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Earlier this week the Workingman Collective—-local artists Janis Goodman, Tom Ashcraft, and Peter Winant—-installed 30 bird habitats on 14th Street NW between P and U Streets. The project, titled Site, Cite, Sight, was commissioned by WPA/Corcoran as part of SiteProjects DC, which places a variety of art projects onto that stretch of 14th. You can see the collective’s members in that picture on the right. What’s with the orange jumpsuits? It’s about “interaction with the community,” says Goodman. “When we’re out there in our coveralls, people can come to us and ask us what we’re doing.” Adds Winant: “We’re recognized as doing something that’s an art piece, rather than graffiti artists.”
Site, Cite, Sight, Ashcraft says, is meant to draw city dwellers’ attention to the distinctions between “the environment and the built environment”: the habitats are designed for the Eastern Bluebird, the Black-capped Chickadee, and the Downy Woodpecker, three of the hardest-hit species from the West Nile Virus. (Specific habitat designs are “mainly a matter of the size of the openings,” says Goodman.) The Workingman Collective specializes in work that deals in this sort of urban-natural intersection. In April 2006 the group went to Butte, Mont., to draw a five-mile chalk line that “represents commitment, delineates territory and marks what’s cut and what’s kept.” Earlier this year Ashcraft and Winant headed to the campus of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., to install Pine, a wooden ping-pong table intended in part to revitalize a little-used campus quad.
The intersection between city and nature has proven to be less than seamless in the case of Site, Cite, Sight. To draw viewers’ eyes upward to the habitats, the collective nailed plaques (right) to the trees on 14th Street showing a pair of binoculars. But soon after they’d finished, some of the plaques had disappeared. Goodman later learned, through an observer at 14th and U noticed a person claiming to be an employee of the District pulling down plaques. The District employee claimed that the nails were harming the trees.
Hogwash, says Ashcraft. He says the collective spoke with staff at the U.S. National Arboretum and the National Zoo while researching the project, and they were advised that nails were the least invasive method. “When we were doing this we were really concerned about what we were doing,” he says. “We didn’t want to do things half-assed, so we talked to authorities.”
Goodman says that as of Wednesday morning nine plaques had disappeared. (Ironically enough, she says, the allegedly damaging nails were still left in the trees.) The collective will be back on 14th Street on Friday afternoon replacing the plaques (“We’re ordering 20 because, who knows?” says Goodman.) They’ll likely take the plaques down themselves after SiteProjects DC wraps up on July 28, but they’re hoping to keep the habitats up permanently.
“This is part of what happens when you put something out in the public,” says Ashcraft. “You don’t know how it’s going to go.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery