Street

A Monument to Henrietta Lacks in Union Square and Other Art in Odd Places

The 2016 edition of Art in Odd Places included a monument to Henrietta Lacks, a “Red Line” archive, and roving dialogues on the theme of race.

Art in Odd Places 2016
Rebecca Pristoop performing in Christina Stahr’s “Red Tape Labyrinth; Immigration Meditation” at the High Line for Art in Odd Places (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

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.

Art in Odd Places 2016
Elisabeth Smolarz’s “Thank You for Everything Mrs. Lacks” monument in Union Square

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 FreeRace 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.

Art in Odd Places 2016
Lee Nutbean’s “Race*” LED sign in the window of 14th Street Framing Gallery; the light is illuminated by mentions of “race” on social media, and will only turn off if “the term race has been replaced or is no longer found in social discussion.”
Art in Odd Places 2016
Monmouth University students with signs based on postcards to the presidential candidates from Sheryl Oring’s “I Wish to Say” project

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?”

Art in Odd Places 2016
Madison Horne’s “Pharaoh” installation beneath the High Line
Art in Odd Places 2016
Detail of Madison Horne’s “Pharaoh” installation

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 2016
Kenya Robinson’s “WHITEMANINMYPOCKET” figures on a light post
Art in Odd Places 2016
Rebecca Pristoop performing in Christina Stahr’s “Red Tape Labyrinth; Immigration Meditation”
Art in Odd Places 2016
Using Mike Richison’s “Video Voto Matic,” which involved a voting machine made like those in Florida circa 2000 (of the infamous hanging chad) to remix presidential candidate footage
Art in Odd Places 2016
Mike Richison’s “Video Voto Matic” outside Rags-A-Gogo, with a dream collection box for Maja Spasova’s “I Had a Dream Last Night” at left; dreams were read aloud by performers on the sidewalk after sunset.
Art in Odd Places 2016
Alexandra Antoine’s “I Am A Hueman” cards based on participant skin colors
Art in Odd Places 2016
Eric Olson’s “Imagine” bubble machine and the “I Wish to Say” demonstrators
Art in Odd Places 2016
Christina Lafontaine’s “Ethereal Ecologies” installed in the metal of the subway entrance
Art in Odd Places 2016
Detail of Christina Lafontaine’s “Ethereal Ecologies”
Art in Odd Places 2016
Sign from Ori Alon’s “Center for Supportive Bureaucracy (Empowering Clerks Network)”
Art in Odd Places 2016
Dominique Paul’s “Interactive Median Income Dress Acting As a Social Interface” illuminated dress, with the light color based on the median income of the neighborhood in which she stands

Art in Odd Places: Race took place October 6 to 9 along 14th Street in Manhattan. 

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