The Interplay between People and Art

Lianne Wappett
University of Idaho


Street art emerges from the tensions and issues that face communities. It simultaneously reflects and confronts the viewer with the explicit intent to incite thought and action. Street artists work in spite of, and often on top of, space that has been monetized as they seek to present a counter-narrative to the mass-produced homogeneous corporate culture that has come to pervade many urban cityscapes.

Street artists have adopted many EGD practices as they re-appropriate public space, adding energy to eroding environments. In turn, commissioned public art and corporate-sponsored art offer an alternative voice as they orchestrate color, imagery, technology, and content to deliver their message. This cacophony of experiences is a vibrant “force of things”  that evolves and sparks affective energy as it reclaims the identity and individuality of the community in which it resides. I will argue that street, public, and corporate art are a socio-centric phenomenon that is channeled through the artist, who serves as an emotional catalyst in the community where he or she works, creating affective atmospheres that imbue dynamic, experiential experiences to the viewer.


During the 2014 Hong Kong protests, thousands of Post-it notes of support began to crop up near the occupied territory, creating an impromptu mural. The umbrella became a symbol of protest as students used them to shield against pepper spray and tear gas. This object took form as demonstrators sewed umbrellas together to create a giant canopy sculpture. (Figures 1 and 2) One observer noted, “I come almost every day to see the artwork…It says a lot about Hong Kong’s identity.” (Lau) 1/ While the protests ended in December 2014, the visual impact and participation of the crowd-sourced installations remains in digital archives and within the pulse of the community. Emily Tang, a 21-year old social work student, said, “Hong Kongers’ sense of identity has become stronger because of this exercise” 1/

This paper will argue that public art has “thing power,” that it is a socio-centric phenomenon that is channeled through the artist who serves as an emotional catalyst to the walls, sidewalks and deserted spaces within communities. The emotional residue public art emits within the landscape presents a challenge to the status quo that creates an affective power more dynamic than art found in galleries or museums. Drawing upon theorists like Jane Bennett, Teresa Brennan, Sara Ahmed, and Bill Brown, I will discuss how “thing power” is present in public art and activates communities not only for social change but also improves community relations and energy. (Figure 3) In addition, I will discuss the creation of an original piece entitled “Hello” for which I engaged hundreds of students at the University of Idaho to thread yellow twisting balloons in an 8’ x 6’ large-scale sculpture representative of the connections and community at the university. I discuss and share the “thing power” of this project as I engaged students from different disciplines to interact with one another.


People + Art: Thing Theory

Bill Brown, Thing theorist and professor of English at the University of Chicago, asserts that the thing-ness of objects becomes knowable when there’s an interruption or a real delay in our interaction with the object—whether it be a paper cut on your finger, tripping over a toy, or a wall covered in yellow balloons, Brown states that things “hover over the threshold between the nameable and unnamable, the figurable and unfigurable, the identifiable and unidentifiable” 2/ 

This shift from object, something with no meaning, to thing, something that means, is important when imbuing that object with power within public atmospheres. Ben Anderson, professor of geography at Durham University, recognizes these relations when he states, “atmospheres are perpetually forming and deforming, appearing and disappearing, as bodies enter into relation with one another” (page 79). 3/ Sara Ahmed adds an additional element when she states that bodies “do not arrive in neutral” (page 36) which supports this ever-changing atmosphere between objects, things, and humans based upon the way we enter into relation with each other. 4/ Anderson continues by drawing on the work of phenomenologist Mikel Dufrenne when looking at aesthetic objects like public art. He presents a set of spatial-temporal relations or what he calls an “expressed world” and what Dufrenne explains as “(a) certain quality which words cannot translate but which communicates itself in arousing a feeling” (page 79). 3/

In the example of the Hong Kong umbrellas, the passerby may not be conscious of their affective state when coming in contact with the art, but their subconscious is and may induce a more acute physical reaction. Antonio Damasio, professor of psychology and neurology, writes that we are not always aware of why we are in a particular state and cannot clearly identify the inducer, but “we do not need to be conscious of the inducer of an emotion and often are not, and we cannot control emotions willfully” (page 47). 5/ Identifying and validating this not quite emotional state or bloom space, a term used by affect theorists, relies on affect theory to offer framework and understanding of “a body’s becoming an ever more worldly sensitive interface, toward a style of being present to the struggles of our time” (Seigworth 12). 6/

People + Art: Affect Theory

Affect theory is used in response to binary oppositions and post-structuralism’s emphasis on discourse over body in an attempt to uncover the precognitive forces bodies experience like shame, disgust, happiness, sadness, irritation, and envy. Affect also encompasses unnamed intensities we may not recognize, but which drive us toward movement, thought, and ever-changing forms of relation. Affect theorist Teresa Brennan states that affects are “the physiological shift accompanying a judgment” (page 5) and says, “When I feel angry, I feel the passage of anger through me. What I feel with and what I feel are distinct” (page 5). 7/

In the Hong Kong example, one can use affect to understand the precognitive states viewers may have with the sewn umbrellas. Pedestrians may briefly acknowledge the canopy above their heads as it provides shade from the sun, but it may also induce a reminder of the protests and the clashing of ideas the city and its citizens have with Beijing. For this viewer, the affect could spark an action by posting an image on social media or by forwarding it to a friend. Brennan adds to Ahmed’s notion of no neutrality by suggesting that affect has an “energetic dimension.” She states affects “enhance or deplete” (page 6), which suggests a vortex of affective transmission that encompasses our world. 7/ Recognizing that people and the things that surround them are not neutral, but that we are in a constant state of give and take, aids us in our understanding that things can change us and we can change things.


