New York City-based artist Jenny Polak has long dealt with issues of citizenship and legality through her site-specific and socially-engaged projects. Drawing heavily on her background in architecture, but working across a variety of media, Polakâ€™s work brings human scale to the urgent politics of immigration in the US. Here, we spoke about her recent project at Northwestern Universityâ€™s Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, the pitfalls of nostalgia, and the question of utility in art.
Maria with (n)IMBY Keepsakes at Our Lady of Guadalupe, 2012.Â Photo: Jenny Polak
Your work is primarily about the experiences of undocumented people. How did you develop this as a lens?
Iâ€™ve got this simple outrage at the way the rules of nations and international relations are written to ensure that the people flowing across borders will remain vulnerable enough to be exploited. But itâ€™s also a fascination I have with the complex interrelated migrant lives that are the life-blood of many societies, without the supposed benefit of the legal underpinning and authorization that comes with citizenship. Iâ€™m a Jew from England, where modern immigration law was founded on anti-semitism, capitalized on by racist loser politicians who insinuated a divisive narrative to use to their advantage.
Feeling pissed off about legacies of exploitation is a sort of lens. I got mixed up in immigrantsâ€™ rights activism in the US in the mid 90â€™s because Bill Clinton threatened to and then passed a couple of hugely terrible Acts that were going to catapult hundreds of thousands of people into immigrant detention. And then I would practically trip over shackled black guys on crowded Varick Street (then the location of a key detention center) where the architectâ€™s office I worked in got me my second H1b visa. In the US of course the conceptualization of birthright citizenship got all bound up with the exclusion required to maintain the institution of slavery, and the seeming progressiveness of the 14th Amendment, driven by the need to legitimize a now undeniably free, and sometimes armed workforce has been followed by layer upon layer of gate-keeping legislation, to control new cheap labour supplies. Business as usual.
You recently completed a residency with the Kaplan Institute for the Humanities at Northwestern University, where you worked with community activists who were opposing the building of a private detention center in Crete, IL. Can you talk a bit about what that experience was like? What challenges did you encounter?
This was an amazing thing. Iâ€™d been following the local news as the battle developed and with many in the â€˜immigrants rightsâ€™ world cheered when Crete said NO to Corrections Corporation of America, the huge company that profits from mass incarceration policies in the US and elsewhere. Right then I got offered this miraculous residency, which gave me the chance to go and find the people who had pulled off this extraordinary result. I felt this urgently needed to be understood, represented and commemorated as an inspiring model for other communities. It wasnâ€™t an ideal residency project perhaps; 3 months is an unusually great amount of time for me to be able to concentrate entirely on art but it is short for the kind of community connections I wanted to establish. I researched and networked before going, and luckily for me I already knew a few people in Chicago, not least my Mother-in-Law, who always provides a supportive base.
The Kaplan Institute people were also great about the general idea for the project and for an interdisciplinary class I proposed dealing with socially engaged art as it relates to urban planning, with a close look at the case of the Crete prison, which of course was partly an urban planning issue.
So my big challenge for this project was to meet people both in Crete and the vital immigrant activists from Chicago, learn from them in much greater detail how they saw the whole struggle, and win these remarkable people who had already moved on to the next struggle, to the idea of working with me and a couple of Northwestern students to make art relating aspects of Â â€œThe Sweet Defeat of the Prison in Creteâ€ â€“ as activist Anthony Rayson named a zine he made – to a possible wider audience. Itâ€™s a tricky thing that is tough to get right in socially engaged art: when you are not already part of a community, and will not be able to stick around, why are you there? The activists involved had already done brilliantly at PR. The very different affected communities â€“ the Concerned Citizens of Crete (started by Cetta Smart) and the immigrant community centered on Fr. Landaverdeâ€™s Anglican Catholic Mission Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Little Village – knew what they were doing and Local and national news media had followed the story in English and Spanish. I wanted to see something else happen because I thought that a particularly striking thing was the coalition of citizen and non-citizen that formed across a big divide of consciousness.
