If you lined up all the cells cultured from Henrietta Lacks’s body, you could circle the world three times. The immortal cell line HeLa has been used so extensively in scientific research that almost every advance in post-1950s medicine owes Lacks some debt, from the polio vaccine to cancer studies. Yet Lacks, a black woman who died in 1951 at the age of 31 from cervical cancer, never gave consent for the cells to be taken from the tumor in her body, and her family — who worked as tobacco farmers in Virginia — did not receive compensation. There is no statue to her, and only recently have her name and life been attached to her posthumous medical contribution, particularly through Rebecca Skloot’s 2011 book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
This past weekend, Lacks was honored with a pop-up monument as part of Art in Odd Places (AiOP), an over 30-artist annual intervention along 14th Street in Manhattan. Elisabeth Smolarz’s “Thank You for Everything Mrs. Lacks,” with its golden cellular clusters arranged in one of Union Square’s gardens, was among the numerous projects that addressed this year’s theme: Race.
AiOP was founded in 2005 and, since 2008, has staged art on 14th Street, with past themes including last year’s Recall, which hosted returning projects, and 2011’s Ritual. The 2016 edition had no monumental pieces — such as the towering Edward Snowden statue in 2014’s Free. Race was much more about participation and conversation, from the “Speaker’s Corner” where various people engaged in dialogue from a sidewalk platform, to Katya Grokhovsky and Luis Mejico’s “Let’s Talk About Race,” which attempted to make a temporary “safe space” for dialogue, to Walis Johnson, Murray Cox, and Aimee vonBokel’s “The Red Line Archive,” a mobile history museum responding to urban segregation enabled by the 1938 “Red Line” map.
Much of AiOP is about chance, as with so many projects happening in such a large space, it’s impossible to see everything, or really plan to see anything. The rain on both Saturday and Sunday also dampened the outdoor event a bit. However, I soon spotted Monmouth University students carrying picket signs with words from Sheryl Oring’s “I Wish to Say” project — in which she types postcards dictated by the public to the presidential candidates — interacting with Eric Olson’s “Imagine” bubble machine, a reference to the Jim Crow-era voting literacy test question: “How many bubbles in a bar of soap?”
Beneath the High Line, near 14th Street’s western end, Rebecca Pristoop performed a contorted dance based on Syrian and Mexican folk dances through Christina Stahr’s “Red Tape Labyrinth; Immigration Meditation,” responding to restrictions that keep some immigrants contained, while others, like the pedestrians moving around her, can pass through with ease. On the opposite side of the street, sheltered from the rain, was Madison Horne’s beautiful “Pharaoh.” Light boxes in the temporary memorial space contained archival photographs of enslaved people in South Carolina, with members from her own family, which was once enslaved in the state, embedded in the black and white images.
Other art had a blink-and-you-miss-it presence. Christina Lafontaine’s “Ethereal Ecologies” involved tiny ecological invasions on lamps in Union Square and the rusted metal of subway entrances, and Kenya Robinson’s “WHITEMANINMYPOCKET” talismans, which personify white privilege, swarmed metal posts or stood alone on trash cans. While many of these installations and performances required passersby to engage with their intent, this also made them more meaningful. Whether pausing to interact with a stranger, or a strange globular orb, AiOP emphasizes that art can belong anywhere.
Art in Odd Places: Race took place October 6 to 9 along 14th Street in Manhattan.