Global valley: Palo Alto photographer explores high-tech development in Silicon Valley — and India — in airport artwork

(Originally published in The Palo Alto Weekly)

At first glance, the display of eight large color photographs, set against hundreds of smaller pictures, hanging in the new Terminal B of Mineta San Jose International Airport may appear to be snapshots of the places where people live and work in Silicon Valley.

But take a closer look, and you’ll realize that half of those photos are not from Sunnyvale or San Jose. They are images from Bangalore, India, halfway around the world.

The installation is called “CONNECTED: Silicon Valley + Bangalore” and is the work of Angela Buenning Filo, a Palo Alto photographer and teacher at Eastside College Preparatory School in East Palo Alto, who answered the airport’s open call for artists to submit work to be displayed in the new terminal. (See separate story on Mountain View resident Shona Kitchen, one of the other artists.)

For the past two years, Filo has worked with San Jose’s Public Art Program to design a work of art that showcases her photography from Silicon Valley and her recent trips to Bangalore.

The finished work spans 40 linear feet and cost $25,000 to design, fabricate and install, according to Mary Rubin, project manager with the Public Art Program. It is set to hang on the second floor of Terminal B, just before the security gates in the public section of the airport, for the next two years.

Filo said her photography was inspired by the experience of living in Silicon Valley during the dot-com boom and bust. Every day, the landscape seemed to change. Filo would see a building one day only to return the following day or week and find it gone as the area rapidly developed and evolved.

Indeed, her Silicon Valley photos depict many stages of the development process, from construction sites and vacant business parks seeking tenants to bustling offices and empty computer-server rooms.

“That high-flying spirit got me motivated,” Filo said. “But after the bust, I thought the project was over.”

As it turned out, the project was not over. As Silicon Valley headed into recession, other economies around the world entered a boom of industrial and technological development. India in particular inspired Filo to document the interconnectedness between Silicon Valley and the international marketplace.

“I kept seeing Bangalore in the news, and how the energy there was driving projects here,” Filo said. “The disparate is becoming connected through communication and technology.”

During three trips over a two-year period, Filo focused her camera on the streets, office buildings and landscape of Bangalore. The similarities between office buildings in Bangalore and Silicon Valley, she discovered, were often striking.

“There was nothing to separate a corporate campus in Bangalore from one in Silicon Valley. It’s a similar aesthetic,” Filo said of a photograph of 24/7 Customer in Bangalore. “It was eerie to be so far across the world and feel like I could be in my backyard.”

With its potted plants, modern glass walls and inspirational messages about “Teamwork” and “Respect” written in English on the walls, the 24/7 Customer lobby could be inside any number of Silicon Valley offices. The only difference, perhaps, is the women dressed in brightly colored saris lounging in the background.

One marked difference between the two places is, in fact, the people. The Silicon Valley photographs are nearly devoid of any people, while photographs of Bangalore are filled with workers and passers-by.

“Bangalore was teeming with people and traffic,” Filo said. “They were such amazing subjects. They’d gaze right at the camera, just taking it all in. There’s a great sense of pride.”

Filo remembered the subject of one photo, a rickshaw driver, with fondness.

“I had no idea what he thought of me, but he just takes it all in and looks steady at the camera,” she said. In India, she added, “There’s a real openness.”

Filo said that she hopes her photos inspire Silicon Valley residents to notice how our surroundings reveal what we deem important in today’s ever-developing environment.

“The exhibit asks more questions than it tries to answer. It shows a moment in time and the way we’ve chosen to use the land,” Filo said. “Our spaces reflect the things we care about, or don’t care about, and the images allow us to stop, reflect and observe. We get so absorbed in the landscape, we think, ‘Of course that should be there.’ The photos can help people step back from it.”

At the very least, visitors can walk away with a new sense of how Silicon Valley fits into the global landscape. Even travelers who have been to both Silicon Valley and Bangalore may not have noticed how much the two places have in common.

“The work shows Silicon Valley in the context of our global connections,” Filo said. “It shows how our decisions affect (people) overseas, and how these two places are so interconnected.”

The airport display also provides an unusual opportunity for many people, even those who don’t view art on a regular basis, to see Filo’s work. The design of the exhibit is meant to engage both those travelers who have time to study the photos and those rushing past. The large photos mounted on lightboxes are noticeable to anyone who walks by, while travelers who have some time on their hands can examine the hundreds of smaller photographs behind the lightboxes.

Although the busy atmosphere of the airport can tend not to be conducive to concentrating on art, Filo said she likes the idea of the “accidental encounter” — that people can come across her photos unexpectedly in their daily life.

“I hope that some will have time to engage with the photos,” Filo said. “I have access to a huge number of people traveling through. Overall they’re more rushed, but it’s such an amazing opportunity to be in a public space.”

What: “CONNECTED: Silicon Valley + Bangalore,” a photography installation by Angela Buenning Filo

Where: Mineta San Jose International Airport, Terminal B, 1701 Airport Blvd. The exhibit is at the top of the escalator before the security gates.

When: Through 2012

Cost: Free

Info: or

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