The people found common cause thanks to the abilities of several leading people in both communities to frame the debate in terms of the high ground; the moral outrage of detention and deportation, and of profiting from them. I proposed some art under the heading (n)IMBY, exploring ways to represent and sort of idealize this uniting of people whose â€˜profilesâ€™ didnâ€™t match, both for the people themselves and for possible art audiences who would never know them. A number of the people who had been involved graciously came back together at my request: Father Landaverdeâ€™s community generously hosted, the no name collective provided support and I quite old-fashionedly drew and photographed them. The photographs simply pair up citizens with immigrants with the gridded walls of the storefront church as backdrop.
From the (n)IMBY photo series, 2012.
Your work has multiple publics: the people it was done about, with and for â€“ as well as the art world. How do you reconcile the function of your work in these two, often separate realms?
I have difficulty with thinking about an artwork that is not also understood as an object with meaning in the real world. So for the (n)IMBY project, I wanted to make something life-size â€“ actually I thought about a commemorative monument of sorts, but the relationship to site was looking problematic, with two key foci of the struggle, neither of which I could just impose an object on without a lot more time to be with people and delve into what might be useful and share-able.
So I drank in the frequency of little Virgin of Guadalupe statues and tried thinking souvenirs â€“ multiples thought of as â€˜lowâ€™ art in high art world terms. I imagined narrative keepsakes that could be found in many peopleâ€™s homes or places of assembly. There was a show of the figurines of John Rogers about that time â€“ a prolific Victorian sculptor of Civil War and moral scenes. I was going to try and cast something but the Engineering Department at NU opened their Rapid Prototyping Lab to me and I made 3D prints instead â€“ not as many as I would have liked, to share among more people, but it was an inspiring opportunity and I think those who have taken them to keep have an interesting connection now with both each other and the few art-audience people who may get to see some in a gallery context.
One big reason for making art objects at all rather than participatory events and such, is that the â€œcommunities of communicationâ€ (- a term like that I think comes from Walter Benjamin) that objects might generate â€“ people who in potentially energizing ways are sharing ideas â€“ donâ€™t have to be all in the same place or exist in the same time, and this is important because you need so many different kinds of people on board and so much time to go after a real high ground kind of vision.
Â (n)IMBY Keepsakes, 2012.
There is a feeling, in your work, that youâ€™re not interested in getting nostalgic about the immigrant experience, but that youâ€™re actively engaging the â€œnowâ€ on these issues, and imagining into future possibilities.
I grew up in crazily nostalgic culture â€“ both England and the un-English, Jewish cultural time-warp I existed in are very tied up in their pasts. When I started to think about migration and its representation or manifestation in art I saw everyone doing â€˜share-your-history-or-cultureâ€™-type-art. That was also THE accepted way for an artist to â€˜work with the communityâ€™ â€“ still is. These projects are celebratory, educational, cool, but tend to draw attention away from action or even from any representation that includes analysis of or fight-back against injustice. Thatâ€™s not to say I think political art should be all about protest â€“ many of us have done a lot of that and can see that there other ways to work so as to activate a space â€“ not just the designated space of protest â€“ with an awareness of its reality â€“ its present, socio-economic networks â€“ in such a way that people kind of unsuspectingly get a sudden jolt of their own reality and connection to othersâ€™. So after I tried making an art about my background, looking at the idea of the Jew in England, my amazing family, my own bizarre overdetermined history as a Jew sick with a supposedly Jewish disease and such, Lyle Ashton Harris said to me in a studio crit in the Whitney Independent Study Program one day, â€œwhy should I care?â€ A truly helpful thing. I said to myself, right, this stuff will be behind me, but now I will face outward, and look for ways to connect with other people, in the present and for the future.
How do you understand the relationship between your art and your activism?
Chicago was the first place I came to when I first arrived in the US, and the first thing I saw as I was driven from the airport was a huge demonstration about some art. (It was about â€œWhat is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag?â€ – the work of my husband-to-be, Dread Scott.) This added tantalizingly to my sense that in the US art could influence public opinion, which I had given up hope of in England. My activism for a time was kind of separate from my art, but I was saved by the experiences of collaborating with Repo-History and the poster collective Resistant Strains on a few projects. Plus I had had a kid, and started working for architects and there wasnâ€™t time anymore; then it was suddenly clear to me that those things (kid, architecture) were the sources and the connections I needed for a new activist art combo. I drew on my architecture background and my immigrant activist network and made a web project (HardPlace) for which detainees from across the country supplied sketches of what they knew of their invisible prisons, (photos being forbidden) and I traced them into strange digital 3D models where you could find a few tidbits of info that cumulatively conveyed an idea of the terrifying Kafkaesque system that was proliferating since the 1996 laws had passed. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum funded the project so that I felt able to team up with web designer Lauren Gill to deliver a project that got quite a lot of attention on the predicament of detainees and the dangerous direction US immigration policy was headed in â€“ it was launched soon after 9/11 and detention was taking on a new definition in the public imaginary and in abusive reality.
