksgiving). The two sales also offer slight differences in the themes of the glass goods that are made: At the September sale, one might find an abundance of glass pumpkins, whereas the December sale contains a multitude of ornaments, reindeer and candy canes.

“It’s really impressive, it’s just as good as some professional artists,” customer Rol Williams said. “It’s great for gifts, for family.”

Glass flowers and ornaments for sale. (Emily Yao)

Other members of the Palo Alto community also emphasized the importance of the program for students to express themselves and relax.

“I’m a huge supporter of the arts,” Paly history teacher Mary Sono said. “It’s super important to let kids shine in all these different ways. [glassblowing] kids find their people; it’s a safe place. It’s so nice to have these programs to give the kids a home base.”

Ferrera presenting a glass moose. (Emily Yao)

“I just think it’s really important for students to have artistic outlets of various kinds,” Williams said. “It’s just a great creative outlet, a great way to make friends and a great way to learn a skill that’s pretty unique — not a lot of people have this skill.”

The fiery arts department also awards Camner Scholarships, named after David Camner, founder of the glassblowing program. Every year, two to four seniors that have shown an “exceptional” incredible amount of dedication to the program are given $200–$500, a scholarship also partially funded by the glass sales.

The sales draw repeated customers, growing the art department’s footprint in the Palo Alto community.

A customer peruses glass pieces for sale. (Emily Yao)

“I’ve been coming off and on for 10 years,” Williams said. “I’ve had friends that have had kids that are older than mine that were in the program. Even years before that…we learned about the sales.” 

Looking ahead, some are hopeful for expansion, to spread the program to more students.

“I hope we can grow,” Paly senior William Bennett said. “ It’s a lot of fun to do, and expanding would be really nice, as we’re basically out of space. ”

No more ‘diamond hands’: Invest Bright teaches financial literacy to middle schoolers

STORY BY SID KANWAR, PHOTO BY EMILY YAO

Passionate about economics and teaching, Gunn High School seniors Eshan Gupta and Shantanu Khaladkar founded Invest Bright in 2021, an organization that aims to teach middle schoolers simplified and accessible financial literacy while promoting a mindset of responsible trading and not buying into the “meme mania.” 

After Gupta got to know Khaladkar at a summer internship, they discovered a shared passion for finance. Shortly after, the pair competed in the acclaimed Wharton Global High School Investment Competition, and from there decided to start a financial literacy club at their school, with the goal of teaching high schoolers the basics of finance. 

The “aha” moment grew from a realization of Gupta’s.

“If high school students don’t know this much, I’m not sure what middle school students can do,” he said. “So we decided to found Invest Bright.”

According to Gupta, business literacy is an important skill for people to know, as it helps kids understand how the businesses all around them work and teaches them responsibility. 

“Managing money entails a large amount of responsibility especially amid the hype and sentiment-driven investment environment today,” Gupta said. “And it will ultimately let kids get a better understanding of managing money.”

As a first step, the organization hosted a highly successful and well-received competition called “Cubs of Wall Street Challenge” over the summer, where middle school students managed virtual stock portfolios, attempting to gain as much money as possible.

Invest Bright taught competitors about basic financial concepts, such as the stock market and company value. Teams competing in the challenge were then given a starter amount of $10,000 in virtual money to invest in the stock market; whichever team had the maximum gains that the end of a month would advance to the next round. Round two of the competition required students to develop an investment strategy of their own. Teams then presented their strategy to a panel of judges, which encompassed the third phase.

“Their strategies were complex and they were pretty well advanced,” Gupta said.

He also noticed that many of his students were joking about investing memes such as Dogecoin and “diamond hands,” an irresponsible “gambling mentality” that Invest Bright rejects. Instead, Gupta and Khaladkar encourage their students to invest responsibly by understanding the trends of the stock market rather than blindly following the hype.

While Invest Bright has become successful, the organization initially struggled with finding teachers. 

“[People] came to one meeting, there was some small thing, and then it just didn’t work out,” Gupta said.

Today, the organization has around ten high schoolers on their team, as well as professionals in the field providing guidance. 

