A city is like a body. It eats, it breathes, it metabolizes. And when a city gets sick—coughing up things like pollution, poverty and crime—there are different ways to treat it. A traditional approach might prescribe the civic equivalent of a flu shot—a referendum on school funding or a voter overhaul of the city council. But here in Portland, one artist is taking a different tack (so to speak). He’s Adam Kuby, and he’s giving Portland an acupuncture treatment.
“I started out seeing this project primarily as a metaphor. I want people to shift their perspective—to see the city as an organism, an interdependent whole,” says Kuby, a NYC transplant with a background in sculpture and landscape design. “But I’ve been talking to experts in the acupuncture community, and they tell me not to underestimate the power of giving the city a treatment, actually sticking the needles in the ground. Who knows? Maybe it will create healing.”
That’s right: Kuby plans to raise awareness and balance Portland’s chi—its vital energy—with big needles. The first one, which has already been planted at South Waterfront’s Green Space, is 23 feet tall with a big pink handle on top.
Here’s how the project works: In addition to consulting with acupuncturists at the National College of Natural Medicine and the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine, Kuby is also meeting with city experts from Metro, the Coalition for a Livable Future, the Regional Arts and Culture Council, visionPDX and the Urban Greenspaces Institute. He’s collecting Portland-specific knowledge about everything from population density to environmental activism. Not an expert? Don’t worry—everyday folk are welcome in the South Waterfront Artist-in-Residence Studio, where they can mark maps with their PDX intelligence.
So far, Kuby’s maps have been marked with neighborhood-specific things like unfriendly concrete playgrounds, crowded brunch restaurants, sewage overflow, invasive plant species, and hipster hideouts. A few possible acupuncture points include a pin on the Willamette to signify Portland’s desire for a swimmable river or a needle downtown—by Portlandia, perhaps—to call attention to Portland’s identity crisis: world-class metropolis or habitable hideaway?
Kuby is funded privately through South Waterfront’s Artist-in-Residence program. Although program director and curator Linda K. Johnson won’t disclose the exact amount of Kuby’s grant—which covers materials and labor during the month of March—she says that all commissions are under $2,500. The needles themselves aren’t cheap: The prototype cost about $225. It was constructed in Kuby’s backyard using two nested steel pipes, mattress foam and a homemade pink spandex sheath. “The neighbors weren’t sure what I was up to,” says Kuby.
As a concept, urban acupuncture already has some currency in the world of city planning. Former Curitiba, Brazil mayor Jaime Lerner and San Diego-based architect Teddy Cruz have both used the term to describe small-scale developments that eliminate “pressure points” of bad energy within a city. But Kuby’s PDX project represents the first time that anyone has proposed meticulously mapping a city’s chi and then sticking it with needles.
Of course, there are skeptics. Ethan Seltzer, director of PSU’s School of Urban Studies, worries that the metaphor of city as body is not entirely apt. As an example, he says, “A body has only one brain. Cities have many brains, and no one of them is in charge, strictly speaking.” Then there’s the problem of needle placement. Although he is enthusiastic about Kuby’s project, NCNM professor and acupuncturist Ed Neal admits that sticking needles in the wrong places could actually worsen the flow of Portland’s chi. “Certainly, in our clinic, an inaccurate treatment can make someone worse,” he says. “It stands to reason that the same is true for the city.”
Despite debates over the efficacy of city-wide acupuncture, most skeptics agree—Ethan Seltzer and Ed Neal not least of all—that the project is beneficial in bringing together experts from divergent disciplines and creating a new context for the discussion of Portland. According to Linda K. Johnson, “This project invites everyone to come a little bit blind. As a result, I think they’ll be more open to new ideas about the city.”
MORE:To mark maps with your own PDX knowledge, visit the South Waterfront Artist-in-Residence Studio, 3623 SW River Parkway, 971-998-4810. Visit southwaterfront.com/art_and_design/artist for hours and details.