Poets, I learned in September, aren’t the best paddlers.
In the misty dusk at the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, just as the sun sunk low enough to render the marsh grass indistinguishable from the sky, poet Leeya Mehta and her canoe-mate were stuck, oar over vessel, the ends of their boat wedged against both banks of the narrow waterway like a car making a three-point turn in a one-way drive-thru lane.
Our motley caravan of a dozen mariners was touring the Anacostia River for artist Mia Feuer’s Flooded Lecture Series, a project of D.C.’s 5×5 public art festival. Led by Lee Cain, recreation director of the nonprofit Anacostia Watershed Society, we learned the polluted history of the river—and more recent efforts to clean it up—as we paddled upstream. Some of us were dressed for a sweaty, muddy canoe trip (cargo shorts, sandals), others for an art opening (tweed fedoras, chambray).
Once she dislodged her vessel from the grass, Mehta and the rest of us disembarked at the shadowy gardens. Cain’s young daughter, along for the ride, called it a “fairyland,” and she wasn’t too far off: Teardrop-shaped leaves the size of beach balls sprung up on either side of a narrow path. Guided by red glowsticks, we followed Mehta to a clearing, where she read one poem composed on the riverbanks we’d just passed and another on the destruction wrought by U.S. atomic bombs in Japan.
It was a rare right- and left-brain experience, a marrying of nature, politics, and art that was both sincere and subtle. There were moments of secluded calm, floating through the trees in silence broken only by what sounded like the splash of a beaver’s tail, and moments of community, as we stood in a circle in the dark and discussed the social and racial implications of D.C.’s stereotypes of the Anacostia.
Still, it wasn’t all Feuer wanted—at least, not at first. When curator Stephanie Sherman—whose five picks for 5×5 each addressed the future impact of federal policies on D.C. communities—presented her initial proposal to the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities last year, she included Feuer’s plans to build a life-sized, solar-powered model of a gas station, partially submerged in the river. A bleak envisioning of rising sea levels and a post-icecap world, it was to be an in-your-face commentary on climate change in line with Feuer’s previous large-scale sculptural work at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Transformer, and other local galleries.
But “Antediluvian,” as the piece would have been called, was not to be. In July, Feuer’s plans were sunk by an informal alliance of conservationists, rowers, NIMBYs, and government agencies. There were petitions, news reports, angry phone calls, and decisions made behind closed doors.
And then, two months later, in a different neighborhood, with a different artist and a different installation, different petitions and different decisions, it all happened again.
For even the most seasoned artists and commissioners, public art is a snarled knot of politics, property, aesthetics, and identity that isn’t easily smoothed. What makes it exciting and important is exactly what makes it such a conundrum: Because it’s not in the single-purpose, hushed halls of a gallery or museum with doors that open and close, public art is accessible—more than that, it’s unavoidable. It’s there at inconvenient times and when you need it most, in places both banal and sacred. It inserts itself into the rhythm and bloodflow of the communities it touches. It demands attention and makes viewers’ consent irrelevant. Most would agree it’s important, or at least fairly desirable, at least in theory.
“Public art is a critique of what’s going on around us that inspires a way of thinking through issues that you can’t do with dialogue alone,” says Sherman. “There’s something in front of you that you have to confront. It’s also about action—public art is an action that you put out there, and people act in response.”
There’s risk in that response, which is wonderfully impossible to predict or control. The arts commission has funded public art for decades—since 1986, the commission has been required to put forth an annual public arts plan. Still, much of it has been of the one-off, community-vetted variety: benign murals, bronze sculptures, and likenesses of big-name figures in local history. The biennial 5×5 Project, which launched in 2012, is different. Five curators each choose five artists (hence “five by five”) who come to D.C. from other cities and, in some cases, continents, to create installations and performances that are ambitious and temporary, with a lifespan of three months, tops.
“5×5 goes back to the simple objectives: to activate, showcase, and develop experimental approaches that really aren’t possible on a regular public art commission,” says Lionell Thomas, executive director of the arts commission. “That’s why they’re temporary.”
D.C.’s public art scene has matured enough to be able to respond and contribute to national and international trends in contemporary art, Thomas says. A festival that doesn’t demand the rigorous community approval process of permanent grant-funded public work (which often means months of flyering, forums, and approval panels) is a fitting arena for novel, boundary-pushing approaches to public art.
