Public Space as a Form of Expression

The American Academy in Rome’s most recent Conversations/Conversazioni, titled “Ethics in Public Art,” was the first collaboration between the New York Public Library and AAR. A full crowd gathered at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library in midtown Manhattan on a rainy Monday evening for a friendly, spirited discussion on the ethical, aesthetic, and social implications of public art and design.

AAR President Mark Robbins (1997 Fellow) joined the four speakers—the multimedia artist Laurie Anderson (2006 Resident), the painter Firelei Báez (2022 Fellow), the landscape architect Walter Hood (1997 Fellow), and Justin Garrett Moore of the Mellon Foundation—who discussed the impact, positive or negative, that public art has on the built environment, drawing from their personal experiences and professional projects.

The speakers agreed on the need for multiplicity and difference, and to allow it in their work. But it’s a tough road to navigate, especially with client-based work. Hood said he was fired from his first job because he wanted to approach a commission commemorating George Washington Carver in a multidimensional way, not just with the standard statue. Báez prefers to use “honey,” introducing difficult or marginal subjects with subversive beauty. She also approaches public commissions as a conversation with the future, making work that will hopefully speak to generations to come. This element of time was picked up by Anderson, who said she responds to live audiences, changing elements of a performance based on visible, public reactions.

Shared space can be contentious, restricting an artist’s vision. Robbins said that “nuance is much harder to find in public art, in the public realm, because there’s always a fear of offending someone.” Nevertheless, the group agreed that presenting difficult ideas helps people to question their own conceptions. Promoting conversation is messy. Public space is policed literally but also through regulation and power structures. Anderson recalled a visit from the Department of Homeland Security when she was working on Habeas Corpus (2015) with a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner.

But Anderson also made a plea for pure, unmediated artistic expression: “Sometimes I think that just beauty itself doesn’t have to sugarcoat a more complicated idea. It’s just beautiful. And as an artist I, most of my deepest experiences as a viewer of art is when I just don’t know what it is…. That’s what I live for.”

Technology has been a disruptive force in recent years. The experience of creating and distributing music, for example, has completely transformed. “Unless it’s on TikTok, it doesn’t exist,” mused Anderson. “We have a different sense of time now,” she added. Hood fears that “we’re losing the mundane,” citing clients who seek the “Instagram moment” in a design commission. For him, the mundane is when everything is in its place—and not theatricalized. Moore revealed that the online solicitation of feedback for public projects can lead to an overrepresentation of certain views.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. For an immersive project called Kinfolk, Moore said, the activist group Movers & Shakers created monuments of underrepresented historical figures through augmented reality that are tied to an archive. This technology enables a connection between the art and primary-source material.

“Ethics of Public Art” was presented as part of the LIVE at NYPL series. The Helen Frankenthaler Foundation generously supports Conversations/Conversazioni at the American Academy in Rome.

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