Video

Outside In: Art in Public Space

Conversation recorded on June 24, 2020

Outside In: Art In Public Space brings together public art commissioners, curators, and artists to discuss the impact of working in the public realm—within communities and cities—and how it can offer opportunities to rethink, revitalize, and revision the civic landscape of the future.

Panelists include: Kyle Dancewicz, Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs at SculptureCenter, New York; Claire Doherty, founder Director of Situations, a public art organization based in Bristol, England; Kendal Henry, Director of the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs Percent for Art Program; Hank Willis Thomas, Artist; and Leo Villareal, Artist. The conversation is moderated by Andria Hickey, Pace Gallery’s Senior Director and Curator.

Scroll down to read the full transcript.

Andria Hickey (AH): Hi everyone, welcome! Thank you everyone for joining our panel discussion today. I’m going to do a little introduction. My name is Andria Hickey, I’m Senior Director and Curator at Pace Gallery and on your sidebar here you can see our esteemed panelists: Hank Willis Thomas, Claire Doherty, Kyle Dancewicz, Kendal Henry.

I’m going to do a little introduction and then we’re going to dive right in. There’s a lot to talk about. First, I wanted to give a little background about the origin of how this conversation came to be. In the last couple months as everybody knows, there’s been a lot of conversation about Art Basel and debate about whether it would go ahead or be postponed. When the decision was made to move everything online, we really wanted to think about instead of just doing a regular online viewing room, how we could use this moment really creatively and do something that we couldn’t really do in a traditional art fair booth.

We started thinking about Pace’s history. Pace is sixty years this year, it’s our anniversary, and Pace has an incredible history of working in the public realm. Many of the artists that first joined the gallery expanded their practice beyond studio and into the gallery and then to the public realm in cities and also in the natural environment. We looked back at this history and saw some incredible pieces that are still so relevant today by some of our legacy artists like Dubuffet, Calder, Louise Nevelson, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, and then we started to look at the artists that are living and represented with us today. We’ve brought them together in our online viewing room and we’d love for you to take some time to explore some of the works on view there by artists like Maya Lin, who is also very well known for her work in architecture, in land art, her Civil Rights Memorial, and of course her Vietnam Memorial. Artists like Joel Shapiro, whose minimal figurative sculptures you can see at Storm King. Korean artist Lee Ufan’s work pictured here at Château Versailles. Artists even like Lynda Benglis, who only in the last couple of decades has begun to work outside. And again, you can see her work in places like Storm King. And most recently, we’ve had a lot of excitement around Arlene Shechet’s fantastic installation at Madison Square Park where she had an exhibition Full Steam Ahead in 2018. Arlene actually has an exhibition up at the gallery right now. She’ll be leading a tour there tomorrow, and it will be at noon on Instagram Live and you can join her to see her exhibition, which unfortunately has been closed to the public for the last months, but I’m sure during that conversation Arlene will speak a little bit about her interest in working in the public realm.

With all of that in mind we started thinking: how is public art today even more important? We’re all isolated at home, we’re starting to come outside, and we are able to see art in public space even though our museums are closed, our galleries are closed. That was the impetus for this conversation. Today we are bringing together this esteemed group of public art commissioners, curators, and artists to discuss the impact of working in the public realm within communities and within cities. In addition to this moment of isolation and social distancing, it’s especially prescient to talk about public art at a time when we can use our collective knowledge in this field to address the problems of memorializing racist and traumatic moments in colonial histories around the world. We really hope this conversation can offer an opportunity to begin to rethink, revitalize, and revision the civic landscape of public art in the future. I’m so pleased to introduce this group of people because their experiences together really can help map this pathway for the future.

Kyle Dancewicz is the Director of Exhibitions and Programs at SculptureCenter, New York, where he has worked since 2016. His recent exhibitions and projects include Mat Keegan: what was & what is and ektor garcia: cadena perpetua, and many others. Prior to working at SculptureCenter, he was Curatorial Manager of the public art program of Madison Square Park Conservancy.

Claire Doherty was the Founder and Director of Situations, one of the UK’s foremost producers of public art projects. From 2017 to 2019, she was interim director of Arnolfini, Bristol’s international center for contemporary arts. A vital part of Situation’s work was to improve the conditions for public art commissioning. Claire is known for her commitment to rewriting the rulebook for where and how and by whom the arts are produced and experienced. She has authored public art strategies for multiple cities and commissioning agencies. Her books and essays on curating and producing public art have become guiding texts for curators, artists, and cities across the world.

I see in the background of our images… our images were flipped for our Percent for Art guest and Claire’s program, so we’ll circle back to those as I talk about Kendal Henry.