“5×5 is a great leap forward, and I applaud the commission for taking it on,” says Lisa Gold, executive director of Washington Project for the Arts. “It’s a far cry from the plop art we were used to seeing.”
Tone-deaf, sore-thumb plop art garners criticism from those who believe art should speak directly to its surroundings, not be levered into any space where some big, abstract sculpture could fit. But the decidedly site-specific works of 5×5 have, instead, drawn complaints about the way that conversation happens and what the art has to say. In a perfect world, those critiques and debates would be welcomed—public artworks are ace entry points for discussions about larger issues both inside and outside the art world, and a piece that’s ignored or placidly accepted isn’t doing its job.
The installation that caused the most public stir during this year’s 5×5 exhibition wasn’t Feuer’s, and the objections it drew probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise. “The New Migration” was a collection of debris strewn across three vacant storefront windows at the intersection of Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. There were old tires, broken mirrors, dried-up tree branches, and splintered wooden beams. It didn’t exactly look like a dumpsite, but it wasn’t a pretty mural of happy children holding hands, either.
It was also, of course, highly conceptual, a statement about the displacement of Northern, urban blacks through gentrification. In a modern take on the work of Jacob Lawrence—whose paintings of scenes from the Great Migration, when millions of African-Americans fled the rural Jim Crow South, hang at the Phillips Collection—New York–based black artist Abigail DeVille gathered garbage and heirlooms on a road trip from D.C. to Jacksonville, Fla., along the path of the Seaboard Air Line Railway, a major Great Migration route. Less than a century later, the route’s population flow has reversed, DeVille’s artist statement said, and urban development is forcing blacks back out of the cities and regions their forebears so recently made home.
But despite the well-contextualized narrative so apt for the neighborhood, the project was, to the passersby who didn’t read the small sign by the curb, a pile of trash—not everyone’s idea of point-blank art, to say nothing of a valid use of public funding. (Each curator receives a $100,000 grant with which to pay themselves and five artists at their discretion.) So residents spoke up: They called 311 to report dumping on the property, bombarded the neighborhood email list, and complained to Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry, who called the installation “tasteless” and “despicable.”
Exactly a month after it was installed (and a month before it was slated to come down), it was gone.
The neighborhood and the river of Anacostia share a few qualities in common (a complicated reputation, a proud, dedicated community of supporters, and recent efforts to literally and figuratively “clean up”) that make them fraught locales for statement-making public art projects. But it was no accident that “The New Migration” was sited in the former, and it was no coincidence that the other scuttled 5×5 project, Feuer’s “Antediluvian,” was set to rise in the latter.
Months before DeVille came to Anacostia to install her 5×5 artwork in August, she’d combed the city for the site that best fit her narrative. The curator who’d tapped DeVille for the project, San Francisco’s Justine Topfer, took her along on an arts commission–led tour of D.C. when Topfer made the nine-person shortlist of curator applicants.
“By the end of the day, [Anacostia] was the place that resonated with me instantly; I felt there was a real community, real people there,” DeVille told Washington City Paper in early September.
Of course, there are “real people” in all of the District’s neighborhoods, but DeVille was shrewd to see the area’s complex history and feel, in a retail strip that’s quickly becoming a cross-river destination with a trendy co-working space and a massive year-old arts complex, the first breaths of a coming heave of gentrification, along with rent hikes that could lead to displacement. Topfer agreed, including DeVille’s project in her original 5×5 proposal. “The concept itself resonated very well as something that would be relevant to the [Anacostia] community,” says Thomas.
But in probing the organs of change in a neighborhood with a history of government and development neglect, DeVille hit an adjacent nerve: local optics. “Why do they want to make Ward 8 look like a more poor-ass neighborhood?” one resident asked Greta Fuller, the area’s advisory neighborhood commissioner. “They are supposed to be fixing Anacostia, and they put this here?” echoed neighbor Teresa Smart.
