'Liberty Bell' tolls for sites where history is alive and kicking

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'Liberty Bell' tolls for sites where history is alive and kicking
In an undated photo from the artist, a "Liberty Bell" animation created for the Boston Tea Party site by Nancy Baker Cahill. Cahill uses augmented reality to explore the meaning of historical sites from the Rockaways in New York, to Selma, Ala. Nancy Baker Cahill; Via Art Production Fund via The New York Times.

by David Colman

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Little did she know.

Back in the spring of 2019, when Los Angeles artist and curator Nancy Baker Cahill entered into discussions with Art Production Fund about a public art project to be unveiled on July 4, 2020, her vision was still modest. She wanted to create a piece conceptualized around Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell — that quintessential American symbol of independence.

The piece, “Liberty Bell,” a special 3D animation of an enormous abstraction shaped like a swaying bell, was planned for Philadelphia. But Baker Cahill’s chosen medium is the ultralightweight, fast-advancing technology known as augmented reality, and she was used to being ambitious with it. In 2018, she helped curate “Defining Line,” a show of AR artworks along the Los Angeles River that tackled issues including the environment and immigration.

Last year she and Jesse Damiani organized an AR show in New Orleans, “Battlegrounds,” with locations chosen by 24 local artists for their works, from polluted waterways to Confederate statues to slave trade sites around the city. So before long, Cahill and Casey Fremont, the executive director of Art Production Fund, were wondering if this project could be produced in half a dozen different locales along the Eastern Seaboard. It wouldn’t be that much more work than doing one, right?

Fifteen months and much more work later, “Liberty Bell” is being unveiled Saturday, in six spots where American history is still being interpreted, its Constitution tested and its identities forged. From north to south, the pieces will be at the site of the Boston Tea Party revolt in Boston; Fort Tilden, the U.S. Army installation in Rockaway, Queens, New York; the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C.; Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. The fifth site, the “Rocky Steps” leading to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is a civic hub and pop-culture tourist attraction. The sixth location is a civil rights landmark, the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where the brutal “Bloody Sunday” attack on demonstrators took place in 1965 by police officers blocking their march to Montgomery, the state capital.

The timing of Baker Cahill’s project looks purpose-built for the summer of 2020, when public opinion has been radically rethinking what statues and sculptures merit monument status. Indeed, this month has seen a forceful movement to strip Selma’s bridge of its name — that of Edmund Pettus, a U.S. senator, Confederate officer in the Civil War and Ku Klux Klan grand dragon — and rename it for the longtime civil rights leader and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who was injured during the march.

Baker Cahill’s project is fortuitously timed in terms of public health, too. Although experiencing the different works does necessitate traveling to the locations in a car or public transportation, there’s no need to enter an art institution or touch a single shared surface. And since the viewing areas are on average 37,000 square feet, it’s a social distancing dream.

“Liberty Bell” is on view through July 2021, and is presented in partnership with 7G Foundation and Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy.

If anything, the project is itself a little elusive, which is often the nature with AR, a slippery medium that is still often confused with virtual reality, though they differ considerably. Augmented projects can be experienced by anyone with a smartphone or tablet; the technology overlays the artist’s creation atop a real, predetermined vista on your screen. (Virtual reality projects often require a costly headset to immerse the user in a full-fantasy environment that totally erases the viewer’s own “real” reality.)

In the case of “Liberty Bell,” a visitor arrives at one of the sites’ viewing areas, downloads Baker Cahill’s 4th Wall app — a free public art platform — and aims a phone camera at the monument. The bell animation appears, hovering and disintegrating like an uncanny visitation before the Washington Monument or above the Rocky Steps, while other sites feature a wave of confetti. But the greater and more urgent question dangling here is: When is a public artwork an embellishment and when is it an eyesore? Arguments about patriotism and freedom, rights and responsibilities as well as what public art should do, and represent, have been thrown into high relief in 2020.

“That was why I wanted to use the colors of the flag for this,” says Baker Cahill, 49. “I created the individual pieces so they were frayed but also woven together to suggest how independent and interdependent we are — and be open to the moments where they merge and work together.”

Baker Cahill’s choices resonate with two of the strongest aspects of augmented reality, said Christiane Paul, the curator of new media at the Whitney Museum of Art — what she referred to as “access and annotation.” (Or, one might say, convenience and commentary.)

“You can provide an experience anywhere in the world with AR, and it doesn’t need to be bound to an institution,” Paul said. “AR’s ability to create a kind of annotation of reality gives it a huge potential.”

Explaining further, Paul cited AR works by Tamiko Thiel at the 2011 Venice Biennale, in which the artist placed in and around the show ghostly golden silhouettes of artists who had been recently censored, and “Border Memorial: Frontera De Los Muertos,” a public art work by Manifest AR co-founder John Craig Freeman, which scattered augmented reality points throughout southern Arizona at sites where migrant workers have died. Each GPS point is brought to grim life by a 3D calaca, a traditional Mexican cartoon skeleton.

Baker Cahill said she admired these works and AR’s power to visually comment on an otherwise blank landscape. In her own work, though, she strives to keep her own commentary open to interpretation.

“It’s not anything didactic, “ she said. “It’s sort of, here is an artifact, and I’m offering it to people to experience and to collaborate in a way through this medium.”

This was a distinction that originally drew Fremont of the Art Production Fund to the artist.

“I first saw Nancy’s work in the Desert X show in 2019, and what struck me first was just how beautiful it was,” she said of the artist’s augmented reality works in the Coachella Valley, which provoked an uneasy sense of environmental disaster without leaving any physical impact. “And then what drew me in more was how ambiguous it was. It seemed partly like an explosion frozen in air, but because it was made up of these candy colors, you had the beautiful and horrible sides of gunpowder at once, and it was up to you to interpret how to see it.”

And, Fremont added, “it was important to us as a nonprofit, doing a project like this in an election year, to do something that didn’t come across as siding with one political party or the other.”

Clocking in at roughly 90 seconds apiece, the animations are woozy abstractions resembling great bells swinging and unraveling in the air. They appear to consist of red, white and blue pieces of ... something. But what? The hard-to-pin-down composition of these spectral images is at the core of the artist’s point. Do they read like a Fourth of July parade float covered with bunting? Or a crumbling tower covered in graffiti and surrounded by the colored hulls of spent fireworks? Are these apparitions decorating these sacred sites or defacing them?

The artist welcomes all the interpretations. “What I’m trying to do with this piece, is asking people to consider, “What is liberty?”

The unsettling visceral punch of the apparitions is underscored with a soundtrack of bells. They start out lulling and gentle, but soon take a darker, urgent turn. Let freedom ring. But for whom does the bell toll?

The New York City piece is an expanded edition, situated in four separate sites on and near the beach in Rockaway, Queens, near Fort Tilden. Two sites display the bell animation; two others offer a different vortex of red, white and blue, shaped more like a wave. It nods to the optimistic, surf-centered seaside culture that has sprung up in the last decade — but also to 2012, when much of the nearby area was destroyed by Superstorm Sandy, and to the specter of global warming itself.

Has the project made her reconsider or alter her feelings about the great American democracy experiment? The artist paused.

“I’m not personally ready to give up on it, but I always feel like we all should be open-eyed in the ways in which it’s broken,” she said, bringing it back to her starting point. “I think that’s why the Liberty Bell is just cracked — and not shattered.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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