Open Air, as a title, is imbued with layers of meaning. It obviously prescribes this project be outdoors. It is referential to the art historical canon: en plein air, or “in the open air”, was a term associated with impressionist painting, defined by utilizing outdoor space as an environment and tool for making art. More abstractly, I find the idea of opening air poignant and beautiful, and also extremely enlightening. Opening air makes me think of new air, or something fresh and unspoiled. Opening up new air rejuvenates us, refreshes our senses, and bestows new ideas upon us, letting us see clearly into cracks that are normally obscured.
The history of the city as a forum for public art goes back to the redesigning of Paris by Baron Haussmann. Public art obviously has existed long before the mid 17th century, but did not become truly effective or standardized until the development of Haussmann’s boulevard system in redeveloped Paris. By redefining space on more baroque terms, focal points needed to be established and monuments were erected in a much more official way than they had before. Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway is modeled on Haussmann’s planning, specifically referencing the Champs-Élysées. It is not such a coincidence then that Rafael Lozano-Hemmer envisioned Open Air’s placement there. This gesture attaches history to a moving piece rooted in the present.
Best described as a temporary, media-based, participatory public monument, Open Air straddles liminality across a range of ideas. It simultaneously improves the democratic voice while also falling into a banal pit of social media. It is a site-specific work that is also globally engaging- it lays the digital world over the physical world and vice versa. It reclaims technologies normally utilized for surveillance or spectacle, giving them personality and free expression, while also intimidating the public and disrupting privacy. The project becomes more interesting when these liminal points are recognized and weighed out. Like any powerful work of art, they create more questions, leaving us feeling indifferent and unsure, and spiced with a tinge of excitement.
One of Open Air’s most impressive accomplishments is that it reinterprets the function of a monument. Historically, monuments look backward, and in so doing get stuck. They are defined by such specific meaning and intention that they end up remaining extremely static. The public actually loses interest quite quickly in them and in effect diminishes the monuments’ original purpose of creating memory and appreciation. These monuments — dedicated to war, presidents, tragedy, etc. — slowly become invisible and block out the viewer because there is no option for exchange between human and object. Lozano-Hemmer utilizes the formalism of monuments, through strategic placement and spectacle, and transforms it into a purely democratic movement that neither looks forward or backwards, but captures the present moment, not allowing for any public disconnect across time.
The democratic voice in this project is unexpected, varying between shouts for universal needs, nuanced whispers, and sounds familiar and not. Upon listening to recordings on and off the Parkway, I was surprised to hear so many non-traditional contributions. Some things included have been orations to the world, subway system sounds, sections of music (old and new), and even marriage proposals. The list of variation goes on and on, its familiarity constantly evolving and devolving. By entitling participants with the ability to contribute anything they’d like, Lozano-Hemmer is gifting much more than just 15-seconds of fame. He’s giving each voice not only equal measure, but also freedom to share whatever their voice/mind/heart desires. Basically, this project is extremely successful and is one of the more interesting pieces of interactive public art to hit Philadelphia.
Carrie Scanga, Breathe, 44’ x 32’ x 12’, painted tracing paper, drypoint on gampi, glue, string, 2011
Viewers enter this installation under a vaulted ceiling structure that is like an inverted honeycomb. Drypoint images hang from the walls. Visitors participate by inflating flat paper boxes with exhaled breath, inserting a written wish, and tying these to the ends of a strings hanging from the ceiling. Over the course of the exhibition, there is an accumulation of boxes in and around the golden canopy.