The arts commission failed to predict the capacity of “The New Migration” to stoke neighborhood upheaval. It wasn’t until after complaints reached 5×5 administrators’ ears that arts commissioner Alma Gates, who represents Ward 3 on the commission, declared that the placement of “The New Migration” ignored community members’ efforts to better their surroundings and its reputation. (Commissioners hold volunteer advisory positions and have little input on specific projects.) “The plight of [Anacostia residents] is difficult—they don’t need something substituting for art there as a reminder that the climb ahead of them is very steep,” she wrote in a Sept. 11 email to the commission’s legislative and community affairs director, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. She continued in an email to her fellow commissioners on Sept. 13: “I’m not sure the outcome fulfilled [DeVille’s] vision. [The installation] isn’t beautiful; and, for some residents it appears to be a representation of the struggle they confront daily.”
Does art need to be beautiful (a vague, subjective aesthetic standard as it is) to be worthwhile? If a community has a below-average median income and an above-average crime rate, if it’s considered “developing” rather than “developed,” can it only handle easy-to-stomach, uplifting sermons-as-art? The artworks Gates holds up as examples of Ward 8–appropriate installations—Sheila Crider’s colorful aluminum “way-finding” sculptures at St. Elizabeths and Wilfredo Valladares’ copper and stained-glass canoe atop a pedestal (which itself drew neighborhood controversy over its original labeling as a totem pole)—could be called beautiful, depending on your definition of the term, but they don’t lend themselves to particularly challenging interpretations. Valladares took his motif from the Anacostia River because, he told City Paper last year, he wanted to make something that would inspire people in the neighborhood.
When choosing a site for public art or devising an artistic concept for a site, it’s vitally important to take into account the area’s history, class politics, and racial dynamics. But suggesting, as Gates does, that the psyches of members of marginalized communities are so fragile that they can’t handle an artistic take on their surroundings is patronizing at best. The point of public art, if there is one, is not to mollify—it’s to anger, to shake off complacence. It’s to meet people where they are and represent them as they are as much as it is to put forth an aspirational ideal.
The first iteration of 5×5 put one installation in Anacostia and had four mobile pieces that visited the neighborhood. This year, five projects were sited east of the river, three in Anacostia alone. Anacostia has, in recent years, been a ripe location for temporary “activations” of un- or underused space: LUMEN8Anacostia, one of the city’s efforts to spur economic development through arts programming, granted vacant space in the neighborhood for three-month art exhibitions in 2012 and 2013. LUMEN8, canceled this year due to lack of funding, has been largely successful at both supporting artists east of the river and attracting outsiders who need an excuse to visit. This Anacostia-as-canvas framing has some problematic underpinnings that peg the neighborhood as a blank slate in need of others’ artwork, money, and development. But it’s also brought art that’s sensitive to its surroundings, that speaks directly to Anacostia residents and their lives.
Take one of the more controversial projects from the first 5×5 festival, an Anacostia-sited billboard by Ben Wolf and Heidi Tullmann, subcontractors under 5×5 artist Monica Canilao. As part of her proposal, Canilao invited other artists to erect their own projects in and around hers. “Pluck da Folice,” Wolf and Tullmann’s billboard read, a response to Trayvon Martin’s then-recent killing and, Wolf says, “unrest in the neighborhood about these developers moving in and taking over…that didn’t feel good to people who’d been there for multiple generations.” While the artists painted the sign on the ground, 5×5 administrators came to see their work and didn’t register any complaints. The sign went up on the roof of a former police evidence warehouse (an approved venue for 5×5, LUMEN8, and Cherry Blast) hours before a candlelight vigil for Martin. Despite an almost uniformly positive response from Anacostia residents, Wolf says 5×5 administrators threatened to destroy Canilao’s entire exhibition if he and Tullmann didn’t remove the billboard the next day. (A 5×5 spokesperson says the arts commission deemed it “inappropriate” after community complaints.)
So naturally, some Anacostia residents took issue with the characterization of the neighborhood as one of uncultured killjoys in discussions of “The New Migration.” In a Sept. 12 email to Thomas, Debra Paschall, a 47-year resident of Southeast D.C., said she was grateful for the new jazz nights and poetry slams at the Anacostia Arts Center. “It’s nice to attend events in your own community,” she wrote. Living in a growing arts district, she went on, means taking the bad with the good: “So what if they think [the installation’s] UGLY!!! I fully understand the intent is to stimulate conversation regarding our history…If we are to expand our minds and embrace art, we can’t pick and chose [sic] what it means to others…Allow the residents of SE to expand their horizons, grow and embrace Art in all of its forms. Change has come to SE and it feels good.”
