Public Art as a Call to Action

Last month, I walked along the site for the Blaze Trail which is a public art project that follows the outline of the Great Fire of 1866. It is set to be installed this fall in Portland and identifies points of interest and landmarks related to the fire, and tells stories about people affected by the fire. The collaborators for the project are TEMPOart, Portland Trails, Gib Foltz, Caitlyn Cameron from the City of Portland, and more. The project facilitates interactions between the viewer and Portland’s history, stories and architecture. It will include art on street signs and sign posts as well historical information and sound installations. Also, the project will include a webpage on the Public Art website with an interactive map and information about each stop along the trail to help expand the project and make it more dynamic. The project is meant to be easily accessible to everyone at any time because it is embedded in the city’s structure and flow of daily life. 

On the walk I learned not only about the Great Fire, but also a lot about Portland’s history in general and about the infrastructure that holds this history. I was able to see the city I grew up in with a new set of eyes. Buildings I had walked past hundreds of times suddenly held a deeper meaning and were now crammed full of history and alive with resilience. Although I didn’t remember all the specific facts, I took with me a new understanding of Portland as a city with a rich history, and a new desire to learn more about the events that have shaped it. I also took with me a heightened awareness of the lived environment as a piece of history with meaning, value, and intentionality, not just something that exists as an element of the present. This made me think about the role of this project, and of public art in general. Like much other public art, the role of the Blaze Trail is to resurrect the history of the city in an accessible way and to create a dynamic interaction between this history and the present. 

Walking the Blaze Trail helped me realize that I was not really aware of the history of my own environment. While the focus of the Blaze Trail walk was the historical impacts of the Great Fire, I found myself also learning about other issues along the way. For example, we passed by many markers of The Freedom Trail, which immediately sparked my interest and further research at home. I was ashamed to admit that I hadn’t known much about the immense importance of the landmarks along this trail. 

The Freedom Trail follows points in the Underground Railroad and other important sites like churches and Black meeting houses. It also tells stories about the people and events that were integral in helping African Americans escape slavery. I was saddened that I had lived in Portland almost my whole life and barely knew about these stories or Maine’s anti-slavery movement, and about Maine’s Black history in general. Learning this helped me understand that one of the main roles of public art is to cultivate awareness about the many layers of the lived environment.

As we continued along the walk, we encountered another site for the project, which is also an important marker on the Freedom Trail – The Abyssinian Meeting House – located at 73 Newbury Street. The house had a particularly interesting story about how members of the community helped save it from this fire, which is why it was included in the project. I learned  that The Abyssinian Meeting House was a major hub for the Underground Railroad in Maine and the social and political center for Portland’s African American community during the 19th century. The members of the Meeting House included leaders in the abolition movement, formerly enslaved individuals, and leaders of the Underground Railroad system. According to the link above, the building was first used as a church and a segregated public school as well as place for dinners, concerts and other entertainment. In 1917 the Meeting House was closed and turned into tenement apartments soon after, then taken over by the City of Portland after being abandoned. 

The Committee to Restore the Abyssinian bought the building in 1998 and started restoration, which is still continuing today. To this day, the Meeting House maintains local, state, and national historical significance for the cultural heritage of African Americans in Maine and beyond, stands as an important landmark in Maine’s anti-slavery movement and as a symbol of Black resillience. Encountering this Meeting House on the Blaze Trail reminded me of the importance of preserving and honoring Black history in my own hometown and across the country, as well as raising awareness about the racial history alive into our surrounding environments. 

At a Black Lives Matter protest later that day, one of the speakers emphasized the importance of donating to the effort to restore the Abyssinian House, and it felt like another sign. I was grateful that I now understood the reference. That Sunday, the Portland Press Herald released an article titled “The Abyssinian: And the Struggle to Save Black History in Maine”. Once again, it seemed like the world was trying to tell me to pay attention to this Meeting House and to the history right in front of me. The article centered around Leonard Cummings, who has led a 25 year effort to restore the meeting house. Cummings articulated the significance of the Meeting House to understand the present Black Lives Matter movement, saying “People need to understand the importance of this building to the African American community. Because until you know your history, you can’t know where you’re heading. This building is the beginning of that story. If Black lives really do matter, let’s finish this building”. Cummings emphasizes the utmost importance of restoring, understanding, and honoring Black history in moving towards an anti-racist society that values Black lives in the present and the past. 

Circling back to the original intention of the walk, the aim of the Blaze Trail is to bring to life Portland’s history so it can interact with the present in an interesting and attention catching way. Like much public art, honoring and engaging with the city’s history is the whole point of the project. Going on this walk and doing research about landmarks we passed helped me understand the significance of sites like The Abyssinian House and forced me to confront my previous lack of awareness. It also reminded me that public art has the power to draw connections between history and current issues such as racial justice. For example, public art can tell histories of oppression and illuminate the violent way our country has engaged with people of color for centuries. Art in public spaces has a powerful voice in the Black Lives Matter movement (among others) because it can reach many people and help cultivate a sense of awareness about the environment as a living piece of history that exists both in the past and the present. Public art is an indispensable tool for activists, and must be viewed as such.

Soundsuits, Art and Activism

One piece that has continued to stick with me over the past few weeks is Augment by Nick Cave, which ran August 2019 through April 2020. The project, installed by Now and There in Boston, is a piece of art, a social experience, and a call for the city to come together in public and spread joy across the city. It centers around the question of “What brings you joy?” and relies on interactions between people and art. 

