New Times / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from New Times [newtimesslo.com] - Volume 28, Issue 23
Take it outside, kids! Five stellar student essays explore the meaning and purpose of public artworks in San Luis Obispo
By BRADLEY WILLIAMS, WILLIAM HO, RYAN KADLEC, AARON LANDRITH, AND LILY MERYASH
Last fall, we at New Times received an e-mail from Cal Poly assistant professor Eleanor Helms, who teaches a course in aesthetics. Would we be interested in publishing the best student art reviews from her class, she wanted to know? Sure, we said. We had originally planned to restrict them to the arts section, but they’re quite long, as you can see—and also quite good, as you will momentarily discover.
The following five essays present a critical analysis of several public artworks in San Luis Obispo. All five of these works would fly under the radar of the average art critic, and that’s what we love about these essays. Some have taken on established pieces of public art—software engineering major William Ho shows how Sandra Kay Johnson’s sculpture Web of Life reinforces the theories of Zen philosopher D. T. Suzuki, while architecture major Aaron Landrith uses art critic Hilde Hein’s definitions of public art to discuss the painted utility boxes that dot the street corners of downtown SLO—while others have found public art where others would see only beer-soaked sneakers dangling from wires, as architecture major Bradley Williams has done in his refreshing essay “Shoefiti.”
“Our aesthetics course is a philosophy course that deepens students’ understanding of art and its relation to different areas of philosophy,” said Professor Helms, “including studies of knowledge, truth, subjectivity/objectivity, and social philosophy.”
Students read from a variety of thinkers, from Plato to Kant to Suzuki’s “Zen and the Art of Tea.” In their reviews, she explained, they aimed to “synthesize ideas from the various philosophers creatively and develop their own philosophical perspective on particular works of art.”
—Anna Weltner, arts editor
Amongst the picturesque patterning of palm trees lining California Boulevard floats a more synthetic composition: Lots of shoes hanging from a telephone wire. Between the Highway 101 overpass and the Cal Poly campus is a wire hanging over the railroad tracks, which hosts a sneaker collection. This “shoefiti” is a testament to the illegal foot traffic that has taken place between two major student neighborhoods straddling California Boulevard over the years. This past year, the city installed an impressive iron fence running the length of the boulevard, to prevent further traffic as a response to safety concerns. However, the city’s action has had an unintended yet graceful consequence. The installed fencing has elevated the shoefiti to the distinction of public art. What was once a simple claim of territory has now been promoted to a framed artwork alluding to grander issues of public conflict and social debate.
Shoe-flinging, as some call it, is a common statement of claimed territory. The California Boulevard shoe monument is not a statement of gathering, but a statement of passage, or travel. Like a bridge placed strategically between two areas, the shoefiti creates somewhat of a line between the termination of Murray Street and the end of Hathaway Avenue.
This is perhaps more than novel. Philosopher Martin Heidegger has famously provided insight into the significance of the bridging between two areas. Like Heidegger’s bridge, the shoefiti is an example of something that “gathers up” different things as relevant parts of a whole. Heidegger states that a bridge retains both immaterial and material qualities in their existence. One may hypothesize the immaterial qualities behind marking the visual bridge: The frequent pilgrimage of the students in the cover of the night, their intentions (perhaps finding the shortest route to SLO Donut Company), and the cold of the night influence them to get there as quickly as possible. Clearly the railroad crossing at Foothill does not suffice. Additionally, there are material qualities that encourage shoefiti, such as the convenient low-hanging telephone wire, and the “warning—keep out” sign that may entice rebellious teens. Although Union Pacific owns this sliver of land that runs through town, Heidegger would not let us forget that this is still human space. Heidegger is concerned about what others have taken to be relevant in this sliver and how others express their activity in material. The shoefiti reminds us of this.
Heidegger writes that, like a bridge, putting up something like a tent along a trail establishes a location. With the fraternity houses and liquor store to the north and the apartment complexes and skate park to the south, the builders have visually bridged the two with old, beer-soaked skate-shoes, creating a site-specific lineage of their own. Their location, intersecting the tracks, has been created. The students have created (as Heidegger writes in “Building, Dwelling, Thinking”) “a location [that] comes into existence only by virtue of the bridge.”