In its handling of “The New Migration” and “Antediluvian”, the arts commission botched its balancing act as a government agency tasked with serving the public good and commissioning projects that don’t lend themselves to quantifiable outcomes or cost-benefit analyses. The commission threw its efforts behind DeVille and Feuer’s pieces, but only until public support began to wobble.
From a distance, the kerfuffle over “The New Migration” verges on ironic: DeVille’s critiques of gentrification wouldn’t sound out of character uttered by some of the same Anacostia residents who fought her work.
The same was true for Feuer’s project—it was a victim of concerns over neighborhood optics coming from people who could have been her allies. Feuer has done her homework on the oil industry; in preparation for her solo show at the Corcoran last year, she made two trips to Canada’s Athabasca tar sands, where she witnessed the horrors wrought on the environment by bitumen extraction, and spent three weeks in the Arctic Circle. The idea for “Antediluvian” sprung from her own dependence on oil as a commuter, driving three hours round-trip daily from her studio in Northeast D.C. to George Mason University, where she was teaching. “It was right around the time the West Antarctic Ice Sheet broke off. I was reading about global sea levels rising and D.C. being a vulnerable city,” she says. “I was driving over the 14th Street Bridge, seeing the monuments, the Pentagon, and I thought, what if I looked out the side of my car and saw a gas station in the water?”
“Antediluvian” was planned as a jarring physical representation of a very real impending future, a statement on a global issue that had only a tangential relationship to the Anacostia River itself, if any. (Feuer chose the Kingman Lake site in the river because the sculpture needed a body of water visible from cars on bridges, and the Potomac, controlled by the National Park Service, would have been a clusterfuck to use.) But when river conservationists saw renderings of the proposed project in a June 13 CityLab article by City Paper contributor Kriston Capps, they saw it as an insult to the river, whose reputation for inedible fish and bobbing bottles is just starting to fade.
United for a Healthy Anacostia River, a coalition of environmental and neighborhood organizations, sent a letter to Thomas in mid-July, signed by political candidates and recreational rowers alike, requesting that he veto the project. The letter was skeptical of residents’ capacity for appreciating symbolism, suggesting that the imagery would negate years’ worth of convincing people not to dispose of gas or oil in the Anacostia. “There’s a really low level of public expectation in D.C.,” Sherman says. “That people would think a gas station would encourage people to actually pour gas in the river shows a misunderstanding of art as a whole.”
For the commission, the greater concern was that the project might disturb a study by the District Department of the Environment to measure toxins in the riverbed in order to sue contaminators. Feuer had been working for the better part of a year on plans for the sculpture to sit on the bottom of the river, but after she got word of the study, she created a new design that would float on the surface, anchored by cables to the banks.
Why didn’t that study come to light until a month and a half before the installation was set to be complete? Feuer’s project was one of Sherman’s original proposals when she applied to be a 5×5 curator in 2013, and Thomas says the commission had reservations about the engineering aspects from the start. But Feuer says her contacts at the commission never expressed those concerns to her—that even when she asked early this year if she needed a permit, the commission told her that since it was temporary, she shouldn’t worry about legality. (The proposed site was on property controlled by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, 5×5 Producer Deirdre Ehlen MacWilliams wrote in a June 25 email, and they didn’t need a public space permit on DMPED land.) If anyone had any problems with it after the install, well, it’d only be there for two or three months.
It wasn’t until Anacostia Riverkeeper Mike Bolinder and other advocates complained that the arts commission started talking in legal terms. “All of a sudden, we need to get permits and check in with all these members of the community, and talking to the Army Corps of Engineers and DDOE,” Feuer says. “I’m not sure, but I don’t think any of the other artists were running around meeting with the Army Corps of Engineers.”
Feuer got the Army Corps to agree to expedite design reviews, but that still wasn’t enough for the commission. Tonya Jordan, the commission’s public art program manager, told Sherman by email that concerns over unstable shorelines and the risk involved in submitting plans to engineer review so late would prevent the commission from backing Feuer’s project. She’d have to come up with a new idea.
By then, Feuer and Sherman had secured a donation of solar panel inverters, batteries, and a solar engineer’s support from Kenergy Solar; a free wind turbine from an Italian wind company, WindKinetic; and lighting donations from LEDtronics. A software developer in Canada was working on an app that would let people see how much wind and solar power was being generated by the gas station. Feuer had raised $10,000 on Indiegogo. And then it was over.