We’re so happy he’s here to join us. He’s the Director of the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs Percent for Art Program. And he’s also an adjunct professor at NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. This is one of the early images of the Percent for Art program which started in 1982. It was actually made into a law that required one percent of the budget for eligible city-funded construction projects to be spent on public artwork. It’s a program that’s commissioned hundreds of site-specific projects in a variety of media, painting, new technologies, lighting, mosaics, glass, textiles, sculptures, and works that are integrated into the infrastructure and architecture by artists whose sensibilities reflect the diversity of New York City. Kendal has specialized in the field of public art for almost 30 years and is interested in how public art can be used as a tool for social engagement, civic pride, and economic development. Kendal believes that the most successful public artworks start with the question ‘what is the artwork to achieve?’ taking into account the audience and the surrounding environment in the creation of that artwork. Hopefully we can talk about that question today.

Hank Willis Thomas—we’ll scroll ahead to some images of Hank’s work—is a conceptual artist. This is actually a project he and I did together when I was at the Public Art Fund in New York. He’s a conceptual artist working primarily with themes related to perspective, identity, commodity, media, and popular culture. Working with photography, sculpture, and social practice, Hank appropriates and recontextualizes symbols, objects, and brands to point out the assumptions and biases that frame our experience of public space, others, and ourselves. His collaborative projects include Question Bridge: Black Males, In Search of The Truth (Truth Booth), The Writing on the Wall, and the artist-run initiative for art and civic engagement For Freedoms. Hank has recently installed large-scale public sculptures in Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and Birmingham, and will soon unveil a new commission commemorating Martin Luther King Jr., and Coretta Scott King in Boston. Hank is on the board of the Public Art Fund and was a member of the Public Art and Design Commission for the City of New York for the last several years.

And finally, our last panelist, Leo Villareal. I actually wanted to ask Kendal if this piece was Percent for Art commissioned, I imagine it was. Leo works with pixels and binary code to create complex, rhythmic compositions in light. His artistic investigation of artificial space led him to explore installation art, creating environments comprised of found objects, video, light, and sound. Leo is well known for Bay Lights–an almost two miles wide, 500-foot-high L.E.D. light sculpture installed the length of the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge. In addition to his gallery-based work and installations, Leo has completed many site-specific works including Radiant Pathway at Rice University, the Multiverse at the National Gallery of Art, and a new installation at the Auckland center of arts in New Zealand, among others. Most recently, Leo opened the first five bridges of the Illuminated River in London, which is a long-term installation that will light up fourteen bridges of central London, addressing each bridge along the Thames as a singular object to be celebrated for its individual character and its part of a grand sequence.

As I mentioned, I’m Andria Hickey. I am Senior Director and Curator at Pace Gallery. Prior to joining Pace, I was curator at the Public Art Fund from 2011 to 2015, where I worked with many artists who commissioned temporary site-specific artworks around New York City, including Hank Willis Thomas and also Danh Vo, whose work you can see as part of my virtual background here. It was a piece called We The People which actually dismantled a 1:1 replica of the Statue of Liberty into over 200 pieces which we installed in City Hall Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York. I thought that was quite fitting for our conversation today.

I’m honored to moderate this chat that we are excited to have. We will speak for about forty minutes and we’ll follow our conversation with some questions from the audience. You can use the “Q&A” option on your Zoom screen to submit questions and you can “vote up” the questions you would like to hear answered first. Hopefully, we’ll have time to get to everyone. Thank you and welcome to our panelists!

Claire Doherty (CD): Hi!

AH: Hi!

Kyle Dancewicz (KD): Hello!

AH: I think we have a lot to cover, but I thought we could start talking about the idea of encounter and this question of how art in public space can be transformative, joyful, perplexing, curious, frustrating, all the things. We’ve all watched audiences react in so many different ways. There are really different reactions from audiences who are familiar with art and those that we may call “uninitiated” in the broader field of contemporary art.

I’d like to hear from everyone on how you consider the relationship between an artwork, the site, an intended audience, and an unintended audience, which I think all of us here know is a very big part of public art. Both of those audiences are always very present.

Claire, do you want to start?

CD: Yeah, I think a really helpful way to think about when you’re commissioning for the public realm or for a place is to take this brilliant geographer called Doreen Massey’s idea of place, that it’s in a constant state of “becoming.”

One of the mistakes artists who are making work for the public realm, and more often commissioners and authorities make when they’re commissioning work for the public realm, is that they think of it as a physical site, an “X” marks the spot for which you’re going to parachute in something. And actually, that’s not what makes up places at all. It’s physical characteristics, yes, but it changes on a daily basis, it changes over the period of a day, in terms of duration, in terms of how people use this space. But it also has hidden histories, meeting points, memories for people, ways in which people pass through, meet each other, overlap. So, a way to contend with that is to think about a place as a “situation,” which is why I like the word. It’s a set of circumstances or conditions that you need to take on. Whenever I’m starting, I think of, actually, place and time as the two provocations and how that’s going to connect with people.

The final thing is that in public space, nobody cares who the artist is. That’s the other thing. All the things that go out the window that help us choose to go and see an exhibition or a collection or to buy art or to be part of the art market—it’s much more a direct and sometimes unintended encounter with the work on its own terms. I think that some of that means that you’re not coming to it with some of the preconceptions you might have.

There’s an interesting thought around: how do you connect in both time and place, but where there’s not an interpretive framework that you might have when you’re visiting a gallery or museum? So that means it needs to be really clear what it’s, as you were saying, what it’s going to try and do. Is it about geography? Is it about gathering? Is it about provocation? Is it about a news story that hasn’t been heard? I think that those set conditions are a really important starting point in thinking about producing in the public realm.

Kendal Henry (KH): The majority of the population doesn’t end up going into museums or galleries because, frankly, some of them are very expensive to go to in New York. The idea of bringing the artwork into the public realm is something that’s very important. I think that artists have a lot to say and have a great perspective to show the world. Just putting it out there, I think, is important.

Really thinking a lot about what Claire is saying in the process of putting out there adds to it. But just on a basic level, bringing the museum and gallery stuff out to the public to help people understand how important art and artists are in a society, in very basic terms.

KD: Picking up on that a little bit as well, and something that Claire said about how you don’t have the apparatus of the institution to do a certain amount of legwork sometimes overdetermines meaning making for an audience. Something that I keep thinking about is the ways in which public art really presses on what we expect of art, very generally, over the last century.

If you want to test the nature of the found object, what better place to test it than putting something that looks kind of normal out on the street? If you want to test participation or engagement, what do you do when you know that not everybody is going to know the rules? Thinking through the expectations that we have of art in that respect, kind of speaking through the artist and understanding what their interest is in, kind of bending those, or what limitations they find those things have anyway, has always been a really productive way to begin those conversations.

AH: We haven’t heard from our artists yet.

Leo Villareal (LV): I’m really interested in getting art out into the world. I think it’s an essential time in which artists have a really important role to play along with everyone who supports these efforts, but the universality of it I think is what’s most interesting and creating communal experience. So, I use light with software to create these sort of gestures which are sort of simple, but they really are transformative and change the way people see. But seeing the way that it helps connect people that would never talk to one other, and you know, creating community in all the things that people talk to. Seeing that actually happen is incredibly powerful in breaking down all these barriers that we have of who has access, who doesn’t, and who can look at these pieces and whether you know about art history or not or programming or whatever, anyone can look at it and there’s a universality to light that we can all connect to. Getting to this very primal space I think is quite interesting. Bridges in particular have become one of my canvases and I think it’s an essential time to be connecting people and breaking down all this polarization. These things become powerful symbols, but they're also open-ended and people can make of them what they want. There’s no prescribed path because I'm dealing with abstraction. People can take it and use it as they want.

AH: I like how you had in one interview called it the “modern-day campfire.”

LV: The digital campfire, yeah. It functions on that level because it’s not really dealing with language, it’s not dealing with imagery, it’s this hypnotic quality. Even though it’s using very technical materials, it’s connected to nature and things that we all understand, like responding to the movement of water or a sunset or these things that we’re kind of hard-coded to respond to, but then channeling that same sort of awe and wonder through this other means. Really it changes things and it’s exciting how these temporary installations end up becoming permanent because people fall in love with them and they become part of their lives. But it’s not coming from me as the artist, it’s coming from the public and people wanting these things as part of their day to day experience.

Hank Willis Thomas (HWT): What I think is amazing about Leo’s work is that it really taps into something I haven’t explored much but I just looked up, the limbic system. That there’s something when you look at his work that goes so deep in our subconscious and that’s what makes it kind of relate to this campfire feeling of I think our ancestors gathering around a space in order to watch movement and change in an unpredictable way take place before our eyes. What I love about that work is that oftentimes I’m like, wait was that there before? Has it always been there? Wait, when is it going to leave? And even when it’s gone it still feels like it’s still there because you can imagine it. I think the best public art feels infinite. It’s not located in a specific space or time. I went to high school in Washington D.C., and learned a lot about monuments even there, because there’s so many, and how they can shape and make a place and make a space and obviously D.C., being a place where so much of what makes our country a country is kind of germinated, I think is something that is highly informed by the public space. A capital needs its monuments to affirm its place in history and its relevance to the culture. You can have multiple capitals. We know New York is also a capital, and actually was the capital, the first capital of the United States of America. I think a lot about how history and how our understandings of it can improve our present when we embrace the complexity. I am excited to see at a monumental inflection point in our country’s history that we are going through now, something that is long overdue, which is reconsidering the function of public space. For most of the past at least thirty to forty years, the kind of art that was acceptable in public space was usually just there to sell something, so advertisements. There isn’t much public space reserved for new ideas, for questions, for challenging the function and utility of the space, and asking and encouraging viewers to connect with a greater and often unappreciated element of their humanity. I think at its best, public art cannot be described completely as far as its capacity.

AH: That’s interesting, we were talking in another conversation we had a few days ago, Kendal, you had said you were wondering how we can find spaces also in which artists can be experimental with public art. If we see artists as our civic leaders and visionaries and we acknowledge public space as a space where this kind of work can happen, how do you create test spaces? And spaces for sometimes failure? Or momentary success or success for hidden communities? I’ve observed in two-week outdoor installations how certain groups react to different artworks in such different ways and there’s always a visceral reaction, it’s a love or it’s a disgust. Or it’s a concern. But how do we carve out those sites where you can fall up and fall apart?

