Brooklyn-based Kurt Perschke, 46, brainstormed deep into the night 15 years ago, dropping design after design of complex shapes over black and white photocopies. Nothing felt quite right. He was working on a public arts commission for the Arts in Transit program in St. Louis where he lived and taught at the time. Though in his youth the Chicago-native envisioned maybe becoming a wildlife biologist or a psychologist — his mom wanted him to be an architect — he got an MFA in ceramics sculpture from Rochester Institute of Technology in 1997. Thereafter, Perschke built a reputation due to his persistence with multiple media, including ceramic, glass, steel, inflatable, video, collage and set design for dance.
Red Ball Project
Finally, on a whim and a bit exasperated, while continuing sketches for the Arts in Transit commission, Perschke drew something much simpler. It was a giant red sphere smushed beneath an overpass in a bland part of the city. The absurdity – the “risk” – of it – made him laugh. It was only then that he had the “ah ha” moment, or rather the “ha ha” moment, and he felt he was onto something.
“It shifted when I stopped trying to make an idea fit in the space verses making it about the space,” Perschke said.
Eventually, the enormous red ball was constructed — from river raft material, about 15’ high and 250 lbs — and installed in that location in 2001, kicking off the RedBall Project, now possibly one of the world’s longest rolling public arts projects in history, already bouncing through over 25 cities around the planet and bestowed a national award from Americans for the Arts Public Art Network.
Perschke can spend at least a year prior “talking to” and scouting cities before wedging the inflatable ball into surprising public places. In this context, the ball feels like dream symbolism, transcending an otherwise ordinary and ubiquitous shape: inspiring, fascinating or maybe maddening. The interaction with others is why it is referred to as a performance, and tilts into urban interventionism.
While Perschke said RedBall is not really subversive, he acknowledged the perceived line between street art and graffiti is sometimes blurred, and that both have their appeal. And the ball has been on both sides, such as in Barcelona where he says the project really got kicked off as he and cohorts moved it around illegally aside from the spot legally funded by Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art.
“Illegal street art feels dangerous, feels sexy, and sometimes it feels satisfying, but you could only get on the Sydney Harbour Bridge with permission,” Perschke said.
Without going into budget specifics, Perschke said RedBall fees include boarding for a crew of 5-9 people at times for up to two weeks on site. (The whole team includes a photographer, project manager, film crew, outreach coordinator, etc.) He also added sponsorship does not always come from cities’ downtown associations or arts councils. In fact, in one case it was a private individual.
Of course, RedBall Project also has attracted (probable) copycats. Some — like the individual(s) who put the large red ball in the tree in Houston — Perschke’s left alone, but corporations, he has not. On the basis of intellectual property rights, he took on Edenred in 2013 for use of a large red ball in a promotional campaign, and in 2014 he accused Shell Oil of appropriating his idea too. Both settled out of court and discontinued their campaigns.
“It’s really an issue of intention,” Perschke said. “I’m not going to chase them all, but when it’s used commercially (or) detrimental to me, I have to protect it,” Perschke said.
Like intellectual/conceptual property, value and merit are age old topics that can irk both artists, critics and bystanders. But in most cases, when people feel inconvenienced by the placement of RedBall, Perschke said since it’s not directly aggressive, the ball kind of “gets away with it because it’s so tongue-in-cheek.”
The experience in every city is different, and mishaps — like unforeseen construction at a pre-approved installation site in Paris or the ball coming loose in downtown Toledo — are inevitably encountered.
“… The ball is a prop in the performance. It’s the reason people gather; the ball is facilitating. But the real piece is their experience. You meet people, take pictures, have conversations. The zone around the ball is what it’s about,” Perschke said.
RedBall stimulates movement and laughter, and provokes thought or disruption from the norm.
“Cities are really exciting places to work in. Cities are alive, they need to be played with. A super exciting part of the piece is being able to travel; thinking about what it means to perceive your place and be open to play. It is an invitation, not telling people what to do,” Perschke said.
At the end of the day, it’s hard to ignore a big red ball in your path, and sometimes you just have to squeeze it.