This project is especially powerful because it is complex and multi-dimensional and seems to push the definition of public art. It reminds me that public art can essentially be anything the artist wants it to be, and that it doesn’t have to be static. Instead, it can be moving and changing and shaped by interactions with the public. The voices of the community are active and alive in Augment, a dynamic and energetic piece built by the way people choose to engage with the art, with one another, and with the question of what brings them joy. 

After viewing Augment, I was inspired to learn more about Cave and his other work, especially his Soundsuits. These pieces are both sculptures and fashion pieces, and they come in many different shapes, colors, sizes, and materials. Like Augment, they pushed the definition of public art, showing that it can even be something worn on a body and can be part of a performance. At first glance, they are fun and eye-catching, but they actually have a deeper, more troubling meaning. The goal of each of them is to hide the gender, race, and class of the person wearing them. 

The inspiration behind the first Soundsuits was the beating of Rodney King, and Cave says in an interview with Art21 that the point of the pieces is for people to look at his work without judging it based on identity. Cave explains that the pieces are meant to represent the need for Black men like himself to build a thick skin to protect themselves against the system and that is built against them. Since Soundsuits hide identity, they make racial profiling impossible, and serve as suita of armour of sorts that empower Black people in America. 

Cave’s Soundsuits brought me back to a question I raised in the first blog post about what role public art plays in activism, and how it can address social, racial, environmental, and economic issues. It made me think about what constitutes activism. Can public art itself be considered activism? Or is the action created by public art the activism? Maybe it’s both. The Soundsuits were clearly a way for Cave to express his deep frustration with a system that works against Black people, but is that activism in itself? I’m hesitant to believe that with no background information someone, especially a white person, would be able to understand the message behind the pieces, let alone take action from it. But maybe that’s not the intention of Cave’s pieces, and that’s okay.

In my first blog post, I wrote about the goal of public art, and how it was meant to be understood without more information. I’m starting to question this goal because I fell in love with Cave’s Soundsuits only after I was able to read about them, understand the context behind them, and see how they expressed Cave’s pain so clearly and beautifully. Cave’s Soundsuits are meant to be understood past surface level and within the context of the history of violence against Black people in America. Moving forward, I want to keep exploring and questioning how public art can contribute to activism if it is generally supposed to be taken at face value. I also want to explore personal examples of public art and activism in my own life — like, can signs at protests be considered public art, and how is this different from Cave’s Soundsuits?

For more information about Nick Cave and his Soundsuits, visit these websites:

Nick Cave: The Greats

Nick Cave on Art21

Nick Cave’s Soundsuit sculptures – Everything you need to know

How Nick Cave’s Soundsuits Made Him an Art World ‘Rock Star’

Starting My Summer Internship

Mother’s Garden by Daniel Minter a 2019 TEMPOart Project

I’ve always been interested in creating, participating in, and viewing art in general. I chose to work with TEMPOart because I wanted to get more involved with art on a more public level. My goal for this internship is to understand more about how public art can make powerful and thought provoking statements in ways that are more difficult (or impossible) for other forms of art. I want to learn more about the value of showing art in a public space that is accessible to everyone as opposed to a more formal setting, like a museum. Also, I want to learn more about the relationship between public art and activism, and how public art can address social, racial, environmental, and economic issues, and bring communities together while exciting public spaces in the process. 

Going into the internship, I had a lot of questions about what makes a piece of art “successful”, what counts as public art and what doesn’t, and about the definition of public art more generally. Looking at all the different projects and approaches to public art by each of the organizations I’ve researched—such as The Association for Public Art in Philadelphia, Creative Time in New York City, Forecast Public Art in Saint Paul, and Now and There in Boston—I’m beginning to understand that public art can mean many different things, and lacks a universal definition.

It is problematic to try to define public art because definitions in the past have excluded the voices of marginalized communities, and public art has often failed to take into account non-white perspectives while installing projects. Perhaps public art should remain undefined in order to elevate the voices, approaches, and experiences of people that have traditionally been silenced. I’m realizing that the question of what “counts” as public art, something that I asked earlier in the week, is unanswerable. Allowing only some pieces to “count” makes it easy to disregard non-white ideas of public art and continue to erase diverse perspectives. This makes me think about the need to diversify and decenter whiteness in public art, increase the accessibility of public art, and  bring out the voices of communities that have been excluded. 

I’ve also had a lot of time to think about how we are supposed to interact with public art. The short answer is that there is no answer, and that “supposed to” is not the right way to think about it. There are so many ways people engage with art, and the way this happens with public art is especially hard to control since the pieces are integrated within daily life. It’s sometimes easy to glance at a piece and forget about it if you are rushing or preoccupied, for example. Since public art has no solid definition, beyond art that happens in public, sometimes it can be hard to find a uniting factor. Each project is so unique. But no matter the intention or medium, each project is meant to catch viewers’ attention in some way and cause them to think about and remember the piece. 

Although artists can try to guide the way their projects are perceived, each person will take something different away from the piece based on their level of awareness, their experiences, their beliefs, and their willingness to engage with the project. hat it is depends on the way it is perceived, which is extremely subjective from person to person. I’m beginning to understand that redefining public art is essential to embracing the versatility of public art and helping diversify and expand the movement in Portland and as a whole.