Think of it as a giant selfie machine that reflects the growing diversity of Columbus
Imagine stepping into a photo booth and emerging to a giant three-dimensional image of your own face. The “As We Are” interactive sculpture at the convention center in Columbus, Ohio, has been described as the ultimate selfie machine.
But for artist Matthew Mohr, it goes way beyond that. The piece is a reflection of a changing city and the thousands of fascinating individuals who pass through.
“Diversity was always a priority, something that needed to be addressed as part of this project,” Mohr said.“The goal was to speak for the city in a way that made people feel like if you were from Columbus that you were part of Columbus. If you were coming to the convention center from somewhere else, this was a way you could contribute. This was a way that you could participate.”
For the Greater Columbus Convention Center, the piece is a perfect hook to bring in visitors. And the sculpture has done just that since its launch in 2017. “As We Are” has become more than a perk for convention attendees but an art destination in itself.
More than a selfie machine. A ‘crown jewel’ for Ohio art
Spotlighting local art has long been a claim to fame — and a selling point — for Columbus’ convention facilities. The city’s convention agency already owns 300 works from Ohio artists. The downtown convention center displays local artwork throughout its facility, even in the parking garage. But the one-of-a-kind “As We Are” installation has taken things up a notch.
“It’s the crown jewel of our art collection,” said GCCC senior marketing and communications manager Jennifer Davis. “It illustrates, literally, the diversity of the visitors that have passed through our doors.”
Mohr’s eye-catching and sometimes disarming 14-foot selfie machine uses 29 cameras. Together, they create an image projected by 850,000 LED ribbon lights. The convention center has collected nearly 50,000 images of faces of residents and visitors that are displayed in rotation.
“It’s startling to some visitors but it’s impressive,” Don Brown, executive director of the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity for visitors to engage with the city and to contribute something of themselves during their visit here,” Brown said. “They’ve left that image of themself behind…It demonstrates the diversity of the visitors that pass through the center.”
An artistic homecoming
Mohr is a Columbus native who returned to the city with his family in 2011 after a decade in New York. His artwork has always explored the intersection of conceptual art and technology. Creating a career-defining piece in his hometown has been a dream come true.
“To move back to Columbus and find a community that is willing to support new ideas — and honestly a very expensive idea in this sculpture — was incredibly gratifying,” Mohr said. “The process of building this with the convention center was probably one of my best working experiences. We really were a team…I did a good job of defining the vision of this project, but everybody supported it in their own way…It made the project so joyous.”
Mohr, who earned an MFA in Design and Technology from New York’s Parsons School of Design, is a rising star in the world of 3D interactive art. His grad school thesis project, an interactive display system, was snagged by Samsung for its flagship store in Manhattan’s Time Warner Building. But Mohr has hit his artistic stride in his hometown after returning to Ohio to take a teaching job at the Columbus College of Art and Design.
“The momentum that Columbus has now is different than when I was a kid,” Mohr said. “It feels more like an international city.”
A push for public art
Mohr was on a mission to capture that momentum in “As We Are.” His selfie machine concept won a 2015 competition to commission a stellar piece of interactive art as part of the expansion and renovation of the Columbus Convention Center. “As We Are” was unveiled in 2017.
“We were looking for a piece of interactive art. Something that would marry art with technology and something that the visitor could play with, could get involved with,” said Brown.
Mohr’s piece delivered that in spades. It explores the human relationship with technology while also spotlighting the growing diversity of his hometown, creating a sense of fun and wonder for visitors.
“We live in an age of selfies. What does a giant selfie mean?” Morh said, adding “What does it say about our society?…I think it’s a combination of delight and reconsideration that we’re bringing to this moment.”
For the last three years, the installation has been entrancing visitors to the nearby Short North Arts District. It’s also fueled a growing drive for top-notch public art in Columbus.
Mohr, who sits on the city’s arts commission, says that while Columbus doesn’t have the same well-established public art tradition as some other cities, it’s on the rise in an exciting way.
“I think what you’re going to see in the next five to ten years is Columbus catching up in a big way,” Mohr said. “At least that’s my hope, and I do see the seeds of really defining the identity of what Columbus is.”
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Jan Mercker is a freelance journalist, wine lover and arts enthusiast. A former public relations pro and lifelong Francophile, she helped French Champagne houses navigate the U.S. media landscape leading up to Y2K and ran the wine and spirits department at the French Embassy Trade Office in New York before moving into a writing career. She’s an underachieving but enthusiastic tennis player and parent of teens.