Written by Jean Cooney, Director of Times Square Arts

From its storied X-rated reputation to the first kisses of each New Year and the countless surprise proposals earnestly staged in its plazas and on billboards, Times Square has always been linked to love and desire. For thirteen years, the Times Square Alliance has hosted an annual design competition that celebrates the work of emerging talent and centers on the theme of love. The winning proposal is realized as a sculptural installation and presented in Times Square in February, during which, it’s encountered by hundreds of thousands of people, gets the kind of media coverage that would make any public artwork blush, and is the backdrop for the weddings and vow renewals the Alliance hosts on Valentine’s Day. While romantic love is the competition’s conceptual starting point, many of the winning designers choose to explore more expansive embodiments of love, from interdependence and inclusivity to empathy and collective care.

In February of 2020, the Alliance had the pleasure of presenting Heart Squared by the interdisciplinary collaborators MODU and Eric Forman Studio and winners of the twelfth annual design competition, which was curated by Cooper Hewitt. Within a steel frame evoking the outline of an anatomic heart, Heart Squared reframed the spectacle of Times Square through a carefully calculated cluster of mirrors, in which colors and composition endlessly shifted as the sun rose and set, billboard lights blinked, and hundreds of thousands of people passed. A source of both fascination and selfies, the positioning of 125 mirrored plates hid a playful reveal—at just the right vantage point, the reflections would coalesce to reveal a pixelated heart-shaped urban landscape sharply outlined by open sky. For the designers, this intervention of surprise and delight was also intended as a frame for a deeper kind of public reflection: “Heart Squared represents the collective heart of the city and as such, is an engaging civic statement about celebrating our differences and bringing people together in a fundamentally inclusive way,” stated Phu Hoang and Rachely Rotem of MODU.

Powerful public art holds up a mirror to a moment in time, revealing new ways of seeing ourselves, one another, and the spaces we share. In turn, artists and designers are powerful agents of public space. These visionary thinkers and creative problem solvers are also our most gifted communicators. Artists and designers are uniquely equipped to process circumstances so complex, ideas so big, or heartache so heavy it feels insurmountable.

A year into a pandemic, punctuated by political upheaval and rolling waves of reckonings for racial justice, finding novel ways to experience joy, reimagine our cities, communicate across isolation, and connect through adversity has become of paramount importance. In the space where there’s no simple solution to the multitude of overlapping challenges we face, I believe that art and design can be a critical engine for hope and change.

So this is a call for more public art. Ideally by creatives with bold new visions in response to the inequities and hardships this year has thrown into sharp relief. It’s a call for more of our open spaces, vacant places, building facades, and billboards to be turned over to artists, filmmakers, designers, dancers, costumers, and aspiring Tik Tok stars. A call to hold up public art as central in tackling the social, cultural, and political challenges we face as a city and a society.

For more insight into Public Art be sure to watch Design and Process: Public Art Installations in Context | Design Talk with Designers Phu Hoang and Rachely Rotem of MODU and Eric Forman of Eric Forman Studio, winners of the 2020 Valentine Heart Design Competition in conversation with Andrea Lipps, Curator of Contemporary Design at Cooper Hewitt.

Featured Image: Heart Squared, 2020; Times Square, New York, New York

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