I have a tenous relationship with London’s iconic red busses. I love them for people-spotting, warm seats and getting a new, elevated perspective on the city’s landmarks. I hate them for their tardiness, their adrupt, bone-shaking stops and for the teenagers playing painful music in the back. The London bus is very much the good and bad of the city packaged up into one rolling, swerving mass partnered by the humble bus shelter.
The bus shelter is one of those unique, distinctively British public places. Different to the tube, it is a place where manners mainly come first – squeezing in to let a stranger escape the rain, queuing with an obvious “first come” protocol, letting the person with the most shopping bags/babies have your seat. It is also a place where, unusually, strangers might speak – even if this conversation is confined to the weather or a public transport related moan. The bus stop is subsequently the daily waiting-point hub of our diverse society, but with a local flavour. The awkward smile to someone you see every day, but without knowing their name (but their living and work whereabouts instead), being a case in point.
As such, I was recently pleased to see the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad doing something to celebrate this under-appreciated urban resource through the project “Bus-Tops“. Bus-Tops is a public art installation that transforms the tops of 30 bus shelters throughout London into platforms for giant red and black LED designs, or animated GIFs to those with more technological know-how. Despite the slightly ominous use of colours, these screens are much more exciting than your average public-exposed advert, because unlike the former, the public (yes the average, over-charged and laudably patient bus-user) are invited to submit their designs. Each month, the displays will change and while some screens will feature the work of select artists, the majority will be filled with publicly created designs – some of these so far being rather good, and somewhat amusingly playing with the fact that viewers might be bored while on the bus. Ultimately that is what I really like about this project – the extreme publicness of the installation. The fact that the artwork can only be viewed while on board a bus makes the potential hassle of their journey worthwhile – that bit of light out of a drizzly, grubby bus-window.