One week ago, an installation by artist Abigail DeVille was dismantled in Washington, DC. “The New Migration” was a collection of materials gathered by DeVille during a road trip from DC to Jacksonville, Florida, retracing and reversing the steps of a popular route taken by African Americans fleeing the South during the Great Migration. DeVille’s “materials” were mostly detritus: wooden planks, tires, abandoned furniture. They were installed unashamedly in a vacant storefront in the predominantly African-American neighborhood of Anacostia, a gesture meant to “explor[e] the implication of a new wave of migration to the South sprung by gentrification and urban development,” according to an exhibition pamphlet.
The residents of Anacostia — who are fighting their own burgeoning battles with gentrification — didn’t like “The New Migration.” Or rather, some of them didn’t like it, and those individuals were vocal about their displeasure. They called 311, articles were written, and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCAH), which is responsible for the piece, said it would take the work down. Then the commission changed its mind: the work would stay. Soon afterward, a former DC mayor and current councilmember (who’s no stranger to controversy himself) got the piece declared a fire hazard by the fire department, and it was dismantled.
The storefront stands, one presumes, empty once more. What is the relationship — and what is the proper power dynamic — between the two words in the phrase “public art”?
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DeVille’s “The New Migration” is/was part of the 5×5 Project, a sprawling public art initiative undertaken by the DCAH that brings five curators to town, and with them five artists each, amounting to a total 25 artworks installed throughout the capital. As one might expect, such a fragmented structure makes for a fragmented show: there’s no way to really sum up of 5×5, except perhaps to say that it’s heterogeneous — a taxonomy of possibilities for public art. Four out of five of the projects in curator Stephanie Sherman’s mini-exhibition, Near Futures, are singular events, for instance, whereas curator Lance Fung gathered all of his chosen artists in one grassy area so as to create a temporary park.
At an opening event for 5×5 at the Capitol Skyline Hotel in early September, dozens of people crowded into a kind of throwback carpeted reception room to listen to remarks by some of the organizers of the project. One of them explained the goal of 5×5, now in its second year, like so: “public art that’s woven into the fabric of our diverse communities.”
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How do you properly weave something that’s destined, in a few short months, to be undone? That seems to be the biggest question of 5×5, and perhaps of all public art set in the contemporary city. The artists and curators of 5×5 approach the challenge in various, and variously convincing, ways.
Artist Dan Colen, selected by Shamim M. Momin of Los Angeles Nomadic Division, has tried to blend into the city while arousing only slight suspicion that his pieces might be Art: “Hat” features a fedora rigged to appear as if blowing in the wind, and “Fortune Teller” consists of a boombox on a trash-strewn table playing an audio track of fortune tellers’ predictions of the artist’s future. Both pieces are situated alone under highway overpasses, waiting for the potential viewer to wander by.
The artist collective Dignidad Rebelde, brought on Stephanie Sherman, approached its community by enlisting its help: the group teamed up with DC artist DECOY to tackle the question of how to make art in a newly branded, fast-gentrifying neighborhood. They ended up incorporating portraits of local youth into a cheery and harmless street corner mural that features bright colors and pan-African Adinkra symbols.
A.M. Weaver, a part-time DC resident with seemingly the strongest ties to the city of all the curators, has made temporary art in temporary space, placing pieces from her series Ceremonies of Dark Men on billboards around the city. The ongoing series pairs fragments of text by black male authors with images created by black male artists — often featuring black male bodies — in powerful, evocative combinations.
Curator Lance Fung gathered all of his artists in one place, creating a provisional park titled Nonuments on a grassy lot that had formerly been empty. Amid trees newly planted in the path of artist Peter Hutchinson’s thrown rope, mother-daughter team Eliza and Nora Naranjo Morse undertook a durational project called “Digging,” for which they spent every day dressed in different work costumes (janitor, security guard, etc.), digging and creating mounds in the earth. (Eliza told me the pair was staying outside of DC, and as they rode the bus every day to and from the site, they took note of the work outfits they saw and updated their own to reflect them.) Nearby Jennifer Wen Ma had inked a portrait of a local DC resident onto some plants — gimmicky but thoughtful — and towering over the whole scene were Cameron Hockenson’s wondrously organic but futuristic sculptures, giant nests with spindly legs that provided shelter for migrating birds.
The beauty of Nonuments was not just its artworks’ thematic links, but its creation of a gathering place structured around art. It was public art as the creation of public space, and on opening weekend, when I visited, people seemed genuinely happy to have it. But like all the others, it wasn’t meant to last. Nonuments was dismantled last week too (on schedule, unlike the DeVille). The land, I’m told, is owned by the city, and is slated for — what else? — ”development.”
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There is one’s idea of a place, and then there is the place itself. There is the experience of visiting and the life of knowing. I imagine Abigail DeVille, who is African American, looking at her theme of “The New Migration,” looking at Anacostia, and seeing a connection ripe with symbolism and possibility. The residents — some of them, anyway — saw more blight.
“Anacostia was chosen because of its rich history and current state of flux,” wrote an acquaintance, an arts administrator in Washington, DC (unconnected in any official capacity to 5×5), when I asked her about the DeVille controversy. “To not think that that wouldn’t show up in the way residents reacted to the work was a misstep.”
But the storefront installation was only one piece — the more permanent, though still temporary piece — of DeVille’s work in Anacostia. For the opening, the artist organized a processional performance, “Second Line Parade,” through the neighborhood streets. On that night DeVille and her musicians and performers, many of them doused in glitter and dressed in makeshift coats of raw brown fabric, gathered with participants in front of the Anacostia Arts Center as the sun was sinking into ever deeper shades of blue. The wind blew fiercely as we made our way to the official starting point of the parade, a nearby Frederick Douglass Memorial; the moment we arrived, the brooding sky unleashed torrents of rain. As the 30 or so of us huddled under a makeshift, patchy canopy of umbrellas, the musicians played saxophone and trumpet, and the performers sang songs that felt spiritual.
And then from somewhere a huge object appeared — the rain started to ease, and here was this oversize tangle of clothes and bedding and trash, something between a braid, a tail, and a tapestry. A handful of performers picked up the edges of the load and began dragging it, while the musicians played on ahead and some danced and others chanted: “And the migrants keep coming … and the migrants keep coming.” The rain continued in spurts as we took the pavement, dragging this bundle of castoff dreams and expectations through the streets of a battered and changing neighborhood. Who were the migrants then, and who are they now?
When we arrived back at the arts center, our ranks larger than at the start, a line of drummers (including two children) was waiting for us. They started pounding when we arrived, and the music got funky, and outside the glowing storefront, with the load laid at the door, DeVille’s performers danced with mesmerizing abandon. Eventually we moved inside, where a band plugged in and we all gradually started to dance too.
“What you just experienced is a very rare thing in this city,” a photographer told me after the event. I daresay it was a rare thing in any city. “Second Line Parade” provided a way to touch Anacostia while leaving its larger mark on individuals. Whether that’s the best approach for temporary public art, I’m not certain. But I left more high on the power of art to transport its participants and transform a place than I’ve been in a very long time.
Parts of the 5×5 Project have closed, but much of it continues through various dates in November and December. Check the website for details about specific dates and locations.
Editor’s note: The author’s travel and lodgings on this trip were paid for by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.