BOSTON — Paul Ramirez Jonas has challenged the idea of public space — and how it is demarcated from the private — throughout his 25-year career of making highly formal participatory work. In his latest project, Public Trust, Jonas thrusts public spaces, and the populaces who inhabit them, into the form, function, and force of his work. Installed at three different public squares around Boston over a three-week period until September 17, Public Trust is heavily orchestrated and theatrical, relying on a troupe of artists to enact it and engage with the public in a kind of social contract.
The work approximates the process of having something notarized. At each location, participants approach an improbably large 16’ x 16’ billboard announcing the day’s date, time, when the sun rose, and prominent public promises pulled from the media, such as “Dallas promises to close homeless tent city,” or Mel C’s agreement to join a Spice Girls reunion tour. To partake in the project, a person must sit across from one of the performers at a table and dictate a pledge to them. Pledges have ranged in purpose and character, from “teach our people our history” to “get more sleep.” I pledged to have more patience — a simple, automatic commitment that took on an unexpected gravitas.
The performer makes two copies of a chalk rubbing of the promise; one for the project, and one for the participant, who must sign both with a signature, a fingerprint, or a drop of their blood. Afterward, the participant swears by an object of their choice — a Jupiter stone, Ganges River water, religious texts — with the performer as a witness. A bell rings when the contract is considered complete, and another performer translates the promise from the contract onto the billboard in big, blocky sign letters. Participants then have the option to have their photo taken (with their bill boarded promise), by Now and There, the nonprofit producing Public Trust.
The project relayed between three well-known squares in the Boston area. Beginning in Dudley Square, in the city’s Roxbury neighborhood, it moved to Kendall Square, the nexus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, before it crescendoed in Copley Square, a tourist attraction in the center of town.
“Boston neighborhoods felt really separate from each other, by class, by race, and even by how the infrastructure connects or separates them,” said Jonas when I asked him about selecting spaces for Public Trust. “I suspect that these sites do not relate to each other, it’s more about how different their publics are from each other.”
At Dudley, the project sat against the Dudley branch of the Boston Public Library, a Brutalist concrete building, and faced the hollow edifice of Dudley Station, an MBTA stop and transfer station for some of Boston’s busiest bus lines. There, concrete benches surrounded the project. In Kendall, the project parked outside of a sleek building that houses both a Marriott Hotel and Microsoft New England, steps away from a well-maintained train station and surrounded by chicly designed multi-colored plastic chairs. In Copley, where the project is currently, it sits across another library near a busy train station, the Beaux-Arts McKim, and the Mead and White Boston Public Library, where traditional wooden park benches line a meticulously kept garden and lawn.
While the design and infrastructures of these sites are distinct, Public Trust reveals a likeness among Bostonians who live in such different areas as Dudley, Kendall, and Copley. Despite the disparity of the neighborhoods, the desire to make a public pledge in each articulates a holistic picture of the city.
On a quiet Saturday morning in Kendall, a little girl vowed to “not cry today,” and a man promised to “Quebrando la promesa de los Estados Jodidos,” (“break the promise of the American Dream”). Both were stated between proclamations from presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to stop drug price hikes, and that taco trucks will be on every corner, respectively. Posted in the simple bluntness of block sign letters, the promises take on gravity in their enlarged, public state; by contrast, the decontextualized pledges made by public figures assume an illogical absurdity.
I spoke with Kate Gilbert, the executive director of Now and There, before the project moved to its final stop, and she didn’t expect promises to remarkably shift in tenor. “It’s early to say but my hunch is that the promises given are dependent on where a participant may be in their life,” Gilbert told me.
While the public’s words are the substance of Public Trust, the physical props underscore the fragility and impermanence of promises: the large billboard is propped up with scaffolding, while the table and signboards are all made from felt letter board. The project’s black and white palette highlights the unequivocal solemnity of oath making; the only areas of gray to be found are on the chalk rubbing contracts. However flimsy, the participants, and all those who believe in public trust, put faith in the stuff of this system even as their ideas and words are erased. Consequently, Public Trust mimics the reality of the democratic order, where people collectively place power in public figures every four years. Through the simplicity of words, signs, and scores, Jonas keeps the promise of the social contract present.