Is the students’ statement of location public art? Would the city be interested in keeping it as they would a statue? Or would they just take it down as they would paint over unwanted graffiti? Philosopher Hilde Hein would argue that just because it’s out in the public doesn’t make it “public” art. In this regard she is probably right: Like graffiti, the shoefiti may be someone’s art, but it’s not exactly public art. Hein is particular in what she defines as public art, noting in her 1996 article “What is Public Art? Time, Place, and Meaning,” published in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, that “publicity has social and political connotations that are untranslatable to public access.”
However, the visual bridge is now completely fenced off. Someone arriving at the site for the first time would question why there are so many shoes in a restricted area with such difficult access. It is in this context that Hein may distinguish the composition as public art. Hein makes it clear that “public art seems to engage more abstract concerns and more ephemeral interpretations of site, memory, and meaning.” Where the shoefiti once simply existed as a bridge, the city has responded with a closure of this bridge. Additionally, Hein mentions that “space and time continue to play a definitive part” in the role of public art. Certainly, this is a scenario that became possible over a series of events that creates a dialogue between interpretations of space.
Even though the shoefiti was not funded by tax dollars or selected from an educated jury, Hein notes that public artworks can be “become symbolic and relational indicators” even though the work “may be unheroically unspectacular.” The fenced-off visual bridge creates an aesthetic indicator, symbolizing the city’s heavy hand in students’ nighttime activities. Hein would associate this with the “very liability of social and aesthetic interactions and their multiple interpretations.”
Lastly, Hein would point out that the fence makes the shoefiti more site-specific. Shoes hang all over the country, so what makes these unremovable from their location? In addition to the bridge effect described above, the fence as a reaction creates added depth.
Public artists, Hein describes, “sometimes and somehow break through ordinary expectation and cause people to venture upon new perspectives.” The shoefiti bridge was once just typical claimed territory by some group (students). However, the fence created a certain perspective on the site that allowed the shoefiti to exist as public art. The scene is no longer about an individual perspective of the students but about the shared reality of how that site is interpreted.
—Bradley Williams; senior, architecture major
Wabi and Web of Life
The Web of Life sculpture, created by Sandra Kay Johnson, can be found at the San Luis Obispo Creekwalk in downtown SLO. This sculpture is a bronze sphere that shows all the types of local wildlife that can be found around the creek. The placement of this art piece in the public space at the side of the creek can be interpreted as a way to include the town’s residents in the environment that is situated there. The art piece can also be used as a reminder of the wildlife that lives in the environment so close to our human society. As a result, the sculpture is a type of landmark that helps the residents come back to and remember nature.
The surface of the sculpture represents all the wildlife that can be found living near the creek running through downtown SLO. Compared to the surrounding buildings and lively atmosphere of downtown, the creek can be seen as a quaint and quiet place separated from the commotion of civilization. As a result, the wildlife found living around the creek has to adapt to this domineering aspect of human society. This type of thinking is what Zen philosopher D. T. Suzuki would consider wabi.
In his article “Zen and the Art of Tea,” Suzuki defines wabi through the example of a “branch of plum tree in bloom among the snow-covered woods,” Suzuki writes. This idea can be compared to the way the wildlife surrounding the creek thrives in the middle of all noise and commotions of human society.
The interconnectedness of the animals on the Web of Life sculpture represents the local wildlife and how it has persisted through the intrusion of human society. The point of showing this wabi through the sculpture is to illustrate to its audience that they “find no room in [their] worrying hearts for enjoying life in any other way than running after excitement for excitement’s sake,” as Suzuki writes. In other words, the sculpture’s wabi questions “how is it that we no longer reflect in life more deeply, more seriously, so that we can have a realization of its inmost meaning.” The art piece is meant to remove us from our struggles and concerns, bring our attentions to what is significant, and focus on life as a whole. Like the wildlife living near the creek, the wabi of the sculpture can show that we can be “self-sufficient with [the] insufficiency of things”—and still feel joy in the midst of all that is bad or stressful in our lives.
The location of the art piece, situated by the creek yet well within reach of human society, also factors into what the sculpture is trying to convey. The proximity of human society is what is protruding onto the environment of the creek and its inhabitants, reinforcing philosopher Hilde Hein’s idea that “the audience no longer figured as passive onlooker but as participant, actively implicated in the constitution of the work of art,” as Hein expressed in “What is Public Art? Time, Place, and Meaning.”