Â Cover Series, 2012. Photo: Dread Scott
Having a social or political application in oneâ€™s work can lend itself to a particular kind of â€œusefulness,â€ often discussed in socially-engaged art. How do you address utility in your work?
There are different ways to be useful and to address usefulness. Many things I make use a language usually thought of as functional or useful but they are dysfunctional â€“ they talk about their own inadequacy or misguidedness. I think of it as a sort of reverse-engineering the ready-made â€“ art that escaped into the real world. It canâ€™t be instrumentalised except in make-believe (unlike the Urinal getting put back to its intended use) but it can talk about what might have been or might be. I think when artists aim for â€˜realâ€™ utility, it tends to produce poor relations of things made by real designers and urban planners â€“ partly because art in the socially engaged realm has generally had to accept a pathetically minimal funding structure as compared with architecture and urban design budgets, or even regular public art budgets â€“ but of course those big budgets entail the forswearing of criticality- the pact with the devil. We are beginning to see some good results as the exchange flows the other way and urban designers merge into artists.
I was moved recently when Tania Brugueraâ€™s Museum of Arte Util, soon to open in Holland, asked to include my Design for the Alien Within and other projects in their archive. My tactics may be frowned on by some advocates/practitioners of utility in socially-engaged art. For example during Occupy Wall St, I got involved with Mitch McEwen and others in the Architecture Group: there were interesting discussions and practical exercises to come up with temporary shelter strategies for public sites controlled by city regulations, as well as the chance simply to observe and engage with the structures that kept being built. While hanging about the financial district I picked up some bags of shredded paper and with advice from Michael Rakowitz about sealing plastic sheets into shapes, began making shapes like financial crisis graphs stuffed with shredded paper, that double as pattern pieces for assembly into warm, waterproof wearable shelters, coat-tents. But they will they actually be used? It doesnâ€™t matter at the moment, itâ€™s more that people who see and feel them immediately want to talk with each other and me, and these conversations are useful.
Hope Esser performing “Telegraph Progress” at The Watermill Center’s 20th Annual Summer Benefit.
Celebrites fawn over Chicago artist at Watermill
Hope Esser Goes Viral
Reportings coming in this evening from sources from Facebook to Bloomberg indicate that Chicago performance artist and occasional What’s the T? correspondent, Hope Esser, painted The Watermill red at the art center’s celebrity studded annual summer benefit. Esser could be viewed from on high, performing in a red dress with flag sleeves from atop the performance lab’s building. Her figure was made more striking by the red fabric draped rapunzel-like directly under her.
Bloomberg.com revealed celebrities from Abromavic to Gaga to bankers no one care about were seen at the event. The article smartly shouts out Esser as well. Watch out for Esser’s performance in the next Lady Gaga video, featuring Marina Abromavic.
Real collaboration at The Hills.
Drain & Reeder Create “On The Spot” Art Exhibition
Show in real time at The Hills Esthetic Center
This past Monday (yes, an opening on a Monday) evening at The Hills Esthetic Center “Jyson Deeder and Tim Rain” debuted “A Nerdier Red”, “community organized” by Josh Reames, at everyone’s “favorite” Garfield Park “gallery”, The Hills. The collaborative exhibition came together as it opened with Reeder & Drain turning the notoriously useless loft above the gallery into the command center from which the art was generated and then incorporated into the official gallery space.
Reeder & Drain tell it like it is.
Down in the gallery, visitors feed off the artists’ frenzied energy and joined in, painting a huge canvas, random hats and eventually joining in on a “drum circle.”
Visitor’s in various states of gallery attendance.
Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field, 1977. Long-term installation in
Western New Mexico. Photo: The New York Times.