Finding interested students was also a struggle, which Gupta partially attributed to the lower presence of middle schoolers on social media. Instead of solely promoting the organization on social media, Gupta began reaching out to parent groups.

“We spammed the Whatsapp chats,” Gupta said. “And in the end, we had about 80 to 90 signups for the summer program for [the Cubs of Wall Street] competition.”

Invest Bright is currently working on a “Money Matters” program, which aims to provide children in underprivileged communities the ability to make stable financial decisions in the long run.

“We hope to empower our community around us to manage money better and get a responsible understanding of investing and business in general,” Gupta said.

Bridging divides: Palo Alto and Bloomington, Indiana to enter sibling city agreement

STORY BY SAMUEL STEIN, PHOTO BY ARYA NASIKKAR

An unlikely duo separated by more than 2000 miles, Palo Alto and Bloomington, Indiana are soon to be connected by a sibling city relationship. At its Nov. 15 meeting, the Palo Alto City Council accepted a resolution to create this relationship, which now pends the likely approval of the Bloomington City Council.

A sibling city relationship is an agreement between cities to promote cultural and commercial ties, and the two mayors say they hope this connection will unite people from both sides of political controversies.

“It’s an idea that has grabbed a lot of hearts, energy and attention to think about this domestic sibling city [agreement] that does try to learn and share and grow,” said Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton, Zooming into the Palo Alto council’s meeting. “But, also [to] be part of this effort to knit our country back together again, just a step at a time, community by community.”

Palo Alto Mayor Tom Dubois said he hopes this initiative will set an example for other cities.

“It’s about forming this relationship, a U.S. sister city relationship with Bloomington, Indiana,” Dubois said. “It’s also, hopefully, a pilot for a larger national program to really encourage this kind of relationships between cities in the United States to bridge divisions between the country and to increase understanding amongst the community.”

Sibling Cities U.S.A., a national nonprofit organization that aims to break stereotypes and unite the cities, is facilitating the projected relationship between Palo Alto and Bloomington.

Sibling Cities U.S.A uses three steps with multiple components to unite cities and their people together. The first stage of this process focuses on the communities and their culture. In this stage, residents of both cities are encouraged to get to know one another over virtual interfaces like Zoom and possible in-person trips. This may involve joining meetings on a variety of topics, like the environment, racial justice and LGBTQ equality. 

In the next stage, the cities collaborate commercially for mutual success with businesses. The two chambers of commerce may coordinate on additional topics and private equity investors may open themselves to pitches from both cities.

The final stage encourages residents of both towns to exchange opinions on divisive policy issues. Group discussions and meetings provide the chance for the two cities to “hear each other out in a respectful, safe and open manner.” This step aims to allow the citizens of each city to discuss issues once they already have a deeper understanding of each other.

While Indiana, where Bloomington is located, is a red-leaning state, the city cast its electoral votes for Joe Biden in the 2020 election. Bloomington is similar in size to Palo Alto, however, it is located in south-central Indiana, a generally rural place, and is a “limestone” city or a manufacturing city.

The sister city resolution is yet to be approved by Bloomington City Council, yet the mayor showed strong support during the Nov. 15 Palo Alto council meeting. 

“I want to express on behalf of the city of Bloomington and my fellow elected officials how excited we are about this,” Hamilton said. “I just so appreciate this first step.”

80 years and a pandemic later, the Palo Alto book sale still goes strong

STORY BY SAM STEIN, PHOTOS BY EMILY YAO

For the past 30 years, a dedicated group of volunteers from the Friends of the Palo Alto Library (FOPAL) have been maintaining a book sale with a variety of books at affordable prices. The sale has helped fund the Palo Alto City Library, and continues to foster community environments.

Taking place on the second Saturday and Sunday of each month at the Cubberley Community Center, the sale is divided into a children’s room, adults’ room and “bargain“ room.

The book sale itself makes around $100,000 a year for the Palo Alto City Library, and processes 40,000–60,000 books each month. FOPAL supplies the sale solely through book donations by the public. 