KH: That’s a really good question and I think it sort of comes down to the people who are in charge of those spaces to allow for those kinds of things to happen. I’m saying this coming from the city. Because a lot of times it happens organically. I remember a couple of projects that have happened after certain events where artists just did things in the subway. There’s an artist who did this Post-it project in the subway, for example. This is basically illegal to happen in the subway that way, but they allowed it to happen. So, more instances like that when those in charge of those spaces allow these things to happen would do well for experimentation. I think that’s really changing the idea of just how important these voices are to be heard, how important experimentation is, and just allowing it to happen. That sort of goes back to really having the folks who are in charge of those spaces just let go and not be too stiff and regimented about it, but understanding of the importance of that.

CD: Yeah, I definitely agree with that. I often talk about a problem of public art being that it's commissioned through a sort of a design and build process, in the same way the urban environment isn’t designed and built for how architecture operates. Of course that’s not really how the creative process works necessarily, but also I think as well as sort of shaking up what we allow, where we allow artists to work and how we allow them to work, I think I’m also a great believer in shaking up the life span of an artwork, too. So, playing with time. Twenty-four-hour interventions being as valuable as a ten-year commission because of the memory that it instills. Thinking about arts in the public realm as events. To give you an example, when we worked in Oslo, which is the capital of Norway, in the Oslo harbor area there, we completely changed how the public art money was going to be used. There was a fund available to commission and the brief was come up with a sculpture trail, that’s what we want for this harbor, and very crudely, basically what we did was divide it in two, commission two projects. One was a project to create an urban agricultural field in a public bakehouse, which was kind of prototyped through a temporary bakehouse, then became permanent. The other was the one-hundred-year project, the Future Library project with Katie Paterson, which is essentially a writer writes a text every year for the next one-hundred years and the National Library holds those unread until the year 2114, when they’ll published. Those give an example of how you shake up what the expectations of public art could be and what a public art project, a public engagement project can be and how you can use that money differently. There’s still a presence on the harbor in every way but it’s not what you would think, it’s not a sculpture trail. It allowed those artists to just play with the duration and time and the value is enormous to the city. Both of those projects have been at the heart of Oslo’s European Green Capital celebrations last year. It’s really interesting in thinking what can become sort of banner projects for a city, and that starts with convincing the stakeholders and the authorities that are involved.

AH: Right.

KD: On that note, picking up from Claire too, understanding that the resources of the commissioning institution are in some part financial but also are in the relationships and the support and kind of allyship that the commissioning organization can bring into multiple levels of conversation, which are just so necessary. I’ve always found one of the most rewarding parts of these projects is starting with the artist and being with them the entire time. Everything from understanding how many multiple city agencies are going to intersect with their project in some way, which can even understand their object as art versus as something else. It’s very, very interesting and a really fruitful thing and a huge resource I think to not underestimate, or it’s important not to underestimate the resources of these relationships and people and how much work and important work that is.

AH: One of the things that I think has been very useful that I’ve seen in other institutions and that I hope could be replicated is when a board creates its own community committee within its inside structure. So, a board at a museum I was working with in Cleveland formed a social justice committee on the board that brought in community leaders to also allow artists to have board-level support and engagement around funds. You know, things that are quite challenging for staff I think as interlocuters in that process, and in the US I think boards have such a different relationship with institutions because of the way our philanthropy works. I just wanted to share that for other people listening, but I’d like to get to the question of time, Claire, that you brought up and I think also thinking about the temporary and the permanent and the different kinds of ways we engage with the public space as commissioners and as artists. Time and the duration of a project is such an important part of the medium in a way. Context changes over time and the situation changes over time. We’re seeing that happen now when we look at monuments, but it’s also true for very contemporary projects as well. I think all of you have experiences thinking about that. I’d like to hear your thoughts about how a project resonates over time. At what point does it lose its resonance? Is there a moment when it becomes stale? These are all important things to think about.

LV: I love this idea of creating these experiments out in the public and not knowing what it’s going to be. So, you have a certain framework and you try something out, and we work on this custom software that we’ve been developing for over twenty years and at its core it’s about artificial life and emergent behavior. You set up certain conditions and then let something happen, but the work for me always has to happen on site, responding to the site and with the lights themselves. So, I sat for months in front of the Bay Bridge with my laptop connected to it and tried things out, and I couldn’t really put a curtain over the whole thing and do my work and then unveil it. So, you have to feel comfortable letting everyone see all the glitches and the bugs and this was working and this wasn’t working, and slowly the thing starts to emerge out of that haze. I think engaging the community in that process and telling them what’s happening is very important so that there’s a sense of communal effort, like everyone did this together. There’s a certain pride. The electrical contractors that were hanging 500 feet over water in the middle of the night are bringing their families to show them the work that they did. It’s very exciting to create this sense of generosity and to let everyone in, so I think that’s the thing that is...and in terms of its long-term, what happens then, I’m not sure, because my work is randomized, you never see the exact same progression twice so it’s very layered and it’s abstract, so you see different things in it all the time depending on the time of day or the moon was full. But it’s kind of amazing to me how many people want to tell me the story of where they were or who they were with and there’s this excitement to this experience that they’ve had. Somehow, it’s connecting on a deep level. Hopefully this thing can remain. The Bay Lights was up for two years then came down and there was sort of an uproar in San Francisco and people wanted it back. So, we reinstalled it and now we’ve gifted it to the state of California and it’s “permanent.” I’m not sure how permanent LEDs on a bridge can be, or software, there are a lot of technical issues, but I guess if you love something and you really want it to be part of your life, you’ll put the energy into keeping it going and maintaining it. I know my studio is committed to the long-term viability of these things, but it really is a relationship and an engagement with the public and all the entities that support public art and we’ll see what remains.