But Feuer, at least, hadn’t installed the piece before the commission backed away from it. DeVille wasn’t so lucky. Once the objections to “The New Migration” started, they didn’t stop. Some vandalized the sign erected to explain the project. “This building was a 12-step program!! How is this helping us? We were evicted for THIS?? Give me a Fu_king Break!!” wrote one detractor.
The commission wasn’t just fielding concerns from residents, either. “Given the negative feedback in the community and on social media, the removal is probably best,” Sheila Bunn, Vince Gray’s deputy chief of staff, wrote in a Sept. 11 email to the commission. Arts commissioner Marvin Bowser (brother of Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser) pressured commission chair Judith Terra to remove it in a Sept. 19 email to the other commissioners and Barry’s office. “I am going on record stating that your lack of leadership in addressing concerns brought forward by the Commission is appalling,” he wrote. “It’s just hard to fathom that a responsible city agency charged to promoting the city’s cultural economy could possibly conclude that New Migrations [sic] dropped in the middle of the fledgling Good Hope Road/MLK Ave Arts District is a positive, affirming action, or worth the taxpayer investment.”
There were some people in the city government, Thomas believes, who were scared of the political fallout a controversy like this could leave behind: “We like to think that the arts rise above politics, but that would not be an accurate statement.”
When complaints about art roll in, says Feuer, “the 5×5 organizers should be saying, ‘This is great. This is when it gets fun. This is when it starts getting good. This is how public art should function.’ …If people with real vision were behind 5×5, they’d be excited about getting a reaction to the piece and getting people talking about it. They should be saying, ‘This is our moment to have a really awesome conversation about what the piece is about.’ Not to shut it down. That is disgusting.”
Conversations about public art, uncomfortable and treacherous though they may be, can be constructive. By any measure, “The New Migration,” has been an enormously effective changemaker even now that it’s been removed—maybe more so than if it had stayed. The storefronts that hosted the installation are owned by D.C.’s Department of Housing and Community Development, and they’re falling apart. According to an email she sent the arts commission on Aug. 21, DeVille had to wear a respirator mask while erecting her piece because of the “intense mold” in the space, and photos passed around on Twitter revealed an apparent rat infestation.
The debate over DeVille’s work threw other neighborhood murmurs of discontent into stark relief. Turns out the city owns a lot of vacant properties in Anacostia, which frustrates residents, who’d rather see businesses or community services than burned-out buildings. In late September, a large canvas appeared on one of the storefront windows of “The New Migration” and soon became a makeshift message board. “Why is DHCD hoarding properties not developing them??” “Stop lying to us DHCD!”
Their complaints were heard. On Sept. 11, Barry’s chief of staff, Charles Lindsay, sent an email under Barry’s name to DHCD director Michael Kelly asking for an RFP to develop those Good Hope Road properties, and suggested short-term solutions like repainting the facade or—wait for it—mounting a mural.
Because of public art’s direct political and social implications, the commission’s seeming disregard for site-specificity is particularly unsettling. Each time controversy struck during this year’s 5×5, the commission’s first instinct was to look for a new location. Both DeVille and Feuer resisted.
“[The arts commission] kept telling me to install [“Antediluvian”] on land,” says Feuer. “I said, ‘Please do not tell me that again. It’s infuriating. It’s insulting. You clearly don’t understand the work if that’s what you’re telling me to do.’”
“Site-specific doesn’t just mean dynamics of a space, but thinking about place and the people who live there and the issues facing them,” says Sherman. “The New Migration” was intended for Anacostia; steeped in African-American tradition and heralding the creeping tentacles of hungry developers, the installation would have been neutered of its meaning in a wealthier neighborhood past the tipping point of gentrification, where some detractors suggested it go.
On Sept. 11, DeVille sent a letter to Barry attempting to explain her work. “The materials that are being misinterpreted are not meant to insult the neighborhood, but are part of a long tradition of making with what is readily available…There are tires that have been whitewashed and refurbished as planters. Historically these tires can be found in the yards of [African-Americans] all over the south. The tires are considered ‘God’s wheels.’ It is symbolic of the rising and setting of the sun, the cyclical nature of time and the continual progression of change.” She went on to clarify the significance of the mirrors, the wood, and the car seats.