Reading is Fundamental
Some Unrequired Reading: As Jerry Saltz opens his piece on Deitch’s depature from LA MoCA, “It was always only a question of when, never if.” That being said, the internet is ablaze with opinions on the development. If you’re into that sort of thing, more here, here, and here.
Gay Marriage is Trending and TotallyFab-u-lous: The Gossip is that The Gossip’s Beth Ditto recently married her partner, Kristin Ogata, in Maui. Ditto and Ogata has my dream wedding: Ditto wore a Gaultier gown and it looks like they made all their guests coordinate. To. Die. For.
Don’t worry beaus, Buxom babes aren’t the only one getting hitched. Recently, our personal fav queen Latrice Royal made news by becoming ordained in order to officiate over a good friend’s wedding ceremony. Catch this great interview on Latrice’s killer outfit and her controversial opinions on gay marriage on Dragofficial.com.
This past Saturday the Printer’s Ball, hosted by Spudnik Press with the support of the Poetry Foundation, took over the Hubbard Street lofts, once again proving print media’s vitality with displays, demonstrations, lectures, conversations and empanadas. WTT? was especially impressed with the Riso demonstrations provided by SPARE residency in the Post Family space.
Tony Fitzpatrick in conversation with Printer’s Ball founder, Fred Sasaki. Fitzpatrick regaled the audience with tales of Studs Terkel, Lou Reed, Haiti and Cuban cigars.
Spotted at the Printer’s Ball: Momentarily back from Ox-Bow, Lauren Anderson checks out photos and posters at Johalla Projects.
Social Practice Queens (SPQ) is a collaboration of the Art Department of CUNY Queens College and the Queens Museum of Art with the goal of developing an MFA pilot program in Social Practice. Â The vision is to serve as a model for education in this field by combining the expertise of a group of artists, administrators, educators, and those engaged with local issues specific to Queens, NYC, one of the most complex and multicultural urban centers in the world. Â
â€¨The first cohort of SPQ students began the program in spring 2012 with a semester-long introduction to the Corona, Queens neighborhood and its newest public space, Corona Plaza. Â The Queens Museum and its organizers have been instrumental in transforming Corona Plaza into a programming and organizing platform for the community, and have been actively collaborating with the students in the development of their projects, which are set to launch this summer.
â€¨And, plans are afoot for a conference in the spring of 2014 in the QMAâ€™s new expansion wing that will emulate aspects of the Open Engagement conference at Portland State University, but with a decidedly NYC flavor.
SPQ collaborators Prerana Reddy and Jose Serrano of the QMA offered some insight into this experimental partnership, and what it means for the collaborating institutions, students, and community stakeholders alike.
Juliana Driever: You chose to name this a â€œsocial practiceâ€ program, though there is a bevy of other ways of calling this work: new genre art, socially engaged art, relational art, et cetera. Is using the word â€œpracticeâ€ a way around using the word â€œart?â€ Are you interested in pushing this kind of work beyond a specifically art-oriented dialog?
Prerana Reddy/Jose Serrano: The choice of the words “social practice” was more pragmatic than anything. There was no deliberate distancing from using the word â€œart.â€ It had more to do with acknowledging the growing community of practitioners that has come to identify with this particular terminology.
What we did spend a lot of time on was discussing what form of â€˜social practiceâ€™ we could excel at, and how that might end up in our branding. So there were ideas ranging from â€˜urban social practiceâ€™ to â€˜critical social practiceâ€™, which would have been intended to highlight the kinds of artist projects that address the complex urban fabric of a place like Queens, or signal a stronger critical-political component, respectively.
JD: There are a handful of other â€œsocial practiceâ€ (or similarly dubbed) MFA programs in the U.S. The interest in this discipline as a course of study seems to be growing. Do you think this creative interest has something to do with the larger state of social relationships, a shift in the state of art pedagogy, or a conflation of these and other circumstances?
SPQ graduate student Seth Aylmner collaborates with the youngest artists of Corona toward the creation of a bronze sculpture for Corona Plaza.Â Courtesy of the Queens Museum of Art and Queens College Art Department.