CD: Yeah, it’s such an important discussion at the beginning of commissioning or a collaboration. I often find that the word “care” is really helpful, so it’s to understand that there’s care around how you’re going to care for this work or this project and for those involved within it and have respect for people who are going to encounter it and be involved in its making. But also, to understand that the context will change and to understand what your commitment might be over a long period of time. So, I think that’s why it is helpful to have life spans for things because actually either they might not be looked after or maintained or actually become irrelevant and we were talking the other day about the Colston statue being ripped down in Bristol, which is where I am now, my home city in England, and that was such an extraordinary moment for Bristol because the whole city understood I think decades worth of discussion around that particular action and that it bubbled to a moment at which now is the time. Now is the time that it’s no longer appropriate. Now is the time in this performative action we wanted to take this down, we want to have a discussion about what replaces it. I think that public reaction was extraordinary to witness because it became so symbolic of so many things that Bristol needs to consider and take on board.

AH: Oh sorry, Hank, you go ahead.

HWT: Well it just reminds me of the Berlin Wall. There are certain things, it’s important to highlight, that governments can’t do, they’re not built to do. And really, they’re all complex things. Government and governmental force is a blunt object, as we’ve seen, and it’s not really adept or set up to actually deal with complexities and nuance, and people and communities are. And individuals, as we saw with the graffiti art that was all over the Berlin Wall and also the people who tore it down, as well as the street art that was up all over New York and helped give New York a new identity which was through our artists not asking permission from anyone to actually express themselves in public space. Sometimes those kinds of radical interventions are necessary and critical to progress so to speak, and that’s not to say that there aren’t times that things are torn down and destroyed that we miss greatly or that I might personally reflect on differently. I’m thinking about statues in Syria and Afghanistan, and even the original Penn Station, where people made what I feel like were hasty decisions for whatever reason to tear down something that I feel had not lost its importance yet, and I think that’s also part of life. I think sometimes we hold on to this idea that we are and can be defined by a specific object, place, or thing, and I think those ideas sometimes limit our capacity to see new windows and opportunities for growth.

CD: Yeah, totally.

AH: Hank, that’s a really interesting segue. I wanted to read a quote that’s from 2017—a full two years before June 7th when the Edward Colston statue was torn down. It’s in an essay—Claire, I believe you edited it.

It says: “the question raised by the current debates around statues is not whether or not we should condemn the crimes and the racism of men from the past or judge them by modern standards. The question is do we want to be societies that uncritically memorialize men from the past who we know committed terrible crimes merely because memorials to them were created before we had the capacity to recognize those crimes?

Does the erection of a statue end all debate? Does it fix a figure as a hero and render the reputation untouchable? Impervious to revision no matter what revelations about them later emerge? Is history literally set in stone once a statue is affixed to a pedestal?”

Hank, you mentioned the word “complexity” earlier and, I think, while there is this movement to have incisive actions that can’t be taken by governments, at the same time, as people who are working in public art, how do we bring that level of complexity to the next step? To the process of replacing or growing or recreating and looking at questions of how things become memorialized and this push toward fixity?

There are a lot of questions in that statement, and in 2017 they likely meant something different, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts on these complex things that come to mind in this moment as more and more statues are being removed and taken down. I think all of us are supporting that but what does it mean to address that process with that level of nuance?

Sorry, that was a mouthful! Did I scare you all away?

CD: I wanted to let Kyle and Kendal say something, so maybe they should speak.

KH: This is what we deal with right now. How do we start these conversations? This is real, this is today. I’m open to hearing many different opinions and thoughts and approaches because this is literally happening right here, today.

CD: One of the questions I have, someone said to me, “What should you replace the Colston statue with?”

Firstly, I think it’s a really interesting thing that someone feels that there is an empty place and therefore there needs to be a replacement for it. Otherwise, somehow, history and all these other debates are erased.

So that’s the first thing, do we replace it with something? And with what?

And the second thing is then to think, actually the tearing down of the statue has activated the public which actually, I think, is about being interested in statues, being interested in public space, and realizing that they care.

So, then the question I would have is how do we remember? Who do we remember? And how do we allow for gestures and artwork and projects that allow a continuous conversation? That are not, as that quote from David Olusoga says, “set in stone,” but allow for an iterative process over time. That could be a set of platforms, it could be a set of durational temporary interventions, it could be something that offers you—there's a work that we commissioned that commemorates Magna Carta in 2018 by Mark Wallinger which has the words of the Magna Carta that then led to trial by jury etched around a pool of water, but you can only read them when you see your face in the reflection of the water.