The interplay between public art and people begins with the power of things and their ability to become actants within a community. This force of art can affectively change communities to become vibrant and engaged. In 2015, I created “Hello,” an 8- by 6-ft. curved wall of 30,000 yellow twisting balloons at the University of Idaho. (Figure 4) The creation of the piece involved over 300 students, faculty, alumni, and community members. My intent was to design a piece that would be highly directed and simple so that anyone could participate and become part of the “making.”

Throughout the creation of “Hello,” I held balloon bees where I placed panels upside down and invited groups to sit around and thread balloons with me. Over the course of these threading sessions, stories were shared and connections were made. The “thing power” was growing with each yellow balloon. (Figures 5-7)

Over the course of eight weeks, the balloons were threaded and the piece was ready for its debut. The piece was revealed and displayed for four weeks at the Prichard Art Gallery in Moscow, Idaho. (Figures 8-10) Outside the gallery I included a miniature display of yellow balloons that acted as an invitation to the exhibit. (Figure 11) The piece itself was a magnet to anyone who entered the gallery space. With the bright yellow color and curved sides that suggest an embrace, viewers were immediately drawn to the piece. The familiar material of balloons created a very organic, fiber-like feeling on one side and on the other a highly meticulous, organized foundation.

Those who had aided in the creation of the piece took photos and posted them on social networks inviting others to come and experience it. Over the course of the exhibit, I received feedback that the piece delivered happiness and energy. It gave some a feeling of warmth and invited play. Others expressed delight that they could literally connect with a piece of art. Those with aging minds or disabilities were invited to come experience the piece. Their reaction was of wonder and excitement as they too were able to connect. Children naturally were drawn to the piece and often encouraged their parents to interact. All of these experiences support the ever-changing dynamics of objects to things with power to influence and add to atmospheres. 

Public art can be a change agent for the community through its “thing-power.” It can enhance, and also at times, distract or deplete an atmosphere. Public art, whether commissioned or not, adds to the visual landscape and character of a city by turning ordinary spaces into community landmarks and locations to feel the pulse of the community. Today’s designers and artists must reclaim public spaces as they orchestrate color, imagery, and technology to deliver connections—connections that deliver multisensory experiences that leave the viewer with an impression that lasts much longer and much deeper than traditional methods.  These “forces of things” give communities character and engage viewers who can feel the vibrant, affective community.

About the author

Lianne Wappett is a recent MFA Art + Design graduate from the University of Idaho. Her studio art emphasizes multisensory experiences as she employs the use of manufactured materials into her sculptures. Previously, she worked in advertising with Euro RSCG creating national and international campaigns for high-tech companies such as StorageTek, Iomega, and Intel. Wappett’s research focuses on corporate, public, and community art and its affective impact within environments.


1. Lau J. Art spawned by Hong Kong protest; now to make it live on. The New York Times, 14 Nov 2014. Available from: URL: [Accessed 5 Mar 2015].
2. Brown B. Thing theory. Critical Inquiry 8.1 (Autumn 2001):1-22.
3. Anderson B. Affective atmospheres. Emotion, Space and Society 2.2 (December 2009): 77-81. Online resource [accessed 5 Mar 2014].
4. Ahmed, Sara. Happy objects. The Affect Theory Reader. Duke University, 2010. 29-51.
5. Damasio A. The feeling of what happens: body and emotion in the making of consciousness. New York: Harcourt Publishing, 1999.
6. Seigworth GJ, Gregg M. An inventory of shimmers. The Affect Theory Reader. Duke University, 2010; 1-25.
7. Brennan T. The transmission of affect. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2004.


1. The ubiquitous Hong Kong umbrella creates an impromptu collage and becomes a symbol of protest. (Photo: Tommy Mui/Getty Images)
2. The object is re-approriated and becomes part of a crowd-sourced art installation.  (Photo: Nicolas Asfouri /Getty Images)
3. The Mission District in San Francisco became a proving ground for change in the 1970s as public art was first introduced. (Photo: Women’s Building)
4. Creating an affective atmosphere within an art gallery through the creation of a large-scale piece entitled, “Hello”
5. “Hello” balloon bees in University of Idaho Commons
6. “Hello” balloon bees in University of Idaho Student Union Building during a design conference (Photo:  Robin Lopez)
7. Balloon bees (Photo:  Robin Lopez)
8. “Hello” installed at the Prichard Art Gallery, Moscow, Idaho
9. “Hello ”interactions
10. “Hello” shows the complexity of the piece on the back in contrast with the organic, fiber-like front.
11. Mini installation on the exterior of the Prichard Art Gallery to invite and allow outdoor interaction