FOPAL is a public-private partnership that was established in 1938. The organization helps fund the library; money from fundraisers like the book sale give the library more room to act on its own without approval from the city council.

 

Books for sale in the children’s room.

Books of all types of genres can be found in the sale, ranging from history and the arts to fiction and business; CDs, cassettes, DVDs, board games, postcards and records are also available. 

“It’s a really great way to find older books, books that are out of print,” long-time customer Jeremy Erman said. “It’s a great resource in the internet age. There are lots of books and resources here that aren’t actually available online, so it’s a way to find stuff you can’t find anywhere else, as there’s a lot of historical stuff that can give you an insight into the past.”

 

Customers peruse books in the adults’ room.

Customers are also drawn to the book sale due to its affordability. 

“I’m a teacher, and I need books, [but] it’s hard to find books that I can afford,” 4th-grade teacher Melanie Han said. “I spent nine bucks and I got 12 books.”

Due to COVID-19, policies such as restrictive room occupancy and mask-wearing have been put in place to help provide a safer shopping experience.

The pandemic also hit the book sale — a volunteer-only service — hard. Many volunteers stopped returning, and FOPAL has struggled to find replacements.

“More volunteers would be a huge benefit for us,” said Jannette Herceg, FOPAL’s director of volunteer engagement. “Through COVID, we lost about 50% of our volunteers. Not all of them have returned. I’ve spent the last several months recruiting constantly, but we could certainly use more volunteers.”

“We really do need more manpower,” said Margaret, a regular volunteer since 2008. “Some people just drop out randomly without telling us, as a lot of our volunteers are school-age kids or retired adults. It’d be nice to get more people.”

Some referred to the sale as a “great resource,” considering its possibilities for younger generations and parents. As the books are so cheap, and with young readers’ tendency to quickly outgrow books, the sale provides a valuable opportunity for parents and teachers to purchase affordable books that can be easily replaced if ruined by sticky fingers or spilled food. 

 

Young customer looks through shelf of children’s books.

“All the proceeds go to the library,” Margaret said. “We get so many regulars, and so many children and adults here. Teachers and nonprofits can get free books, too. Books are information — the more we have, the more we can learn.”

Correction, Sunday, Dec. 26: Headline updated to reflect that FOPAL was founded in 1938.

PAUSD opens COVID testing clinic to local community

STORY BY MELODY XU, PHOTO BY EMILY YAO

The Palo Alto Unified School District opened its COVID Clinic to the local community on Nov. 1, as part of the district’s ongoing COVID-19 vaccination and testing efforts.

The testing clinic is open to all community members on Monday–Friday between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. at the Cubberley Community Center. Prior registration is recommended but not necessary. 

Supporting its site reopenings following the pandemic, PAUSD initially exclusively tested staff before including testing offerings to students on school sites on a scheduled, weekly basis. The district recently partnered with Safeway to offer tests for all residents, including district families.

“This kind of goes back to our commitment of service,” Assistant Superintendent Yolanda Conaway said. “We said, ‘What can we offer to our entire community?’”

According to Conaway, the clinic has already seen success in the past few weeks of operation.

“We’re seeing a lot of visitors just on observation,” Conaway said, “But we hope to get some numbers so that we can see exactly how many of our community members are taking advantage of it.” 

PAUSD’s current testing locations. While school site testing is limited to students and staff, the Cubberley site is open to the greater community. Photo courtesy of PAUSD.

The district has also taken steps for five to 11 year old student vaccinations. The first dose of a “pediatric clinic” took place on Nov. 21 at the Palo Alto High School Peery Family Center, with a second dose scheduled for Dec. 12. Adult booster shots were also administered for staff. 

“I’m proud of the work that our county offices are doing in our public health department,” Conaway said. “Because it’s the effort of all of us, in my opinion, that’s going to really stave this thing off and help us get back to some sense of normalcy in our community.”

Code:ART festival brings interactive installations by local artists to Downtown Palo Alto

STORY BY NAINA SRIVASTAVA, PHOTOS BY EMILY YAO

Interactive displays scattered the streets of Downtown Palo Alto with ambient music and colorful lighting in Code:ART, an “interactive new media festival.”