That kind of work that basically places you front and center in the middle of considering what that means for yourself. I think there’s something around that, isn’t there? It’s thinking how do we create works that encourage reflection and self-reflective citizens rather than tell you a single story?

KH: But I also think that what I’m hearing a lot about is—relating to the statues, the statues that do exist, the ones that are being torn down—are of a very particular group of people. They are white men mostly. People are wanting to see themselves represented in that form, as a figurative representation, because they don’t see it anywhere else. That’s, again, a reaction to some of that as well. We try to figure out how to balance that out by doing projects like Claire was just describing. On a very basic level, “I don’t see myself in this environment and I would like to see myself or representations of myself or people like myself.” That’s part of that conversation as well.

AH: Does anyone else want to share thoughts on this bigger subject? We should take some time for questions but before we move forward, I wanted to quickly, in our collective group here, think about how we take next steps in this field. How do we share knowledge and how do we create new kinds of infrastructures that allow us to make forward movement to find new ways to address these complex questions?

We’re all working in different ways in our fields, but I think there is a shared questioning just even culturally. The WPA keeps getting mentioned in the last couple of months. I’m curious if you have been brainstorming ideas of how we can grow our public art movement.

LV: I think it’s essential that we encourage as much participation as possible. It can’t be that public art is only happening in New York or in these very specific places. We need to support everyone and transmit the knowledge that we have as artists, or curators, or public art organizers to everyone and make it something that everyone can do in their communities and for one another. We need to unleash this and bring it to the people. Hank and I have both been out to Burning Man, we’ve camped together and that’s something that is really important, but there’s principles of participation. That culture is portable and can be taken other places and I think it’s a time in which everybody needs it desperately.

There are a lot of things we can provide—throwing some ladders and things to the public—and really open this thing up in a huge way. In a way that doesn’t require permits or planning. That can be very intimidating for a lot of people. So how do we break that down? How can you do something that—it can be temporary; it doesn’t have to be permanent. It can be a gesture. There are so many things that need to happen and so much change that needs to happen and this is very transformational, and I think it can excite people on a very fundamental level.

AH: Agreed.

CH: I have a proposition, which is that we stop calling it public art and we start calling it public culture. Partly because I think that what happens when you talk to anyone about public art—well, usually in England an Antony Gormley sculpture comes into your head—nothing against Antony Gormley but that’s the pervasive monumental form that people imagine and part of it is getting past that when you want to talk about supporting creativity, supporting amazing creative ideas in the public realm, in public space. As soon as you start talking about culture instead, and creativity, it releases everyone from being worried about the statue, the object, the monumental form.

I completely agree with Leo. I think this is the time that places need this. We know what these projects do in terms of enhancing public health and well-being and bringing people together and creating connections as well as unsettling.

I would be all for having a much broader conversation around public culture in towns or cities all over the US and the UK.

AH: Maybe we need an international organization.

CD: Yeah.

KD: Following up on what Claire said, maybe it’s articulating exactly what artists model when they work in public space, which is not really a specific relationship to physical space all the time, but a much broader understanding and consideration of context and also the amazing feat of having and expressing desires for what public space can or should be. That’s the kind of agency that very few people feel over the places where they go and live. Kind of really accentuating, in a way that Claire is really talking about, what the actual nature of those interventions or considerations are.

AH: Hank, can you talk a little bit about the work that you’re doing with your collaborations: For Freedoms, Wide Awakes, The Writing on the Wall. They are all spaces where a lot of different artists are getting an opportunity to plug into public space in unique ways.

HWT: Sure. Ever since at least high school—but also, I grew up with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, where my mother worked for thirteen years, and that space was a space uniquely reserved for elements, artifacts, and ideas from history that mainstream society had, and largely continues to, exploit while also disregarding. I learned from a very young age that most of the good stuff that happens in our country happens in places that don’t have broad access—in the countercultures, the subcultures, minority cultures, et cetera. By the time it bubbles up or crosses over into mainstream culture it’s so watered-down or dumbed-down that a lot of what makes it amazing is still there, but it’s been diluted.

When I went to Burning Man for the first time, in 2014, which I was very skeptical about going to—I had lived in the Bay area for eight years was not into the people that I thought went to Burning Man. And getting someplace and being like “Wait, all of these people just made and brought art to experiment to share with everyone? And just to share ideas that are unformed in the harshest, worst conditions?” Where is that outside of this one week in five square miles in the middle of Black Rock Desert? I realized that we needed space for artists to just put their work out and their ideas out in public. So, when Eric Gossman and I founded For Freedoms, that mentality of just creating space for artists to be themselves and share their ideas was really central to it. Whether it be other projects like Question Bridge: Black Males, the Truth Booth—which, hey, I’m wearing the shirt, Andria! I put this shirt on today, I was like “Why am I wearing this shirt? Oh, because this is the shirt for the project Andria and I collaborated on!”—which are projects that invite people from the public to be creative collaborators by sharing their ideas and thoughts.