The audience is implicated in the art piece due to its wabi, which is found through the juxtaposition of the creek’s environment and human commotion surrounding it.
The many people implicated in the art piece are also involved in a space for debate and reactions. Johnson’s Web of Life “[breaks] through ordinary expectation and [causes] people to venture upon new perspectives,” as Hein puts it. For example, the people implicated through the sculpture’s wabi may have a debate in response to their own lives and on how to, in Suzuki’s words, “negate the entire machinery of modern life and start anew.” Being in the public space, the sculpture’s “insightful expression ignites [the] response” of the public, no matter how small.
Johnson’s Web of Life expresses wabi through the surviving mentality of the wildlife, despite the imposing quality of human society. Through this aspect, the public is implicated in the art piece and is given a space for reactions and debates. Wabi in the sculpture also reminds the public of nature and places a focus on accepting life as a whole.
—William Ho; junior, software engineering major
Art Within the Shell
When one ponders great works of art, the first examples to come to mind are usually paintings, sculptures, or other work on display in some museum. But defining great art by its time in galleries overlooks a crucial piece of the art world: Architecture. Although buildings are not usually recognized as artistic masterpieces, there exists a plethora of structures that not only serve the purpose of a building, but also have many of the qualities that are attributed to the greatest artistic works. The Shell House, from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s architecture graveyard, is a perfect example of this, as it not only embodies “essential occasionalism,” which the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer insisted was present in all good art, but also exemplifies philosopher and critic Hilde Hein’s description of a work of public art.
According to Gadamer, aesthetically pleasing works of art are occasional because “their meaning and content are determined by the occasion for which they are intended, so that they contain more than they would without this occasion.” In other words, good art is not interesting simply because it presents one pleasing form, which stays continuous over time, but rather because this original, consistent form is presented repeatedly, but through different contexts, which grants the artwork the potential to have a seemingly infinite number of interpretations. Be it a change of location or time or audience, the idea that a single piece of art can carry multiple meanings throughout these varying occasions is what makes good art aesthetically pleasing. Considering Gadamer’s theory, Cal Poly’s Shell House is a perfect example of occasional art. In fact, in his writing on this theory, Gadamer himself asserts that any architecture is the ideal representation of occasionalism. As mentioned above, art is occasional because its meaning is determined with each new occasion, through the combination of the artwork’s original meaning or form with the interpretation of each new viewer that judges the piece.
Upon entering the Shell House, the occasionalism of the structure is clearly visible. Essentially, what was once intended to be a “house” or a serious architecture project is now a kind of destructive playground. The glass that once formed a scenic window into the house is now a shattered opening that serves as the front door (ironically right next to a “NO TRESPASSING” sign). This shattered glass, along with the other vandalism within the house, precisely display the occasionalism of the structure, as it shows a time when someone interpreted it not as a house, but as a thing to be destroyed. Similarly, the central spire and its surrounding walls, which were at first white and pure, now display the signs of multiple interpretive occasions in the form of colorful and crude graffiti. In the opposite vein, the Shell House has recently become the target for a renovation project, which aims to restore the original beauty and luster of the structure. Although these two forms of evidence seem to oppose one another, they are extremely helpful in clarifying Gadamer’s theory, as they display the plethora of meanings that the Shell House has had for its visitors over the years. To some it is a place to explore and break into, to others it is a spot for graffiti—to leave one’s mark—and to others still, it is a treasured piece of the school’s history, which deserves to be restored to its full dignity and preserved. However, even after the application of these various interpretations, there still exists the solid, unchangeable structure of the Shell House. The unalterable nature of the house’s original form, along with the varying evidence of people’s interactions with the structure, display the plethora of occasions the Shell House has witnessed over time, confirming it as a valuable and aesthetically pleasing piece of architectural artwork. Other evidence verifying the Shell House’s aesthetic value comes from the philosophy of Hilde Hein. In her writing, Hein elaborates on the significance of art within the public sphere. To her, public art is any art that implicates the public in some way, such as claiming to represent the public, inhabiting a public space, or using public funding. Although most works of art do not directly affect the public in these ways, Hein argues that every substantial piece of art is indeed public art. For her, all art should be deemed public, because all art has the potential to draw a response or opinion from each individual perspective it encounters. In other words, because everyone has the ability to make their own judgments on all pieces of artwork, all art naturally implicates all people, even if it isn’t directly involved in the public sphere. As with Gadamer’s theories above, the Shell House is a keen illustration of Hein’s ideals for public art. The most obvious “public” characteristic of the house is its location. Although it stands within the architecture graveyard, which is tucked away in the farthest corner of Cal Poly’s campus, the trail which connects it to the main streets is accessible to the public, and is frequented by students and members of the San Luis Obispo community as well. Therefore, because this house is available to the public view, according to Hein, it actively implicates a public reaction to its existence. Whether the public response is negative, positive, or indifferent, the fact remains that anyone who visits the graveyard and sees the house must have some opinion about it.