PR/JS: There at least as many answers to this as people involved in the initiative. Â Some might say that the development of these programs has to do with simply fulfilling a need, as more students identify with this type of work and are looking for graduate degrees…
There has been an increased pressure on arts and academic institutions to define the benefits they provide to society at large. In an era of economic crisis, there is always a pressure to think of arts and culture as a luxury that can be cut.Â I think there is a genuine belief on the part of those who work in these institutions that art provides not only educational benefits, but a cohesive and inclusive space for a healthy and engaged civic life of the communities that they work in and with. In a time when public space is increasingly privatized and policed, it behooves artists, designers, and public intellectuals alike to work together to strengthen the public sphere. Social Practice emerges at a time in which what practitioners know intuitively must be expressed more concretely and analyzed more rigorously.
JD: Unlike other social practice MFA programs, SPQ is in direct partnership with a major museum, which is a unique set-up for an MFA program to start, but even more so given that much socially-engaged art typically takes place beyond museum and gallery contexts. Does the QMAâ€™s investment in this program also signal a shift in the role that museums play in support of such work?
PR/JS: At the Queens Museum of Art, we are constantly striving to examine whether the avant-garde in the realms of art and politics can actually meet. Can an art project simultaneously address aesthetics and concrete social goals in public space? This is a constantly evolving process, one that must be responsive to shifting demographics, economic conditions, political will, unplanned crises, and a constantly unfolding definition of art. Unlike the confines of the gallery or contracted set of artistic services rendered in non-museum spaces, engaging in complicated social relations in the â€œreal worldâ€ involves a surrender of control over outcome as well as some amount of risk. This is not something that allÂ museums want to enter into or are well-positioned to do.
Families read together at the UNI Projectâ€™s Mobile Reading Room at a Community Celebration at the newly designed Corona Plaza, 2012. Photo by Neshi Galindo.
Â However, equally, if one is receptive, such projects provide invaluable input in the context of a long-term, iterative experiment in local knowledge production. It also requires staff with specialized training and social networks outside of or in addition to those found in traditional curatorial or museum administration spheres. For example, the QMA staff includes two community organizers, three art therapists, and more than twenty teaching artists whose backgrounds and language repertoires mirror the diversity of our largely new immigrant neighbors. QMAâ€™s exhibition program consistently exhibits artists who work collaboratively with our community members, and our partnerships include municipal agencies, local advocacy organizations, health care providers, urban planners, local business associations, and public libraries.Â Furthermore, these staff must be consistently present in community spaces and events, and possess the intuition, social skills, and social capital to overcome communication barriers and historic mistrust ofÂ arts institutions.
Participatory public artist projects exist within triangular set of relational dynamics amongst the Museum, the artistsâ€™ projects, and audiences. Museums have curatorial and social questions that are motivations for commissioning such projects: the development of new species of artists residencies within museums as labs for investigation; mutual education and different modes of interaction; the changing understanding of the mission of museums and their responsibility to the cultural vitality and health of local communities; the visibility (or invisibility) of participatory art practices and their relationship to traditional gallery exhibitions and experiences; and the role of documentation, presentation, and new digital and interactive (web2.0) technology in the life and dissemination of such emerging practices.
JD: Because â€œsocial practiceâ€ implies an inherent nature as an applied art, is there the desire/need for the equivalent of a â€œmaterials and techniquesâ€ handbook or something such? In a very practical sense, how does one approach teaching this area of study?
PR/JS: We donâ€™t necessarily have a â€œunified theoryâ€ of how to teach this work, because it depends so much on context, but weâ€™ve been doing a lot of experimenting. Â First, nothing is more important than lived experience. Â It is important to encourage students to develop projects and actively participate in the initiatives of others, including more experienced artists but also with people and organizations in other fields that align with their interests. The museum provides â€œthese points of accessâ€ for students to enter into ongoing projects as they unfold and to meet a wide variety of artists, organizers, and administrators at various points in the process of â€œsocial practice.â€ But we have realized that there are important community organizing skills that seem to be relevant to most of the student projects. QMAâ€™s Public Events Department is also â€œon-callâ€ to advise students how to manage permits, navigate city agencies, work with CBOs, find necessary technical services or advice, which are also key components in this type of art practice.
