How Avenue of the Arts’ “Float” fell to Earth

"Float" is an art installation now on hiatus.

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Floats hammocks only exist as photos for now.
  • Float's hammocks only exist as photos for now.
One way to measure a thing’s success is to note how fast people miss it when it goes away. By that standard, artist Jarrett Mellenbruch’s “Float” — the dozen hammocks that were until recently arranged on the south lawn of the Bartle Hall Ballroom as part of the 2012 Avenue of the Arts program — was a big deal.

Another way to gauge success, of course, is Facebook, where “Float” had become one of the summer’s top photographic subjects, and where word quickly spread about its removal.
On Mellenbruch’s Facebook page for “Float,” you can still see the hammocks: in photographer Eric Bowers’ filtered city light, luring anonymous convention participants as they take breaks, with artists such as Cory Imig and Peregrine Honig. Ceramic sculptor Steve Gorman noted the visual dialogue between the support cables of the Bartle Hall towers (themselves topped with R.M. Fischer’s Sky Stations, perhaps the city’s most visible public art) and the hammocks’ triangular ends. (He also liked the way the installation’s title alluded to the sail-like vaults of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, to the south.) But the popularity of “Float” was mostly about the sheer fun of sharing a little sunny joy and unexpected relaxation.

During the piece’s June installation, Mellenbruch says, the scene — conventioneers wondering whether they could really try out the hammocks — began to remind him of a beach. “You know how you want to get there early to get the great spot and the umbrella? They would stream out at lunch break or at 5, when the day was over, and make a beeline to the hammocks. In a matter of five minutes, they’d be full.”

But early on, the hammock frames started to show signs of structural trouble. During the June 15 opening reception for Avenue of the Arts (at the other end of Central Avenue, at the Folly Theater), Mellenbruch got a text from a friend telling him that one of the hammock frames had broken.

“I was hoping it was an anomaly,” Mellenbruch tells The Pitch. The frames he had chosen were touted as heavy-duty, able to withstand years of use and weight loads up to 450 pounds.
But even after Mullenbruch substituted new parts, cannibalized from extra frames he had purchased, hammocks continued to break. The ruptures were always in the same spot, at the foot; the welds were holding, but the steel itself would bend and snap. When seven came apart this way, Mellenbruch decided to take down all 12 of them.

Given the limited hours that people tended to “float” and the fact that the area is patrolled by security, Mellenbruch doesn’t suspect that misuse or vandalism is to blame. (He received one e-mail from a contrite hammock user who happened to have been lying in one when its frame broke. He wanted to pay for a replacement; Mellenbruch declined the offer.) He says local welders and metalworkers who have seen the broken pieces believe that the steel is thin. The manufacturer is holding out against replacement or refund, though, saying the hammocks were used “commercially” rather than in someone’s private yard.

The Municipal Art Commission’s Porter Arneill, who manages the Avenue of the Arts project, tells The Pitch that public projects like “Float” are always subject to practical issues. He and Mellenbruch talked about installing posts instead of free-standing frames, but that would have interfered with Bartle’s irrigation system and lawn maintenance.

It has often been too hot this summer for anyone to want to hang out under a cloudless, 100-degree sky. Even Mayor Sly James said so, on Twitter, before the hammocks’ removal. But Mellenbruch has been looking for frames, from another manufacturer, made of a thicker-gauge steel. They cost about 12 percent more than what he used before.

“If I could find a way to raise funds for the stronger stands, I’d like to have them there for September,” Mellenbruch says. (Avenue of the Arts ends September 30.) But he’s hesitant to turn something intended to be free into a donation drive. He’s looking into programs that issue arts grants on an emergency-fast basis. Kickstarter, which he calls “asking friends for money,” isn’t on his agenda.

Those friends, however, might feel like a restored “Float” would offer a good return on their investment. After all, anyone who tried out the hammocks or simply admired the sight of them came away with a closer understanding of public art.

“I’m super-happy just being able to be a part of Avenue of the Arts,” Mellenbruch says. That the frames broke feels, he adds, like a footnote to the project because the concept of transforming the space was so successful. “It just was a little more temporary than I had hoped.”
Whenever it becomes feasible, though, he hopes eventually to install a permanent version of “Float” somewhere.

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