That didn’t do much good. On Sept. 12, the commission announced that the installation would come down prematurely. The community members of Anacostia had been unintentionally offended, and “as good stewards of the public trust,” the statement read, the commission would heed their requests for removal.
But pulling support from under an artist’s work in a hasty bid to quiet complaints compromises public trust—and after one week and more feedback from Anacostia residents and regional artists who supported the installation, the commission reversed its decision and promised to leave it up until its initial end date, Nov. 4.
Barry (who declined, through aides, to be interviewed for this story) wouldn’t let up, though. On Sept. 29, he enlisted the fire department to inspect “The New Migration”; they declared it a hazard and ordered it removed. The commission complied.
That the commission could so quickly turn its back on a piece of art, and that an elected official would throw his weight around with the fire department until it’s removed, is “chilling,” says Gold. “It sends a message that if you do something challenging, you may not get public support or funding. It’s important for the commission to tell artists that they’ll support artists based on merit and artistic integrity, not based on political popularity.”
In art as in politics, tight-knit communities distrust newcomers. Detractors of “The New Migration” took note of DeVille and Topfer’s far-flung hometowns: On the vandalized sign outside the installation, next to DeVille’s name, someone wrote in red ink, “Lives where? Of NYCity.” Who is this privileged, heedless outsider, in other words, who’s exchanging D.C.’s limited tax revenue for the shit we could have hauled off any abandoned lot?
There were only three D.C-based artists in this year’s 5×5—Marley Dawson, photographer Larry Cook, and Michael Platt (plus Feuer, who lived here for five years, and Stan Squirewell, who has deep D.C. roots)—and one local curator, the visionary A.M. Weaver. DeVille thinks a deeper local focus might be key to building community support. “I’m coming from outside, the curator comes from outside—I’m not privy to conversations and politics that are happening in that space already,” she says. “I’m responding to trips I took and being in Anacostia. I did research, but you can’t possibly know as an outsider what conversations are already happening there. I should have been pointed in the direction of people I should talk to.”
Local artists, of course, aren’t immune to community reproach. When Lisa Marie Thalhammer, a painter who’s lived at Bloomingdale’s 52 O Street Studios since 2005, erected her “Boxer Girl” mural on a private residence on W Street NW in 2009, she spent weeks fielding protests. Most came from a neighbor who thought the street art–style mural, which depicts a woman in boxing gloves taking a fighting stance in front of rainbow-hued stars and stripes, looked too much like graffiti. “It really only takes one person to make a controversy,” Thalhammer says.
Commenters on neighborhood blogs said “Boxer Girl” made the block look “ghetto”; others thought the bright colors might be a “lesbian pride thing.” Thalhammer explained that it was meant to be an empowering response to the verbal abuse young women take on the street in the neighborhood—which was her neighborhood, too. She’d used all the colors of the rainbow because she’d gotten her first arts commission grant, to paint the piece, and finally had enough money to buy every kind of paint she wanted to use, “like a kid in a candy store.”
“I interpreted their aversion to my rainbow colors as homophobia,” Thalhammer says. “That made me so angry, it inspired me to use those colors in almost all of my work since then.” Like “The New Migration,” “Boxer Girl” was funded with an arts commission grant. Unlike “The New Migration,” “Boxer Girl” got the full backing of the arts commission, which sent representatives to accompany Thalhammer to a come-to-Jesus meeting at the offended neighbor’s house. Still, after the debate over “Boxer Girl,” Thalhammer took a long break from public art. “It takes a lot of energy to deal with that kind of public controversy,” she says.
As long as there are personal and political struggles, people will fight over the way those struggles are represented. But 5×5 administrators should have taken the lead on mediating conversations between artists and neighbors, rather than slinking off to do whatever the loudest voice was demanding at the moment.
Both DeVille and arts commission heads maintain that Anacostia residents who balked while walking by “The New Migration” were willing—even proud—to understand the installation’s message once they talked with DeVille or a 5×5 representative stationed there. Some turned right back around to take a selfie with the piece. “I think it’s one of those pieces where, if you have an opportunity to engage the community member and dialogue, people become much more open to suspending whatever their judgment is of it…even if, aesthetically, it’s not appealing to them,” says Jordan. Wrote DeVille, in her letter to Barry: “In the month I lived in Anacostia, I had many conversations with cross-generational groups of people. In all the conversations there were beautiful exchanges. Now that the work has no one there to explain it can be seen as an intruding force and misinterpreted.”
