Speculations on Digital Art and Viral Spaces
Sunday, April 18, 2010
Blog written by Dale Hudson, co-curator with Sharon Lin Tay of “Map Open Space” exhibit at FLEFF 2010.
Spectres of Liberty is an on-going public, hybrid media project by Olivia Robinson, Josh MacPhee, and Dara Greenwald that examines the history of movements to abolish slavery in the United States. The project explores ways to make the histories of anti-oppression movements visible by excavating public memory from collective amnesia. The project also animates history by asking the public to interact with history — and reanimate other repressed histories.
The project’s first iteration, “The Ghost of the Liberty Street Church,” was staged in May 2008 at the site of a church that served as an important meeting place for organizers of the Underground Railroad, a network of anti-slavery activists who helped slaves escape to areas in the northeastern U.S. and Canada where slavery was not officially practiced.
Formed in 1840 as a black church in Troy, New York, the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church invited the Reverend Henry Highland Garnet to be the congregation’s pastor. Earning worldwide fame for his speech “An Address to the Slaves of the United States,” delivered at the 1843 Colored People’s Convention in Buffalo, New York, Garnet became an important member of a generation of abolitionists who moved from moral persuasion toward direct political action. He preached at Liberty Street Church until 1848. The building burned down in 1941, and its site is presently a parking lot.
Robinson, MacPhee, and Greenwald created an inflatable 1:1 scale model of the church, which they installed at the church’s former location, which is currently used as parking. Video project animated the replica (“ghost”) of church, which served as a space for community events in Troy.
We wanted to catch up with Robinson, MacPhee, and Greenwald on this and future iterations of Spectres of Liberty, so we got them to agree to an interview.
Dale Hudson: Is Spectres of Liberty your first collaboration, or have you worked on other projects together?
Olivia Robinson, Josh MacPhee, and Dara Greenwald: We had worked on one other project before about the teachers strike in Oaxaca.
DH: How did you come to the subject of the local history of the abolition movement in Central New York State?
OR, JM, and DG: There were other artists in Troy who had done projects that revealed this repressed history. Also, the town is dominated by the identity of the “Home of Uncle Sam,” and this particular identity privileged a certain dominant history while silencing a history of resistance. We felt it was very important to continue to reveal the history of abolition.
DH: What were some of the issues that you debated during the process of conceiving a specific type of collaborative, hybrid-media practices to engage the public in this history?
OR, JM, and DG: All along the way, we consistently asked ourselves questions, tested out ideas, and responded to the history, each other, and the space as much as we could. Some of our questions were: What will the imagery be on that is projected? What parts of Henry Highland Garnet’s text to use? Should people be invited to enter the church or remain outside?
DH: Can you tell us a little about the public responses to “The Ghost of the Liberty Street Church”?
OR, JM, and DG: We were surprised by complaints that [the inflatable replica of the church] was up for only one evening. Many people asked: “Why is this only up for one night? You need to do this again. Why didn’t you bring school children here? Why don't you organize this with the Historical Society to make it an ongoing event for kids?” It was nice to be appreciated, but disappointing that the response was so often, “When are you going to do this again?” instead of “oh, this is actually kind of easy and cool, and I could take part in something like this.”
DH: How did you fund the project?
OR, JM, and DG: The entire project was self-funded and cost us $600. The physical structure was constructed out of plastic sheeting, packing tape, and sandbags, all things easily found at a hardware store.
DH: What else did people say?
OR, JM, and DG: The second [most frequent] comment was basically how the event was really great, and the church really beautiful, but is it possible to translate these representations of the past into the present? Do people seeing this church, which basically represents resistance to slavery and injustice, transition that acknowledgment of revolt into a call of action for today, against the war, or present day slavery, or other injustice? A very good question.
DH: What did the three of you learn from this experience?
OR, JM, and DG: Firstly, that some people have never thought about the possibility that individuals can make such a project WITHOUT having had huge support — we created this [project] with hundreds of volunteer hours and $600 — or that individual would want to. And secondly, that people want to have this history to be known and recognized.
DH: Did people know and recognize this history?
OR, JM, and DG: Two children watching us all day set up thought we were creating a haunted house. One woman, Ms. Jackson, who had actually attended the Liberty Street Church, was at the event for a number of hours. She said the Liberty Street Church looked nothing like our church. But Steve Tyson, who had done the research and work to get the historical marker placed on the [parking] lot, attended — and this was a surprise. When invited, he also spoke at the end of the evening.
DH: In the project’s poster, which can be downloaded from your web site, you use the expression “raising of the GHOST of the Liberty Street Church.” Could you tell us something about the ways that your project engages with notions of histories being “haunted” by repressed national trauma, such as slavery.
OR, JM, and DG: We like the way you put that. We used the idea of the ghost in several ways. First, the form itself — the inflatable church — had a ghostlike quality. Also, the ephemerality of the piece [since] we were not actually building a new church at that site. We were enacting a kind of haunting. The current repression that exists in our society today is evoked by our project name: Spectres of Liberty. We are looking at moments when people really fought for human freedom. The injustices of slavery haunt our collective history, but they also influence material conditions and the racism of today.
DH: The web site for this project contains great documentation. Is there any thought of including specifically online iterations of Spectres of Liberty?
OR, JM, and DG: In a way our online documentation is a specific iteration because we have mediated, edited, and re-presented the experience. We are interested in starting from a physical site of historical conflict and reanimating it for public discussion and contemplation. We then want to move the ideas outward from the site through the World Wide Web. In our next iteration, we are hoping to add lectures and discussions to our website that relate to current social conditions but resonate with ideas from past struggles.
DH: What are the future iterations of Spectres of Liberty?
OR, JM, and DG: We are doing a new project called “The Great Central Depot in the Open City” in May–June 2010 in Syracuse, New York. Please check our site [http://www.spectresofliberty.com/site/opencity] for details and ways you can get involved.