There’s something so rewarding about non-transactional art and the affirmation of saying, “You give it to us, we’ll put it up.” I don’t have to like it to enjoy it, frankly, because I can grow from that. This idea of acknowledging that our society isn’t complete, it is a work of art we are all currently collaborating on, whether we’re in different countries, or speak different languages, this moment we are all sharing together. We are collaborating to make our reality. Our societies are designed—not just the streets and cities, but the laws are designed. What’s happening now is that people, and artists largely like Patrice Cullors, are challenging the powers that be to redesign the way the laws are “enforced.” So, I am happy to be collaborating with people in these different ways.

The Wide Awakes is a collaboration that I’m a part of that is inspired by a 19th-century political organization that used non-violence and radical imagination to push our country into a greater form of emancipation. Their work is not finished, so we have to continue that. One of the highlights of my life was seeing this collaboration that Kendal and I worked on with Tom Finkelpearl and so many people from the city on the unity sculpture which is built around the 3D scan of the arm of Joel Embiid, a Cameroonian African immigrant, titan giant on the basketball court. Having this bronze arm of an African giant pointing to the sky at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, to me, it was this amazing, subtle poetic gesture. Seeing the protests that have happened where people come together in intersectional ways to express their desire for a better world is like “Wow, that’s pretty awesome.” None of that work would have been possible if it weren’t for the people pushing papers, the accountants, the fabricators themselves. All of the logistical people are as much a critical part of the collaboration, like Leo said, as I, who had a relatively simple idea, was. But the potency of that is something that I love to try to channel through my work.

AH: Yeah, it was amazing to see that sculpture take on a new life in the context of people walking across that bridge and I imagine the same was true in San Francisco, Leo, for the illuminated bridge. Seeing people use that bridge in that way and for your work to be part of that.

We have so many questions! I think that there are a lot of people out in the ether here. We have twenty-six questions. We won’t have time to get through them all but the way this works is that people “vote up” the questions so several people want us to address this particular question:

“Pushing against the language of universalism that accompanies the discourse of public space, audience, and artwork, the movement for Black lives is reminding us now that universalism is a discourse of racial capitalism. Fraught, racist, divisive, as is slow death. What articulations can the panel make for the facts of contested publics, contested citizenship, and the very active movement of making claims against the violences referenced above. Where, how do your visions of public art stand against racial capitalism?”

It’s a big question. We can all discuss this, but I think in all of our work we’re trying to find ways that we can use public platforms to disseminate meaningful contributions that address that history of racism and also offer solutions. I’m curious Kendal and Kyle. You're both working on the ground a lot with younger artists, artists from lots of different backgrounds who are making interventions in the city—how these kinds of ideas are impacting your selection process, how you’re distributing funds, maybe you guys can speak to that.

KD: I’m really interested in artists who are almost hyper-concerned about what their intervention to public space means in terms of how what they do is governed, what rules are applying to it, how the streets are being used, how the streets are being monitored, whether or not we have permission to do things I think looking at public space through that lens as a series of restrictions and rules/bendings of restrictions and rules toward one group or in favor of one group or another is a really important way to extend these context questions outside of even a conversation about representation, per se, because really what it becomes about is public art as almost an analog for presentability. Like what can be on the street, who can put it there, and I think a lot about how in protests recently that one of the most amazing things to come out of it is this “Whose streets? Our streets!” question. I feel like so many artists, especially as a kind of larger fluency in the way that the city works and a larger public understanding of the various ways these agencies and individuals intersect either to make life relatively easy or extremely difficult for certain people will become the content of our work. I’m really interested to see how our institution and other institutions support that.

KH: The majority of what I do with the city is a lot of permanent artwork but there’s a smattering of temporary works with some of the city agencies like the Department of Transportation and the Parks Department. But what we focus on is throughout our selection processes, we’re in the position of being curators and in the position of selecting artists that we feel are important to hear from. We try to make a huge concerted effort in our process of engaging the community, of giving opportunities to artists who haven’t been heard from or who we need to hear from just to balance things out in terms of who is represented. So, we make a concerted effort in giving a lot of these opportunities to artists of color, Black artists, particularly when the works are in neighborhoods—or not just neighborhoods but everywhere.

Going back to that question of time, by rule of the funding the permanent work has to last at least thirty years. And that’s because the funding is attached to a bond and the bond lasts thirty years and that sort of thing and so when working with Hank’s project, we had to think “How are people going to interpret this now and how are they going to interpret it thirty years from now?” That’s hard to discern, but it’s very good and interesting to see how the events of today, how that work, how unity has been almost a cornerstone, an icon, or a mascot to what’s been happening today.

It basically comes down to giving artists the opportunity and giving them the space and shielding them from the bureaucracy that has to happen for these things to happen so that they can really do whatever it is they want to do in the way they want to do it.

HWT: Good job.

