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On Thayer, one man's bid to spread digital art worldwide

One day in mid-October, three television screens appeared in the windows of the Thayer Street brick establishment formerly known as Geoff's. On the screens, was a two hour loop of contemporary art pieces. Above them a message: Art Reflects Society.

Just a day before, the sign told passersby that Society Reflects Art.

John Zib, the mind behind Open Art Cafe, doesn't care so much what people are looking at, as long as they're noticing. Open Art Cafe is a digital media project that aims to display contemporary art through an open network of local coffee shops.

The installation loops "Interruptheque," highlights of last month's "Interrupt" digital media festival, sponsored by and held at Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design. Zib set up three screens on Oct. 17 and another in February in Roba Dolce next door.

Zib is not an artist, but Open Art Cafe is not really a cafe either. The front door will not open until another business fills the vacancy left by Geoff's, which closed its doors this past summer. The installation is part of a larger scheme that Zib said he hopes will spread across Providence, and eventually overseas.

Inspiration for the Open Art Cafe came from a similarly named London-based network of coffee houses, in which various initiatives and projects were organized and shared, where people "got together and made things happen," Zib said.

Zib, originally from San Francisco, has lived in Providence for the last two-and-a-half years. He has also lived in Hong Kong, Amsterdam, Prague and Israel.

To convince businesses and artists alike to buy into the project, Zib said dozens of networks have to be available.

"We have units trying to be placed in Europe, the Middle East and Asia," Zib said.

He said he was underwhelmed by the response in New England, which he said was "still conservative" in its response to new media and art.

Zib, who calls digital media a "money-making machine," said he wants to set up an interactive network of Open Art Cafes for artists to display their work, which would be accessible through the Web.

If his plan comes to fruition, Zib said he envisions that "anyone can contribute work on a broad network of screens that are not designed to be commercially driven."

Though Zib is open to selling and installing signs for small businesses, he said he would not do so for commercial purposes. A network of digital signs, used for commercial marketing or otherwise, would promote digital media on a broader level, for projects like Open Art Cafe.

"The future is coming," Zib said. "( I need to) put my stake in the ground and do something different."

Beyond Open Art Cafe, Zib said he is seeking to use Memo, his Providence-based digital media company, to encourage the use of digital signs for nonprofit, community-based initiatives such as a locally displayed alternative television station.

"We need to create a more responsible future - things that are more socially beneficial."

Open Art Cafe is only four screens old, but Zib's digitial media pitch garnered attention from Johnny Rockets. The 50s-themed hamburger joint has agreed to install one of Zib's high-resolution, digital screens on which to display its menu.

Brown and RISD have not shown much interest in his digital signs, for art or for communications purposes, even though there is an inevitable push towards digital media in the marketing field, Zib said.

"Do you know what the fourth most-watched television station in the country is?" Zib asked. "The (informational) screens hanging in Wal-Mart."

"Half the U.S. population goes and sees those screens every two weeks," he said.

Zib said the "Interruptheque" street displays were one of a kind, adding that similar public art is not on display in New York or Los Angeles. "Interruptheque" was also on display last month at the Sciences Library and in the window of the Modern Culture and Media building, both on Thayer Street.

Nico De Martino, co-owner of Caffe Roba Dolce and Open Art Cafe's first client, said customers often asked why there was a screen showing slides of abstract contemporary art.

Posed the same question, De Martino said half-jokingly that he loves it for more than just its aesthetic value. Originally from Naples, Italy, De Martino said he watches soccer games on it once in a while.

Zib said he wants Open Art Cafe to thrive now before digital media gets too big and is bought out by bigger firms.

"Do we want to wait 10 years and let CBS buy (the digital screens)?" he said. "No, it's about art. It's about community."


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