These varying public opinions are visible in the evidence from people’s multiple interactions with the house. On one end of the spectrum, large portions of the house’s interior are covered in graffiti, vandalism, and other signs of hoodlum activity. Although some may say these scars are a detriment to the house, they are valuable in displaying one type of public reaction to the structure, as some people interpreted its function as something to be destroyed, or as a landmark to leave their messages for future visitors. On the other end of the spectrum, a recent addition to the house, a sign stating, “Restoration in Progress, Please Do Not Disturb,” points out a completely different reaction to the building. The fact that the Shell House is now under recently started renovations depicts a public reaction in which people saw it as a valuable piece of Cal Poly’s campus, which should be saved and rebuilt, rather than being destroyed or forgotten. These two opposing responses directly reflect Hein’s depiction of public art, as they display a work that draws a response or action from the people who encounter it. Although these reactions do not display some sort of public consensus or general public want for the Shell House, they exhibit the fact that the people who come across it are affected by it and care for it as more than simply a building, but also as a work of art. Although they are not the first things that come to mind when one pictures the masterworks of art, there is a special something about certain pieces of architecture that makes them more than mere buildings. These artistic structures not only fulfill the utilitarian purposes of storage and housing, but also have distinct characteristics that are found in art. The Shell House, perhaps at first intended to be merely a model, takes on new forms of interpretation for each individual visitor who encounters it.
With this embodiment of both Gadamer’s theory of essential occasionalism as well as Hein’s description of public art, this structure is not only solidified as an aesthetically valuable piece of art, but also as a public artistic landmark, which holds value for both Cal Poly and the San Luis Obispo community in general.
—Ryan Kadlec; junior, history major
“The statesman is an artist too. For him the people is neither more nor less than what stone is for the sculptor.”
“San Luis Obispo,” the electrician tells me, “is not the first city to adopt a utility box art program.”
I’m standing out at the corner of Mitchell Park at Pismo and Osos streets watching him crack open one such artfully painted box. As he examines the insides and explains how its maze of switches and wires controls the intersection beside us, he mentions that since being painted by local artist Marcia Harvey, this particular box hasn’t seen any of the graffiti it typically attracts. Art that repels graffiti? Was graffiti its cause? The answer we find (conveniently) on a PDF map the city of San Luis Obispo provides, documenting the commission and location of its utility box art.
“The goal of the project is to use utility boxes as ‘canvasses’ for original pieces of art as well as contribute to the vitality and attractiveness of the downtown while deterring graffiti.”
At first glance, this statement appears to give the art a dual agenda—that of beautification and graffiti deterrent—but there is good reason to believe that these are one and the same. Implicit in the city’s commission is an idea that the city might be more beautiful without the uninvited canned spray of its more amateur artists. This art is political from the get-go: It is to beautify the city by ridding it of available canvasses for graffiti.
Are the resulting pieces of box art, then, more an expression of the individuals who painted them, or San Luis Obispo’s aesthetic agenda? By distinguishing between graffiti and art, and selecting among artists to commission for box paintings, the city is curating artistic expression. This curation makes each painted utility box a complex mixture of individual artistic intent, and political intent. German-born, California-raised philosopher and art critic, Hilde Hein, understands this complexity and comments:
“The creative display of objects and their deployment for aesthetic pleasure are revealed as politically significant acts … By declaring itself ‘public,’ public art points to the impropriety of that characterization and reclaims the political status of all art.”
