Public Domain 3.0

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

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.

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. A few days a week I was there opening the gallery, turning on the lights, taking out the garbage, making small talk and telling visitors about events. Sometime I might mop the floor— I did replace a few wooden slats on the door to the HVAC system once.

When no one was in the gallery, I might log a few hours with a remote employer, doing SEO work 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. It was usually a cathartic experience and I appreciated what the owners were providing for the community.

One day, David 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 owners— but he wasn't in that day. Then he asked if we kept any beer downstairs. Since he knew Tanner well, and since I was much younger (and since 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 him before, but he immediately struck me as a sage mind— if not a mad genius. He had a wonderful way of speaking— no filters, often vulgar, improvisational, and still absolutely poetic. I think I was reading some Raymond Carver that summer, and it felt like I was in one of his short stories. In the time David drank his two beers, we somehow managed to move from introductions to discussions of human nature.

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. When someone discovered the source of inspiration— a 1930 photograph of a lynch mob gathered around two bodies— however, it was demanded that it be taken down.

Interestingly, this controversy began about a year before alt-right and neo-nazi protests occurred in Charlottesville, VA 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.

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. I see Powers' mural as a disparate entity.

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

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— and sometimes that's also a way to avoid confronting them. Sometimes it's even self-detrimental. I don't know if American Nocturne had directly anticipated Charlottesville's dissent. However, it's certainly demonstrated the different ways our shared experiences are now interfacing with social media.

David was not a racist, and I believe he was heartbroken to see his mural taken down. I think he was also right that people lacked the courage to confront the issues it provoked. He had divulged some interesting musing on a future art work that sounded similar to some of the work of my professor, Krzysztof Wodizcko, who's often projected onto buildings. David wanted to have a projector that would create a "lit mural" where anyone could upload images with a USB drive.

But the city had essentially blacklisted him, and I sensed he was feeling hopeless. Not only for himself at the theft of his creative rights, but I think at the systemic dysfunction of public deliberation. He said he didn't own a computer, and didn't watch television— if I can recall, he didn't even own a phone. He didn't want to have to tell reporters what this piece stood for— he wanted people to talk about what has happened, what is happening and how it can never happen again. However, much of the discussion was directed through social media and he was ostracized— and the image condemned.

Powers said he can remember a time when the KKK had marched down a street in Elgin. The original photograph was taken in Indiana. Powers believed, however, 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 projection idea, and I think it's wonderfully creative. I hope to see more examples that try to interface physical space while leveraging the availability of digital media. It's clear, however, that how these classical grounds of cultural growth and conflict weave with digital tools of communication is crucial. Next on my reading list is The End of Protest on Occupy Wall Street, and The Revolution Will Not Be Televised by Joe Trippi. This is all I'll leave you with for now.