The commission did make some attempts at dialogue. On Sept. 6, to celebrate the launch of “The New Migration,” a processional of costumed musicians and dancers wound from the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site to the Anacostia Arts Center, on the installation’s block, where there was a free party and a soul-food meal. And after getting word of the first clamors of disapproval in the neighborhood, the commission added signs with a more thorough explanation of the work to the storefront windows where “The New Migration” was installed. DeVille was scheduled to come back to D.C. from New York to host a community forum about the piece during the first weekend of October, but by then, the fire department had already ordered its removal.
“I wasn’t being connected to actual community members—the people who were so vocal after it was over, there were no conversations before that. That should have been done in the months leading up. There should have been more community participation,” says DeVille. “I didn’t know there were problems in Anacostia before [about the “Pluck da Folice” sign], didn’t know about [Feuer’s] gas station. But the thing that was disappointing to me was I was never able to come and engage with the community and have a conversation.”
The commission had been slow to deal with Feuer’s piece, too. Officials only seemed to raise the logistical concerns that tanked “Antediluvian” once river advocates had come out against its aesthetics and message. Anyone who saw Feuer’s initial rendering could have guessed that it would be a complicated project to engineer and install. So why didn’t the commission look into it earlier?
Surely, the logistical problems are a thin excuse that masks the discomfiting truth of this year’s 5×5 kerfuffles: Rather than standing behind the works its curators commissioned and welcoming criticism that could lead to elevated discussions of social issues and a greater public willingness to engage with contemporary art, the commission bent far too easily, even as the comparable endgames of the artists and their detractors would have made for a fascinating, meaningful exchange about the politics of representation. More than a missed opportunity for arts education, it’s a statement about the commission’s priorities: The agency decided to tamp down public conflict at the expense of the artists it was supposed to support.
In an art exhibition within the confines of a gallery space or private showing, broad public approval isn’t usually the benchmark for success—it might, in fact, suggest that the art is too safe. But public art leans democratic. When asked in a City Paper/Kojo Nnamdi Show poll how much input the public should have on public art, 36 percent of respondents—a plurality—opined that residents of a given neighborhood should be able to outright veto any proposed public art that comes their way. In wards 7 and 8 (“The New Migration” sat on the border between the two) that plurality was a majority: 59 and 50 percent, respectively.
What if that wish came true? If residents, a fraction of whom follow the local art scene and an even smaller minority of whom keep up on contemporary art trends, straight-up voted on the public art that came to D.C., there would be no fierce, fighting “Boxer Girl,” no mural challenging the Washington football team’s name, no spinning raft in the shape of the Pentagon broadcasting an Abbie Hoffman speech. There would be no 5×5.
There would be insipid, earnest decorations that would satisfy the least common denominator of aesthetic appeal, which would destroy public art’s raison d’être—to make a statement that people can’t ignore, to bring complex issues to the public realm in new and unexpected ways that force passersby to confront them from a personal dimension. “Public art should not be metal squiggles outside of some stupid corporate nightmare,” says Feuer. In other words, the things that would ostensibly make everyone happy would challenge nobody. But hey, they’d be pretty!
On Oct. 6, a bright, breezy Monday, DHCD workers passed the pieces of “The New Migration” from the Good Hope Road storefronts to a truck bound for a city dump. The musty tires and shredded plastic bags DeVille had collected on her road trip, the mirrors she’d installed in the shape of a diamond, symbolic of the diamond stars on Southern homes and churches, all found their way to the waste station, where they were sorted for trash and recycling. DeVille sent her father to save some of the materials from certain impounding: solar lamps, tiles, a blue harp, a cape she’d made for the Sept. 6 processional. “It was a migration; the piece moved on,” says DeVille. “It will become something else in a new form. There are thousands of kinds of migrations.”
Now the storefronts at Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue look as hollow and abandoned as they did this summer, before DeVille retraced the Great Migration and filled the empty spaces with her tributes and reimaginings of African-American history. Then, at least, they held the promise of gatherings and stories and conversations to come. Today, they hold nothing.