The festival, which ran from Oct. 7–9 and consisted of seven displays, was hosted by the City of Palo Alto Public Art Program in an ongoing effort to reimagine public spaces through art and technology. 

PALEOALTO (MARPI STUDIO AND COLOUR FEEDERS)

“Paleoalto” was the the anchor of the festival. The piece, displayed in Lytton Plaza, is a collaboration between Marpi Studio (led by creative technologist and artist Marpi) and system designers and installers at Colour Feeders. The interactive installation transports visitors to the Paleolithic Era, filled with unconventional creatures which they can interact with and mesmerizing music.

“From a design perspective, it was kind of like a portal through a digital ruin back to Paleolithic times, which is why this is [named] ‘Paleoalto,’” said Kevin Colorado, architect and co-founder of Colour Feeders.“It’s an imagining of creatures that may have been here at the time.”

Colorado said the final product makes countless hours of planning and setup worthwhile. 

“The best part about it is that when I’m doing it for myself, it’s fun, not work … [and] seeing people’s reactions to it and knowing that the concept is actually understood by other people makes it all worth it,” Colorado said.

Especially with digital art being less mainstream than traditional mediums, Colorado praised the festival for allowing increased visibility for the emerging art medium. 

“I think that digital art is still a pretty nascent industry, and because of that public exposure is very limited,” Colorado said. “So I’m really thankful and impressed that Palo Alto invited us here. And it gives [an] opportunity for people to finally begin to take the medium seriously.”

COLOR CURRENTS (CORY BARR)

A projection of colorful ripples in Cory Barr’s  “COLOR CURRENTS” plays with the ideas of motion and color space. 

“Every dot that you see moves that way because someone has moved that way,” Barr said. “It remembers how people have come up and viewed it and moved around in front of it.”

The installation has two modes which alternate every seven minutes: one fluid and one static, although both share the same general idea.

Barr’s piece ties movement to the color wheel: when participants move to the right, it creates red, and when they move left, the complementary color of cyan is created. Up and down movements create yellow and green, respectively.

“It’s interesting seeing people use it in ways that they didn’t really think of. Some people will really like [the static] mode because they’ll try and be very conscientious about sculpting,” Barr said. “After a while they’ll be like ‘Oh, it’s remembering.’ … And [it’s interesting] when people understand they’re leaving behind their motion.”

This piece in particular only took Barr around a week to create, though it’s based on other similar projects which use the same camera-based interaction that he has been working on for several years. 

“Code offers a lot of possibilities,” Barr said. “Versus some traditional medium, it’s really good if you’re an artist who likes to use repetition and rhythm and things like that; it’ll set you up to explore some patterns and visual languages that you couldn’t with your hand.”

COSMIC CANNON (JEFFREY YIP)

Inspired by the natural world of geometry and spirituality, the pyramidal “COSMIC CANNON” by Jeffrey Yip allows visitors to collaborate through art and sound.

“I wanted to do a public intervention and essentially create a sense of play,” Yip said. “In public places, we often just get from point A to point B and there isn’t [much] play emphasized in our everyday lives.”

Creating a piece for visitors — ranging from friends to family to strangers — to interact with each other through sound was also a priority to Yip. 

“Each of the buttons do a different kind of fixed thing, so one does a bass, one does a sound effect and one does a melody,” Yip said. “If people are putting it together, it can create music.” 

“It was definitely a lot of trial and error; [I] learned a lot, made some mistakes [and] corrected them,” Yip said. “I still don’t have it at 100%. There are still things I want to tweak with it now that I have it up and see that it’s going.”

Still, displaying his installation at Code:ART has been a rewarding experience for Yip.

“[I love] just seeing people’s smiles and seeing the reactions on people’s faces and the kids — it’s been really nice to see them interact with it now,” Yip said.

CODED ARCHITECTURES (AMOR MUNOZ)

Tiles of black and white run down the side of an alleyway forming “CODED ARCHITECTURES,” an interactive mural by Amor Munoz, who aimed to create a connection between technology, architecture and society through her piece.

