Public Domain

06:43pm | 04/27/2018
Daniel Tompkins

culture media art

In the previous post, I took a quick look at Cass Sunstein's #republic— particularly, at the mechanisms of online polarization. I'm also empathetic to Sunstein's hopes for a dedicated online Commons. Here, I wanted to write some observations on the quality of designed spaces for shared experience— looking especially at the application of public art.

Sunstein calls for a public domain, designated as a place for popular deliberation— a kind of incubator of social progress. I wonder how we might compare a sidewalk and a park— or better yet, an old public house to a digital forum in this capacity? In what way does art function in this space to provoke or curate shared experiences? To approach these questions, I'd like to tell a story about an artist, David Powers.

David Powers

In 2016, I was volunteering at Side Street Studio Arts— a gallery in Elgin, IL. I would drive there straight from my job at Bridgewater, a fabrication shop just outside Chicago, near McKinley Park.

A few days a week I was there, at Side Street, opening the gallery, turning on the lights, taking out the garbage, making small talk and telling visitors about events. Sometimes I'd mop the floor— and once I replaced a few wooden slats on the HVAC closet door.

When no one was in the gallery, I might log a few hours of remote work, doing SEO on commercial websites. I most enjoyed volunteering on nights when they were hosting Battle of the Bands. The majority of bands were punk and hardcore, and I took tips for PBRs and Millers— and might take a break to mosh for minute. Going to punk and metal shows in high school, I really appreciated what the owners were providing for the community.

One day, a man walked into the gallery and introduced himself. He was spectacled and moustached and wearing some hiked shorts, flip-flops and a ball cap. His t-shirt was tucked evenly over a round belly into his pants. He was looking for Tanner— who's one of the owners— but he wasn't in that day.

He asked if I might grab us a beer from the basement. I was much younger, and didn't want to be rude... He seemed to know Tanner well, and he knew where we kept the beer. I figured that I should show some common courtesy and get us a couple cans.

I had never met David Powers before, but immediately he struck me a sage person— if not a mad genius. He had a wonderful way of speaking— no filters, usually vulgar (and improvisational), yet often poetic. In the time David drank his two beers, we somehow managed to move from introductions to a more philosophical discussion surrounded his recent artwork.

American Nocturne

He told me about the city's plans to take down his mural, American Nocturne. Powers had painted the mural as a contribution to an Elgin Cultural Arts Commission in 2004. It had been displayed in a plaza in the suburban Illinois town for over a decade now.

More recently, the source of inspiration was discovered— a 1930 photograph of a lynch mob gathered around two bodies. In the foreground a man is pointing at the hanging bodies with a menacing finger. Soon thereafter, the public was demanding that the mural, painted on a large billboard-like structure, be taken down.

National Embarrassment

Interestingly, this controversy began about a year before the hideous events occurred in Charlottesville, VA. The event, a neo-Nazi / alt-right rally (called "Unite the Right"), occurred over the city's decision to remove an equestrian statue of General Robert E. Lee.

Here, the situation became so exacerbated that a "state of emergency" was declared. For many of us, news of the car plowing into counter-protesters provided the most salient imagery of what was happening there.

The Monument

In my concentration, Art, Design and the Public Domain, the monument— and its distinction from public art— is a hot topic. The majority of monuments are symbols of war and trauma. The statue of General Lee, for example, is commemorative of the Confederate leader— and, as protesters might argue, a cultural icon of the ideals of the American South.

The statue of Robert Lee in what is now Emancipation Park was covered with a black tarp after the violence, and has since sparked the removal of other Confederate statues in New Orleans and elsewhere.

Public art, as opposed to monuments, bears more than remembrance. More than a historic cultural icon, a work of art affords deliberation and participation. Public art, as opposed to monuments, has the ability to resist a singular narrative— an appointed meaning.

During my conversation with David, he spoke about self-medication. I think what he was saying is that everyone has a way of defending their beliefs and biases. The people who committed thoes horrible acts in Charlottesville somehow convince themselves that they are right— that their beliefs are true.

The community's reaction to the mural, American Nocturne, anticipated an event like Charlottesville. The mural and monument both create tangible markers of a traumatic past.

I don't believe David was a racist, and he was less heart-broken to see his mural taken down than he was heart-broken to be discarded as a community artist. I think he was right that not everyone in the community prossessed the courage to confront the issues it provoked.

He wanted to do a future artwork that sounded similar to some of the work of my graduate professor, Krzysztof Wodizcko. David wanted to have a projector that would create a "lit mural" where, perhaps, anyone could upload images with a USB drive.

Apparently, the city has essentially blacklisted him, and I sensed he was feeling hopeless. Not only for himself at the theft of his creative power, but I think at the dysfunction of public deliberation.

He said he didn't own a computer, and didn't watch much television— if I can recall, he didn't even own a cellphone. His mural, it seemed, was made to be taken down. He wanted people talk about what happened in Elgin, what is happening in America, and how we can all prevent it from continuing to happen.

Much of the discussion in social media and local news seemed to ostracize David, and the image has been condemned.

Public Art and a Painful Past

The photograph Powers used was from 1930 in Marion, Indiana (not especially far from Elgin). He told me that he can remember a time from his childhood when the KKK had marched right down a street, there in Elgin. Powers believed that without reminders and public deliberation, history— and all its atrocities— is oft to repeat itself. I hope that he is able to follow through with his projected mural.