AH: One thing that struck me in the work of the artists involved in For Freedoms in particular is that there’s a lot of really direct messaging and that’s often really challenging to do in traditional avenues of public art because of issues of censorship that are willing to dismiss direct callouts of systemic racism, or capitalism, or a number of various issues that the artists that you’re working with have been able to address really frankly. I wonder if you can speak a little bit to how you navigated that process so that people have been able to voice their feelings really clearly. And maybe talk, if you can, about whether that has galvanized community response around it.

HWT: One of the things we did, for those who don’t know, as For Freedoms, was these billboard campaigns. We’ve also done town halls and exhibitions and we’ve done close to 300 billboards in all fifty states plus D.C. and Puerto Rico, and fundamentally the idea is that artists do incredible work in these small places, their studios, their networks, and sometimes in galleries. And that they do critical civic work and that often it takes an art critic, an art historian, and years of scholarship for it to bubble up to the top, to shape culture. And maybe we could just go directly to the artist and have them share the wisdom that they found because they are all deep researchers, as Leo pointed out, and have customized forms of thinking and addressing really challenging issues and I personally believe that every artist is psychic and every curator is psychic and that in order for us to actually do anything we have to be imagining a world where something’s possible and the only reason any of us are able to do it is because we succeed.

We’re actually always living in the future, whereas so many people are just living in the past and that’s what makes great art amazing is that it can be connected to the past, but it can also be relevant thousands of years from now at its best. We see that and we just try to share it. I am just one of many people, there are savvier people like my friends Wyatt Gallery and Michelle Wu , and Taylor Brock who really figured out how to work with billboard companies and censors and other things to make stuff that we didn’t think was possible happen.

AH: Thanks for sharing that, Hank. I want to get to a couple of other questions here. We’re a little bit over time but there’s so much to talk about. I’m going down the list because there are some really interesting questions, and Claire, I’m really curious about your thoughts on this one in particular:

“In working with several public art committees outside a large metropolitan area, I’ve observed a tension between advocates of locally generated work empowering and financially benefiting community-based artists and those advocating experienced public artists from outside the local area who may have had more experience dealing with issues and processes of creating art in public spaces.”

I think a lot of us who have worked “off-center,” or outside of the coasts or the major metropolitan areas have dealt with this and I’m sure it’s part of your experience working in Bristol and we all need a lot of guidance around it so maybe you can share some of your experiences?

CD: Yeah, that’s so typical, isn’t it? It’s such a common problem and worry for people. If you’re a resident, it’s how will this land here? What if I’m an artist locally and there’s some hot-shot international artist who’s flying in and doesn’t know anything about the place, what about my opportunities? What about my knowledge of place? There’s also the audience’s reaction which is, “How can that artist know what’s right for here?”

I think there’s all of those tensions and clearly the last thing we want to do when we’re commissioning or producing or supporting artists to create new work is to parachute something in that’s going to land really badly. That wouldn’t be good. So, I think there are all sorts of really interesting strategies. I think one of the things that we do invariably in situations—we didn’t really work much in Bristol, actually. We worked in places in other countries so we were often outsiders ourselves and we would do this thing which we call “getting under the skin of a place.” So, spending lots and lots of time having drinks with people, having coffee with people, having tea with people, going to things, listening in, seeing how the grapevine works, seeing how the place operates, and talking to artists.

Then we would say, you know, one of the things about dreaming, and Hank put this beautifully, which is that our job is to imagine something as if it might be different. One of the things that we used to say is “Let’s bring some people in to this conversation with you, who can help you dream a bit because of their experience from elsewhere, and you’ll create something together that you couldn’t do alone.” It has to be an exchange of expertise, there has to be a sense in which perhaps an artist from outside is coming in and creating something with the expertise and knowledge of that place. But also, we would do things like, some projects where it’s appropriate we would co-create with young people, so they would be involved in the making and conceiving of the work. In other cases, we would work with people’s histories, in other cases we would create bursaries for younger artists to work with an international artist, so you get an immediate skill-sharing going on.

I think it’s about respect, and it’s about respect for expertise and generating something new. But I always think that thing of radical hope, which is, you can’t hope for something you don’t know exists. You have to have some other stimulus that allows you to dream as if things might be different, and that’s what artists do, essentially.

AH: That’s a beautiful sentiment to end on: radical hope.

CD: We need it.

AH: Creating things as we would like them to be. We are over time, so I’m going to end but I know there’s a number of questions here. If anyone on our panel has time, maybe we can direct-answer some of these? There are some that are pointed to people. We will share some resources on our website on things we discussed today.

I want to point everyone to Claire’s Situations website. It’s a fantastic resource if you are interested in making public art, commissioning public art. Her team made new rules for public art, which I find to be very inspirational and found them very helpful for my own practice.

We’ll also post this conversation on Pace’s website and I think likely on our Instagram at some point so you can revisit the conversation. It’s been a really exciting dialogue, so hopefully we can address some of these answers and perhaps we can revisit the conversation a few months from now.

Thank you, everybody for joining. Have a great day!

Videos — Outside In: Art In Public Space, Jul 2, 2020