The politics in San Luis Obispo, it seems, are territorial. The box art program appears to be an effort by city officials to re-assert ownership over the city’s surfaces, tagging them with select artists’ initials. The natural progression of this kind of anti-graffiti art campaign might be to canvas the entire city with commissioned murals, beating unsponsored graffiti-artists to the punch. The contest remains, though, (for now) around the modest utility box. Like dogs, the city and its graffiti-deterring artists seem to be lifting their legs here to claim a piece of the street with art. The idea that art can secure a location is very Heideggerian, resembling the 20th century philosopher’s thoughts on how a site comes into view only after it has been “made site” via building. In this situation, art builds a museum-like fortress around the utility box while stripping away the available blankness of its metal casing. It decides the program of the box’s outer most surfaces, closing any argument for their use otherwise.
It is important to note that the graffiti artist is no less free to spray once the utility box has been covered in commissioned art—just discouraged from one more potential canvas. In order for this art to be public, the city implies, it must come with a city-signed permission slip (something graffiti never procures). Granted, city officials did not prescribe what was to be painted on each box, and had little stake in Marcia Harvey’s decision to paint leaved stems up the sides of the box on Pismo and Osos streets. They did, however, ask artists to “apply for a public art project.” Verbiage like this orients the individual artist toward a service of the whole that produces a kind of steered self-expression. Artists seeking selection are led to consider how their art might be in public and for the public, thereby directing personal artistic impulses. Hein thinks that when it comes to public representation, a brief like this is somewhat misguided, arguing, “The supposition that a visual form, an anthem, or a text might express (a culture’s) deepest values or unify a coherent social group has become a relic of romantic history.” Harvey’s foliage work alone may not be something to call an accurate representation of the San Luis Obispo public, but among its 31 other box brothers and sisters, might contribute to a slightly higher-resolution image of Central Coast culture.
Passing pedestrians and motorists probably think little of the political and philosophical utterings of the utility-box project. Most likely, they simply enjoy stumbling upon paintings in unexpected places. Perhaps this is the project’s greatest achievement: The surprise appearance of a utility box. Martin Heidegger would call this a movement from ready-to-hand to present-at-hand experience, when (for the first time) we (not just the electrician) notice a box there. Stripped of its ubiquity by Harvey’s brush strokes, the box on the corner of Mitchell Park gets attention indirectly by all who choose to gaze upon its freshly painted surfaces. Dwelling on it there, we might discover a new intersection of utilities. There are, of course, the wiry guts within the box’s steel shell that define its pragmatic utility (controlling the vehicular intersection), but now there also is an added swath of multi-colored leaves that assumes an artistic utility (graffiti defense), and gives greens and reds in an intersection of its own.
—Aaron Landrith; senior, architecture
Heidegger, Baudrillard, and that clock
On the corner of Monterey and Osos streets, I noticed the “Volny Heritage Clock Plaza.” In the center of the plaza, between a few green benches, a cement block holds up a public four-faced clock “sculpture”—advertised on Sanluisobisporestaurants.com as a “landmark.” It is my intention to critically evaluate this clock through a perspective that employs Martin Heidegger’s holistic and contextual aesthetic, in order to then expose the ornamental clock’s fundamental meaninglessness through Jean Baudrillard’s theory of simulation. It is in the clock’s transparent indifference to context that it succeeds in drawing attention to the disappearance of all underlying structures of reality. It stands as a beacon—an accidental warning against the social moratorium* it helps to create.
For Heidegger, an object of art presents a unified space by gathering up surrounding elements previously unconnected or unseen. Objects of art as well as buildings create a meaningful space out of a given context through the relevant “joining of spaces.” The object’s being there contributes to and allows for a new location to be opened up and inhabited (both physically and spiritually); this is what Heidegger refers to when he asserts in “Building, Dwelling, Thinking” that “the bridge gathers the earth as landscape around the stream.” It is this object that makes the space a location—without it the location would not exist. The parts of this space are unified around the object in a way that draws attention, at least for a short time, to structures previously hidden. It is also important that the internal workings of the revealed space harmonize with the “flow” of its surroundings. However, while the Volny clock takes up space, it does not create new space in turn. The bulbous clock head and inverted body stand upon a circular brick enclosure that is positioned in the middle of short spanning pathways parallel to the sidewalk two feet away. The clock, far from interweaving its surroundings into a unified whole, shoots up petrified as if caught somewhere it knows it’s not supposed to be. Through its shallow façade, the clock may actually succeed in pointing to a larger unseen social context that it so perfectly reflects.
