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Form and Forum

Harvard artists dissect the material and conceptual implications of public art

Due to the regulations governing the appearance of Cambridge’s buildings, artists who make public art operate with increased material and conceptual subtlety.
Due to the regulations governing the appearance of Cambridge’s buildings, artists who make public art operate with increased material and conceptual subtlety.
By Rebecca J. Levitan, Crimson Staff Writer

The Le Corbusier-designed Carpenter Center is the academic hub for undergraduate visual art at Harvard. One of its most prominent architectural features is a ramp leading from Quincy Street to the building’s third floor, and out onto Prescott Street on the other side. Le Corbusier intended the ramp to allow the curious a glimpse into the building’s art studios through the Carpenter Center’s expansive glass windows.

The Carpenter Center therefore sits at an intersection between public experience and private creation, where Harvard’s institutional history has a clear presence even while students create work that may change how the College’s space is utilized. "The building, while maintained to a historical tee, is not stagnant in terms of the activities that go on in it," says Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) concentrator Louisa C. Denison ’11.

When students and faculty do incorporate the physical environment into their work, however, their range of creative possibilities is constrained by Harvard’s history and the rules enshrined therein. In the same way that students’ work is thus mediated, the public is removed by the Carpenter Center’s glass windows from the artwork inside. It is not surprising, then, that there is little traditional street art to be found on campus. Harvard’s particular version of ‘street art’ is self-referential in the way it comments on the theoretical status of public art itself. By creating art about the interactions between art and viewer, students are able to make their physical environment the material and conceptual center of their work even though they cannot treat Harvard as they would a blank canvas.

CONSTRUCTIVE CONSTRAINTS

Because Harvard is so seriously committed to preserving the Carpenter Center to the standards set by its architect, the studios of the Carpenter Center do not feature the encrustation of dirt and paint that are characteristic of so many other art buildings. Each year, the concrete floors are scrubbed down and all marks left on the movable walls are removed. The same conservational rigor is applied to the College’s entire physical landscape, most of which is even older than the distinguished Carpenter Center. "Street art is sort of the antithesis of Harvard," says Jerry M. Tullo ’12, who spent time last summer creating spray-painted work on walls in Belgium.

Harvard students are exposed to traditional street art when they walk outside Harvard’s campus. Shepard Fairey, one of the most recognizable street artists working today, has wheatpasted on a wall of the Garage and on Brattle Street. In addition, there is a wall in Central Square on which anybody can legally leave his or her mark. Stickers, posters, and other forms of intervention dot the landscape.

Traditional street art is created through an additive process. Taking the architectural form as a base, the artist adds layers of his or her own work on top. Because spray paint dries fast, various layers of paint cannot be mixed together. Rather, each line is laid down separately and the drawing emerges only through an accumulation of lines. Likewise, wheatpasting, which involves gluing down layers of images printed on paper, builds on top of the wall’s surface. A similar thing can be said for projecting images onto architectural forms.

The texture of the building often shows through, but the historical and material significance of the building is rarely the most important consideration. "It wasn’t really about the wall, it was just about expressing what I wanted to express in my mind," says Tullo. If traditional street artists succeed in getting the public to rethink their environment, it is mostly through masking part of it.

Harvard’s campus is not conducive to an additive way of working. In and around the Yard, artists are faced with buildings whose façades are protected from any possible alteration. The rules that come with the University’s institutional history have forced Harvard artists to take into account the environment in their work, which makes for a more complex interaction of art and armature. Rather than merely claiming a public space, students and professors are concerned with taking that public space and figuring out how it can be used in a way consistent with its characteristics and function. "I am interested in assessing what spaces on campus are able to be modified or repurposed," says Dension. What starts out as a constraint ends up helping to produce art that is often richer and more complex that traditional street art by virtue of its more careful consideration of its materials.

Denison is at the tail-end of a yearlong joint effort with VES Teaching Assistant Helen E. Miller to incorporate growing spaces in the Carpenter Center. This project is motivated by Le Corbusier’s original plans for the building. Though his plans have been carefully preserved in general, Le Courbusier’s intent to incorporate gardens was never realized due to budgetary constraints. In looking for a way to introduce these plants, Denison is interested in the "potential today for either implementing his vision or continuing his intentions with new types of growing."

The plan has evolved over the course of the year due to negotiations over how to fit new work into a historical legacy. "A part of the project that is interesting to me is about the precision of Le Corbusier’s plans being upheld," says Denison. "To me, [this] means that the plantings should be there as well." Now Denison and Miller are working on creating three-dimensional versions of Le Corbusier’s annotations in the original copies of his plans that represented the plants he wanted to go in the Carpenter Center green spaces. Dension and Miller are placing their scribble-inspired sculptures in the locations that correspond to where they were placed in the Carpenter Center’s blueprints. Additionally, they are growing plants on the fifth floor to eventually be moved outdoors. By going back to Le Corbusier’s intentions, Denison is finding a different way to interact with Harvard’s institutions beyond simply placing her mark on top of existing structures. This is public art without the bravado of traditional street art.