Maureen Connor, one of the lead faculty of SPQ, recently instigated a social practice pedagogy group that is jointly developing an introductory Social Practice syllabus with other NYC and East Coast faculty this Spring. They have been meeting weekly since mid-December and are teaching the course while developing it. In addition to Maureen, the group includes Caroline Woolard, Scott Berzofsky, Robert Sember, Mark Read, Laurel Ptak, Sasha Sumner, Shane Aslan Seltzer, and Susan Jahoda.
JD: Taking human relationships as a medium and a context is an undoubtedly tricky thing. Have you identified/partnered with key figures from Corona to help facilitate projects with the students? What has been the community involvement and response to this initiative and its projects?
PR/JS: That â€œpermacultureâ€ approach has been a kind of ideal for Corona Studio, and into this context we introduced SPQ and the first cohort of students. In the spring of 2012, the first SPQ course was based out of Immigrant Movement International, and was focused on the transformation of Corona Plaza. Â It was called: â€œCorona Studio: Transforming Corona Plazaâ€ and was opened to both graduates and undergraduates in both the Art Department and the Urban Studies departments at Queens College. Â Throughout the semester, we invited some of our most valued community partners as visiting lecturers to help the students develop â€œlistening toolsâ€ that would help them have meaningful conversation with the stakeholders of the plaza, and in doing so, learn to see the potential for creative interventions in a more holistic community context. Over the course of the last year, the students have remained connected to the community by participating in many of the museumâ€™s ongoing public events in the Plaza, and by carrying forward their own creative projects in Corona with the support of the Museum and its partners. Â Many of these projects will culminate with public events in Corona Plaza throughoutÂ the summer of 2013.
Community celebration at the newly designed Corona Plaza, 2012. Photo by Neshi Galindo.
For example, Barrie Cline and Sol Aramendi, two students in the program, are collaborating on a project with members of the community organization New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE), a long-time community partner of the Museum which advocates for the rights of recently arrived and often undocumented immigrant workers in Corona. The first installment of the project will culminate in the launch of a publication showcasing the writing and photography of the members of NICE in collaboration with union tradespeople from the Harry Van Arsdale School for Labor Studies, an institutional connection offered to the project by Barrie Cline.
JD: A criterion common to some of the most successful community-based projects is sustainability: the desire and ability to stick around in a community for an extended period of time. How have you considered encouraging a meaningful, lasting relationship between the students, the college, the museum, and the community?
PR/JS: Weâ€™ve had the opportunity to think about this question quite a bit, as the Museum has invested a lot of time and energy addressing the sustainability and health of our relationships in the community of Corona.
Over the last eight years, we have had an actively cooperative stance in terms of our community relationships, and have developed a strong network of over 40 community partners, some of which participated in creative collaborations we proposed to them — for example, working with one of our commissioned artists, or co-producing a cultural event in Corona Plaza.
Corona Studio was born from a desire to sustain these creative relationships, by committing ourselves to a program of commissioning long-term artist projects that are actively interested in working creatively and cooperatively with our community partners in Corona, and the people of Corona at large.
Workshop at Corona Plaza by Change Administration and DSGN AGNC. Courtesy of the Queens Museum of Art and Queens College Art Department.
The first of these commissioned projects was Immigrant Movement International, a cultural space initiated by Tania Bruguera that is going into its third year and has become the de-facto home of many of the local cultural groups that we have been working with throughout the years, like the Corona Youth Music Project. Â We have also developed long-term projects in Corona with the Ghana ThinkTank artist collective, the Change Administration, and DSGN AGNC design collectives in the context of the transformation of Corona Plaza. In the case of each project, our goal was for it to benefit from the relationships developed by the ones that came before, and for it to pay it forward to those that come after.
So for example, Immigrant Movement International became an active partner and the host for many of the gatherings organized by the Ghana Think Tank, and the social projects surrounding Corona Plaza.
We have been thinking about the question of sustainability not simply in terms of each of the individual projects, but also in terms of their fluidity and openness to connect with existing relationships and resources, and their willingness to re-invest their community energy into subsequent projects, as well as other locally-driven initiatives.