The clock, being a mechanically reproduced copy of a reproducible model of a clock, demonstrates Baudrillard’s assessment that our world is now proliferated with copies of copies with no reference to a foundation—a copy without an original. One only needs to Google “post clocks” to find multiple sellers of identical “custom” clocks for your own “campus quads, town squares, or intersections” (“Timeless!”). The problem of equivalence arises with the proliferation of these types of identical, simplified images of commodities with no individual history, future, or meaning. Through the development of simplified accounts of reality through language and image**—along with the development of mass reproducibility through technology and mass media—simulation (which is only an image without a referent) has replaced reality. It is, as Baudrillard writes, “the long movement toward translatability and thus toward complete combinatorial, which is that of the superficial transparency of everything, of their absolute advertising. Both languages of the masses, issuing from the mass production of ideas, or commodities, their registers, separate at first, progressively converge.”
Baudrillard warned that with the advance of mass technological reproducibility (of images, information, and media), the decline and ultimate loss of meaning would result. A fixed ideal of valued distinctions no longer exists. Signs of meaning only defer meaning endlessly in a system that is reduced to equivalences upon a society content with the mere consumption of images with no depth. Equivalence is the substitution of “the signs of the real for the real, that is to say of an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes,” Baudrillard claimed. Meaning only results from a constant, invariable, and ideal set of distinctions; any distinction such as this is diminished through the equalizing power of capital and exchange exacerbated by the mass reproducibility of image (language, media, advertising).
The pure image that is the Volny clock expresses its fundamental indifference to meaning or context. Contradictions in speech and between images go by unnoticed; every image has its own miniaturized domain that presents itself as completed within itself and thus not bound by any rules other than its own. This can be demonstrated through a deeper analysis of the Volny clock: The charm of the clock statue only distracts from its location in front of the San Luis Obispo County Courthouse, considered by most citizens a site of despair or at least utter time-consuming annoyance; as a weightless image, the clock ignores contradiction and places itself outside the “real” setting it is placed in; the clock only points to itself as a whole, allowing the viewer to ignore its messy surroundings and to momentarily be distracted by its meaningless slogan. The slogan, “Spend time with those you love” is written on all four-clock faces directly in front of this county courthouse, in the middle of downtown SLO, kitty-corner to a commercialized shopping plaza. Yet all these point away from time spent with those you love (unless of course “those you love” include the county sheriff and pricey uniform bedroom furniture sets).
Spend time with those you love. It is a thoughtless embellishment on top of an imaginary landscape that contradicts itself endlessly, yet continues to persist solely upon its charm. This maintained simulacrum is possible only upon a society already conditioned and intoxicated by image and deference. The clock is a nostalgic resurrection of a meaningful past that no longer exists; it embodies a desire for the real in a simulated imaginary world that reproduces “reality” only to annihilate the real—a cartoonish parody. The clock, just like the modern consumer, is merely a mechanically reproduced object that asks to be seen, consumed, and forgotten without a history, origin, or meaning behind it. It is only the “mirror of the indifference of all public signification,” in Baudrillard’s words. Viewed in its honest transparency, the clock truly becomes what the French philosopher and cultural theorist called “monument of cultural deterrence” and its own accidental critique. The clock proclaims its total superficiality, and simultaneously draws attention to the simulated social setting that is downtown San Luis Obispo.
*Also a reference to the “Moratorium” in Phillip K. Dick’s novel UBIK: an institution that induces “half-life”, a suspended dreamlike animation that prolongs death temporarily.
**In order to make experience communicable, Baudrillard wrote, one must abstract from reality through language and image, which is already abstracted from perception.
—Lily Meryash; junior, political science major
Send comments to Arts Editor Anna Weltner at firstname.lastname@example.org.