COMMUNITY AS CO-ARTIST

Whereas a traditional ‘street artist’ may use a building as a forum to broadcast his name or message, Denison and Miller are removing the identity of the artist from the equation. Jesse M. Shapins, who is pursuing a PhD at the Graduate School of Design (GSD) as well as teaching courses there, is equally focused on the collaborative nature of public art. He sees what he and his colleagues are doing as related to the lineage of street art, but with important distinctions. To him, the aspect of street art that is "close to commercial culture and the edge of advertising" is interesting, but different from what he is trying to achieve. Shapins’ art, and that of his collaborators, forges a more complicated relationship between the public and the creator that casts the viewer as more than a consumer. These works are concerned with the fluid roles of the artist and the public.

Last semester, Shapins taught the GSD class GSD 3418: "Media Archaeology of Place" along with Associate Professor of Humanaties and Social Sciences Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Anthropology Lecturer Ernst Karel, and GSD student James C. Burns. They sought to develop a web-based media platform through which students and members of the public could share digital projects deconstructing the social and historical meanings of a given place through archival research and site visits.

In the spring-semester class Shapins teaches with Burns, GSD 3448: "The Mixed-Reality City," each of the students produced short walking tours that anybody could take via a computer or phone. Shapins says that audience reception to art is usually passive, but that with this work "someone makes a conscious choice to participate," and that thus the artist faces "a set of constraints—what people would be comfortable doing and how long they would feel comfortable doing it." The question to Shapins then becomes, "how does one push the boundaries of the every day comfort zone?"

The course’s project therefore relies on the willingness of the public to engage with it, and is built around the resulting constraints. How can artists make complete strangers into active participants? The answer may not be found through making a mark on the environment itself, but in thinking of ways to use digital technology to allow a greater participation of the public. This is why "Media Archaeology of Place" and "The Mixed-Reality City" both focus on developing a web-based platform. Shapins is interested in "building open-ended dynamic structures" so that one is able to add onto the artwork; even once the initial artist is finished, the process of creation is not over.

A first year PhD candidate in VES, Joana C. Pimenta took "Media Archaeology of Place" and is currently enrolled in "Mixed-Reality City." An essential part of her work is public feedback. "How can you create space for your own work when you are reacting to others’ work?" she asks. In trying to answer this question, Pimenta is working on a piece that responds to a series of public art installations around campus called The Divine Comedy that is on display in the Carpenter Center’s Sert Gallery, the Northwest Science Labs, and the GSD’s lobby. Despite the presence of well-known artists such as Ai Weiwei, Pimenta hopes to make the public itself a contributing artist by creating an online application that will support audio-visual responses to the installations. She hopes to expand her work so that will be of use for other public art pieces in the future. This project is mind-bogglingly meta—a publicly-driven digital interface on public works that take as their main subject matter public art.

At the GSD, a post-graduate program called Art, Design, and the Public Domain is in its inaugural year, and represents the increasing interest for artwork that directly engages the public. The coordinator for this program, Professor Krzysztof Wodiczko, projects video onto buildings and makes sound pieces in his own art. Wodiczko’s projections often involve video culled from interviews with a wide variety of figures—whoever he believes knows the most about the issue he wants to explore.

"In those projections, there are people operating as co-artists," he says. "They are always the people of whom we know the least. They are the ones who communicate through the structures about themselves … The process of communicating is more important on some levels than the actual projection." Wodiczko takes the role of the public as an artist one step further by actually making the public into contributors.

Remeike J.B. Forbes ’11 has focused on similar ideas in his VES senior thesis, in which Forbes is exploring theoretically the appropriation of graphic images and producing posters for student and community organizations. The creative decisions that go into making these posters are collaborative, and though Forbes does not decide where the posters will be used, he acknowledges that "how the posters are seen depends on the context of where they are viewed." This loss of control does not bother him, however. "The way people actually use images is sort of as important as anything," he says. "I see the people I work with as much of an active participant as anyone." He recalls one instance in which he created a poster he found undistinguished. The organization that he gave it to used it on the podium of a church where a rally was being held, and, he says, "it took on a whole other life." It was just as much the organization as Forbes who was accountable for the impact of the poster, once again giving the public agency that is usually reserved for the artist.

ACHIEVING TRANSPARENCY

Harvard itself has tried to blur the lines between artist and viewer by creating spaces in which interaction between the public and the artist is inevitable. The Laboratory at Harvard, for example, is a space in the Northwest Labs reserved for rotating public exhibits. The interdisciplinary and aptly-named metaLab is another newly created forum through which the entire Harvard community can get involved in public art and humanities projects. "[There is a] new intense creative energy at Harvard going on right now around these questions," says Pimenta.

Still, the fact remains that these buildings are part of a larger university. The Carpenter Center is an historical building that is part of a private institution, and may never be able to achieve the transparency Le Corbusier intended. So Harvard artists work within these confines, and create art that acknowledges the layers of history and exploring the possibilities for public involvement, without obscuring the original armature. In doing so they are invested in a different art of the street—one that acknowledges the inherent limitations of bringing art into the outside world, and one that directly engages with these constraints.

—Staff writer Rebecca J. Levitan can be reached at rlevitan@fas.harvard.edu.

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