Neglected public art
Who is responsible for maintaining our city's public art?
In April I had the pleasure of speaking with the Fabric Workshop and Museum’s guest curator, John G. Hanhardt, about his exhibition Changing Scenes: Points of View in Contemporary Media Art. As we chatted about his work, and the artists featured in the exhibition, Hanhardt expressed a special fondness for his friend and collaborator, Korean American artist, the late Nam June Paik.
Widely recognized as the founder of video art, Paik’s prolific work, and the concepts behind it, foreshadowed the information age and explored its potential at the period’s genesis. He is said to have coined the term “electronic super highway.” Paik also believed in a future that included a “Video Common Market,” a visual platform for telecommunications, which some suggest came into fruition with YouTube. Paik re-envisioned an isolating medium and fashioned it into a tool of inclusion and communication. No video artist can say that they haven’t been influenced by Paik’s pioneering work.
As Hanhardt discussed his past and present with Paik—alluding to the exhibition Nam June Paik: Global Visionary he curated at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in DC—I couldn’t help but to mention the poor condition of one of Paik’s lesser known instillations, and his only permanent outdoor public art piece, that resides in our very own backyard: Video Arbor. Hanhardt’s face sunk. “That’s a shame,” he said followed by a brief moment of silence and a modest suggestion, “something should be done.” Hanhardt raced through a handful of possible solutions, but the statement stuck with me. Who is responsible for the neglect of this important work of art and what should be done about it?
You might have passed it and wondered, what exactly is this? The sculpture’s black cage-like columns stand entwined with wisteria, supporting the weight of concrete beams embellished with sundials and holding motionless television monitors. You are probably more likely to take notice of the dissidence that the work creates in its obscure setting than the piece itself. The sculpture is hidden on 18th Street at the corner of Callowhill where the floating television garden usually sits lifeless and ignored.
Installed in 1990, Video Arbor was commissioned by Forest Residential Development, Inc. in cooperation with the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Philadelphia’s One Percent Fine Arts Program. Hanhardt himself was at the 1990 opening and spoke along with Paik about the piece.
The issues that have affected Paik’s installation were expected. In the beginning, both critics and Paik were reluctant about the project. The risk of a television installation constantly being exposed to the elements has its obvious threats. The Inquirer’s architect critic in 1990, Thomas Hine, reported on Video Arbor, voicing his concern and noting several conceivable obstacles the artwork could face. Hine saw three potential problems: overgrown wisteria, operation, and maintenance. Though the surrounding shrubbery has been manicured throughout the years, operation and maintenance has gone ignored.
Hine viewed the potential neglect as being particularly concerning, considering that the piece itself is not necessarily aesthetically pleasing when left turned off. Comparing operational concerns to those of a fountain, he writes, “When designing a fountain, it is important to make something that is good-looking when the water isn't running. Although the growth of the wisteria might mitigate the situation, Video Arbor fails this test. It is not beautifully made.” Yet Hine makes a point to say, “Still, it seems ungrateful to make too much of this failing when the work's impact in operation is so strong.”
Because these issues were foreseeable, one might have expected special precautions to be made. Regardless of whether you think the piece is an eyesore or not, it’s not complete without the video footage. Yet, 22 years later the piece falls under the shadow of One Franklin Town Apartments, and its impact, as a now rarely operational structure, has aligned with original concerns. Today, Paik’s masterpiece obscures the view of the complex’s innocuous courtyard and has become a nuisance to many of the building’s residents. After speaking with several residents, the consensus seemed to be that, for those of them who were aware of the sculpture—many required memory jogging—they thought it was awkward and were unfamiliar with the artist who created it.
“When I moved in I thought it was a bit odd,” said Sam Fowler, who moved into One Franklin Town Apartments this past winter, “I don’t really know why it’s there.”
Many of the residents had reported seeing Video Arbors’ monitors on, but showing a distorted version of Paik’s original project.
Newsworks’ Peter Crimmins received a similar reaction from residents when he asked about the piece for his 2011 article: “On the trail of missing public art in Philadelphia.” The article also noted the efforts of local writer Amber Dorko Stopper, who shared Hanhardt’s sentiment, believing that something should be done to get Video Arbor running. Through the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, Stopper was able to extend her concern to One Franklin Town Apartment’s property management company. Stopper, who began the conversation, wrote on her blog Voluptuous Stoicism, “they say the screens are turned on every evening, but that’s not what we see. So, this story is not over.”
Crimmins’ article followed up with the building manager who, according to Crimmins, “says faulty wiring sometimes causes problems, but it's supposed to be on every evening between 7 and 11. The original, consumer-grade laser disc player playing the video content has never been replaced.” I attempted to verify this explanation with the people at One Franklin Town Apartments, but they declined to comment.
The finger has been pointed at the property management company before, but for obvious reasons. Like Hine mentioned in 1990, “While a great deal of research, effort and money have gone into assuring that Video Arbor will continue to work, it is obvious that this is a risky project, and one to which the building's owners will have to have a long-term commitment.” Throughout time, that long-term commitment has proven to be a lot more difficult than expected.
If our city, and the people who shape it, make commitments to art then we, as a community, must see to that those commitments are honored. And when they are not honored we must take action. It is the equal part of the community to see that these issues are met and resolved. Video Arbor is a masterful work of contemporary art that should be celebrated and not forgotten.
But how do we go about celebrating and reintroducing the artwork to Philadelphians? I recently spoke to both Hanhardt and Stopper about finding a way to bring new life to Video Arbor. “I see art curriculum here,” Stopper said, imagining a new generation of Paik enthusiasts. For the future plans of the piece, “a museum could be involved in restoring it,” Hanhardt suggested, “or it could be relocated.” Though nothing is concrete, and plans are within the preliminary stages, the conversation has been started with Nam June Paik Studios and local members of the community are taking notice and getting involved. Like Stopper said in 2011, “the story is certainly not over,” and won’t be until the piece is restored and receiving the attention it deserves. Keep an eye out for future updates and check out Video Arbor for yourself.