The combination of black and white is inspired by binary code from computers.

Visitors of the interactive mural were provided with a binary alphabet postcard, which they must use to decipher the encoded message. The displayed message changes daily. 

Editor’s note: We unfortunately weren’t able to get an interview with Munoz.

HYDRALA (DANIEL TRAN AND NICK SOWERS)

“HYDRALA,” a sculpture which emits audio based on visitors’ movements, is suspended between four magnolia trees in front of City Hall. The installation deviates from the typically solely visual experience of a sculpture in favor of an “immersive, ambient experience.”

The collaborative project between Daniel Tran, a sculptor, and Nick Sowers, an architect and sound artist, who have known each other since architecture school was the result of months of planning.

“[Tran] came to my sound studio and we tried plugging in a transducer, which is part of a speaker that creates the vibrations,” Sowers said. “And when we put that transducer on the sculpture, it turns the whole sculpture into a speaker. ”

The final installation contains four transducers, which play sounds reacting to people underneath the sculpture. 

“I chose some instruments which are specifically designed for his sculpture that are using the frequencies which are naturally resonant in the material,” Sowers said. “That was quite a process — quite a wonderful process really [of] just trying to hone it down [and determine] what sounds good inside of the sculpture.”

“I’ve seen like two-year olds playing this thing — they’re playing with these little dishes and then [see] the joy when they hear that something that they just did has created a sound,” Sowers said. “Kids and old people, a lot of people have gotten delight out of this, but I get the most joy by seeing their joy.”

I/O (BEN FLATAU AND OTHERS)

The installation titled “I/O” (input/output) by architect Ben Flatau (and various architects, designers and technologists) provided visitors with a challenge: to find the correct pattern of symbols and reveal a hidden message. The puzzle consisted of spinning boxes, which visitors moved to create the correct pattern, and input and output sides.

“It’s a piece of technology that’s meant to highlight the good and the bad of technology — that technology can be a powerful force, but it can also be a force that divides us,” said Scott Bezeck, a software engineer who worked on the project.

The planning process for the installation began in late 2019, but picked up in the recent months leading up to Code:ART. 

“Ben reached out to me kind of randomly since I tinker with display technology like this in my free time, with the idea for this piece and then we were working together remotely during COVID to plan it,” Bezeck said. “And then finally in the last few months we were able to put our different pieces together and come together to build the final thing.”

The entirety of the display was made up of 4,320 individual flaps, the result of a myriad of contributors.

“It’s just been cool seeing people’s excitement and interest and in playing and working together on finding the solutions to the puzzles,” Bezeck said.

LUMINOUS GROWTH (LIZ HICKOK, PHIL SPITLER AND JAMIE BANES)

A large scale projection and sculptural installation, “LUMINOUS GROWTH” by artists Liz Hickok, Phil Spitler and Jamie Banes, allows visitors to explore the uncharted territory of a model city slowly being covered with crystals.

Hickok served as the crystal and photography expert, Spitler produced the 360 degree video and coding and Banes built the cityscape.

“We built a model and then we loaded it with crystals and the crystals grew all over it,” creative technologist Spitler said. “We put a camera in the middle [and] filmed it over two weeks… [which is] what is being projected.”

Using an iPad, visitors can navigate the installation and control where they are looking.

“The inspiration was partly with climate change and just this city being taken over — the crystals grow over this city and take over and we don’t have any control over that,” Spitler said.

A unique aspect of the project that Spitler found joy in was the unknown. 

“With this [project], it was a chemical reaction, so we didn’t really know what was going to happen,” Spitler said. “We filmed it over a two week period but we didn’t really know what we were going to get until we looked at the footage. It’s that kind of surprise moment that’s really gratifying.”

After nearly two years of conceptualizing the installation and three attempts to perfect the crystal growth, it was finally displayed.

“The kids are just like ‘wow’ because they’re so used to seeing things that are made digitally … but then to actually see the sculpture here … the surprise and delight in that has been really rewarding,” Spitler said.