Each participatory art project allows new, often unforeseeable, partnerships and projects to emerge based on the skills and insights learned through their interactions both with the community collaborators and the Museum.Â The community who participates in those projects might shift their perceptions about what art is and what roles it could play in social life, what types of personal transformations it could bring about in terms of self-perception, new social interactions, and political possibilities. The challenge then becomes one of capacity and commitment: how to continue to build upon these possibilities and to remain accountable to partners beyond the lifespan of a project or a grant cycle that supports it.Â On the evaluation side, it is difficult to understand the impact of such projects. Exit interviews, final reports, surveys, and the like represent a very small slice of what takes place in a participatory art project, somewhat like a single frame in a serial scan of a longitudinal social process. Ultimately, we believe the engagement approach of any institution is necessarily situated in both ecological and ethical terrains, in that such endeavors live within a dense, interconnected local environment as well as a set of contested value systems that must be constantly negotiated towards generative rather than reductive outcomes.
This week the Fashion Institute of Technology held a panel on scale and spectacle called â€œSize Mattersâ€ (apparently unaware that they were in danger of ripping off and thereby angering curator Shaquille Oâ€™Neal, also a basketball player apparently, who curated an exhibition in 2010 by the title of â€œSize DOES Matterâ€). The panelists were Gavin Brown, Roberta Smith, Peter Halley and KAWS, with Hrag Vartanian of Hyperallergic.com as the moderator. There are a lot of panels all over the world and this one wouldnâ€™t really be notable except that Julia Halperin, editor of Art + Auction, live tweeted it and one particular tweet caught my attention. Following the subject of the panel on scale, Halperin reported that â€œRoberta [Smith] likes Anish Kapoor’s Bean [Cloud Gate] in Chicago because you can have a private experience [with] it.â€
This caught my attention, and the attention of at least two other writers, since it seems the exact opposite of what the actual experience of the artwork isâ€”extremely public. I recalled an essay I had written years ago about the artwork but, wanting to share it with my colleagues, realized that I had never published it since I wanted to be sure to retain copyright over it. I imagine a lot of other writers also accumulate essays and articles never published for one reason or another.
So in the interest of expanding the dialogue around this iconic Chicago work it seems time to publish this essay albeit in slightly modified and updated form.
â€œ[O]ver the past 15 years public sculpture. . . has become one of contemporary artâ€™s more exciting areas of endeavor and certainly its most dramatically improved one,â€ statedNew York Times art critic Roberta Smith, in August of 2008, when she visited Chicagoâ€™s Millennium Park. And by all accounts, Chicagoâ€™s Millennium Park is an extraordinary success, inspiring other communities across the country to take on similar projects. The success of Millennium Park, and public art generally, lies in how the artworks function in relation to the city and the people. The artists have achieved a high degree of success in their respective creations, which directly makes the park successful in its mission: â€œto be a new public space for the people of Chicago.â€
The mission of Millennium Park sounds a bit generic until one considers the difficult challenge behind that goal. Chicago is the third largest city in the U.S. and like all major cities is home to a variety of people and interests. Weâ€™re only drawn together by the fact that we are Americans and that we share certain intangible ideals. Other than that we differ in appearances, faith, language and a myriad of other things. We are alike, yet profoundly different. This has been the strength, and challenge, of American life since our countryâ€™s founding, and this is the strength of the public artwork in Millennium Park, that it allows the viewer to celebrate our differences while creating a tangible sense of community.
Anish Kapoorâ€™s Cloud Gate, nicknamed â€œThe Beanâ€ by Chicagoans, is a large, highly polished stainless steel abstraction that looks like a round cloud pinned down on both ends. The reflective surface lures visitors in close, drawing them from far off as if by magnetic attraction. Cameras emerge and visitors start taking pictures, in groups, individually, up close, or far off. We try to find ourselves in the reflections andÂ simultaneouslyÂ we find ourselves surrounded by the city, and we see ourselves inÂ the city, part of a fabric larger than ourselves. It’s a powerful metaphor that becomes real when we see a young Chicagoan make this connection. Â Strangers inevitably become a part of other people’s pictures, guards are let down and conversations are struck up. The curving reflections of the work dissolve the barriers we put up between ourselves, drawing people into relation, and sometimes conversation, with each other.
The alien form of the abstraction identifies itself immediately as Art but does not alienate, instead it draws people in through their curiosity and the workâ€™s generosity. Kapoorâ€™s contribution accomplishes the mission of Millennium Park, while being wholly successful on its own terms. Rather than an indifferent sculpture, this is public art that lives up to the aspirations of its genre, bringing people together and inspiring them.