Out walking with our kids in the Binz section of the Museum District the other day, we came across one of those random little discoveries that makes you glad you live in Houston, even if it's allegedly fall and still 90-odd degrees.
It was this odd little plaque in the ground, dated 1987. which grandly proclaimed that it was "one of five markers along the Human Tour, a permanent art project designed for and dedicated to a more human city." The plaque was inscribed by Michael Galbreth and also informed us that we were standing on "the right hand of the city," and that if we wanted more information, we would be able to find it at the downtown library.
A few days later, HairBalls Googled up Galbreth, who as most of you artsy types will already know, is one of the Art Guys, along with cohort Jack Massing. We also searched "the Human Tour" in the Houston Chronicle's archives. Back then, the paper of record called it "the single most exciting event of the 1987 Houston International Festival," and described Galbreth as having a vision both "embrasive [sic] and provocative." (While we were at it, we Googled up "embrasive." Turns out it is a word, albeit a lame one and one generally spelled "embracive." Our copy editor Richard Hebert suggested "all-embracing" as an alternative, and we concur. And we digress...)
Here is how this project worked.
Using what were then top-of-the-line computers, Galbreth overlaid a human shape over the grid of the central inner loop. He then placed five plaques at the extremities - two hands, two feet, a head -- of this giant ersatz Houston-Human, along with over 150 blue silhouettes on the streets, to be used as guideposts. (Bounded by Cleburne, TSU, Alabama and the Cuney Homes, there also appears what could be interpreted by the more prurient among you as a little schlong.)
Would-be Human Tourists could go to the library or DiverseWorks's old HQ on Travis near the bayou and pick up a map which included a description and history of the project, detailed instructions on the scavenger hunt-like tour, and histories of the old Houston neighborhoods through which it passed.
"The tour is designed for people to see areas of the city with which they may not be familiar and get some sense of the neighborhoods," Galbreth said at the time, and indeed, back in 1987, there were vast areas of the Inner Loop that were Terra Incognita to polite West Side society. The Human Tour passed through most of them, including Second, Third and Fourth Ward and the Near North Side. While there are still a lot of Houstonians who have never been through some of those areas, the number is a lot smaller now that the Inner Loop has gotten so gentrified.
Galbreth reiterated to the Chron that his work was to be a permanent project. But this is Houston; nothing is permanent. He tells HairBalls that the plaque on Wichita Street and Austin in the Binz is the sole surviving relic of the Human Tour.
"Jack and I put those things down in a pretty permanent fashion. I think they've just been moved or stolen," he says. "I think people dig them up. Even though we set them in concrete, people can be very determined when they want to steal something."
Galbreth is pretty sure at least one of the plaques was removed by a work crew. The left hand was once at the corner of Lockwood and Munger, not far from the Orange Show and UH. "That intersection has just been obliterated since then," says Galbreth. "There's just no such thing anymore."
In 1987, Galbreth said he believed that encouraging people to explore off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods would help humanize the city in some roundabout way, but today he says his aims were more literal.
"In very conceptual terms, in very literal terms, there was this human shape laid out over the city and the idea is that it would just make it look more human. If you painted the streets and looked at it from the air, you might be able to determine some kind of human shape. It sounds all idealistic but it's really very literal, and then people can interpret that how they wish. I have never been under any illusions about how human beings conduct themselves," he says.
Galbreth says a possible update would be problematic. "It was very complicated and hard to pull off," he says. Indeed, it was originally conceived in 1982 and not executed until 1987. Galbreth says the concept of public funding for art was then unknown in Houston, so his piece was done "in very guerrilla style."
Galbreth today can't remember the private source who funded them, but he and his partner "printed the map and scattered the markers around the city. But it wasn't done under the auspices of the city or anybody else."
He says that he had hoped to modify the outline as the contours of the city changed, but doesn't seem so hopeful about that today. And so all we have left is this one plaque on an otherwise humdrum corner. All that remains of Houston the Human is a severed right hand. Call us Cousin Itt City.
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"It's a really weirdly secret thing, because it's kind of disappeared," Galbreth says.