Get secret messages from the sea in one of seven installations at the Code:ART digital art festival

An alley off of Emerson Street in Palo Alto will soon be the site for what has to be, hands down, the Peninsula’s most unusual intersection. There will be no gridlock, traffic lights, or even cars for that matter; instead, undulating sea creatures and secret messages in bottles will beckon passersby to come explore an undersea world.

It’s not every day that you can wander through an ocean landscape in the heart of downtown Palo Alto, let alone interact with the sea creatures who live there. Such an unexpected experience is one of the inspirations behind artist Ruokan He’s piece, titled “Intersection,” which will be installed Oct. 12-14 at 536 Emerson St., during the city of Palo Alto’s Code:ART digital art festival.

The piece is among the seven interactive works of art placed around downtown Palo Alto for the biennial art festival.

That unusual combination of the natural world with an urban landscape underlies the title and the concept of “Intersection,” He said.

“It’s based on this bit of memory about the ocean but also thinking of this idea of an intersection as a place where different streets and different areas cross each other. So what is it like when streets and oceans cross each other and (what) would that kind of experience be like? I want to create this environment where an ocean and an urban city come together and it’s a new kind of interesting reality,” He said.

“Intersection” is one of Code:ART’s six “urban interventions” that will be installed in various spaces such as parking lots, alleys and storefronts throughout downtown. In addition, visitors can check out a major piece, “Questions for the Curious Orchard” by Los Angeles artist Nate Mohler that will be installed in King Plaza in front of Palo Alto City Hall. All pieces offer visitors some way to interact.

He, who is based in Palo Alto, has worked extensively in games and VR, creating “mixed reality” interactive pieces that bring together elements of the real and virtual worlds.

“Intersection” incorporates numerous illuminated fabric sculptures that resemble ocean critters and plants. The sculptures aren’t crafted to represent specific species — it’s up to the visitor’s interpretation, He said.

Hanging among the forest of sculptures are a variety of bottles, patterned after the idea of a message in a bottle you might find on a beach, that offer up somewhat abstract messages in various forms to visitors, engaging them through different senses, including sound, touch and smell.

He is also a musician, who works primarily on the piano, with some use of a synthesizer.

In addition to all the visuals, sound will help set the scene in “Intersection,” but more of a soundscape rather than a musical composition, she said.

“We’ll be adding some more environmental sounds to make people feel more immersive in that space.”

She said she was drawn to an ocean theme for the piece because of her own experiences at the beach, which also makes her want to learn more about the creatures and plants that call the ocean home.

“I really feel connected to nature when I see the different ocean life and also I really enjoy foraging near the Pacific coast,” He said.

The artist aims for visitors to bring their own experiences, including perhaps their own memories of the ocean, to their time exploring “Intersection.”

“People can walk through and create their own path, exploring these different interactive models, and so people are part of the art. So we are creating art together when they walk inside — like connecting these different dots. They have their own stories after they walk through and maybe that evokes their own memories about their time at the ocean,” she said.

Visitors to “Intersection” can also venture right next door to Bell’s Books, which is one of several downtown merchants and galleries that the city has partnered with to host exhibitions that complement the festival.

The aim, said Elise DeMarzo, public art program director for the city of Palo Alto, was to invite Code:ART guests to also visit downtown’s many merchants.

“We are really fortunate to have such support for creative outlets and artists. So we really wanted to help highlight that as well,” she said.

Coordinating with the festival, each business curated their own show.

Bell’s will host a show of photographs by Margo Davis of groundbreaking figures such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Toni Morrison, Ursula Le Guin and The Dalai Lama. Bell’s will host a reception to meet Davis on Oct. 13, 4-8 p.m.

Pamela Walsh Gallery will feature a new digital piece and photographs by interdisciplinary artist Maja Planinac. Visitors can meet the artist Oct. 12, 6-8 p.m. Qualia Gallery hosts a free program on Oct. 13, at 7.30 p.m. with local artist Clive McCarthy, who demonstrates his use of small, custom-built computer systems in creating painting-like images.

Visitors to Code:ART can check out the festival sites in any order they’d like, but for those looking for a more structured experience, the city’s arts commissioners and art staff will lead several tours of the installations each evening at 6 and 8 p.m, with tours departing from in front of City Hall.

Code:ART takes place Oct. 12-14 at various locations in downtown Palo Alto. Admission is free. Find more information about each installation and a map of where to find them at

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