Re:Construction is a public art program produced by the Downtown Alliance. This initiative channels the energy of Lower Manhattan’s rebuilding process by recasting construction sites as canvases for innovative public art and architecture. Each project uses standard construction barriers to embrace the ongoing nature of Lower Manhattan’s redevelopment with original and whimsical design. The Downtown Alliance works closely with public and private developers to produce each installation.

The “original and whimsical” designs that Re:Construction seeks to decorate downtown sites of construction with are good examples of public art that helps to conceal the social organization and ideological content of the (mostly private) spaces they surround.   One of the descriptions professes that a particular work, “serves as a reminder to all hard-working New Yorkers to always leave some time for play, but also of the infinite and unpredictable chances that the city offers.”  While there is always something to be said for the necessity of play, is it accurate that the city offers an “infinite and unpredictable chances” to all of its citizens?

Rosalyn Deutsche points out in her essay “Uneven Development: Public Art in New York City,” that the public art of the 1970s and 1980s typically “reject notions of public art as ‘decoration,’ because, as they contend, they are not merely placing objects in urban spaces but creating the spaces themselves.”  Today we have a public art that, as then, has followed developments within the art world.  Whereas public art once felt itself to be an emboldened and essential part of “new initiatives within cities,” there has been a contemporary retreat, tail-ending initiatives already in place to simply provide an appealing “skin” on construction projects underway.  What today’s public art accomplices share in common with the work Deutsche critiqued is a obliviousness to the politics of the city, its history of class antagonisms, and no sense that displaced communities once existed in spaces designated for “revitalization.”

The art of Re:Construction intends to decontextualize, transporting viewers outside the city to fantastical or more “natural” environments, playing off rows of printed ivy “contrast[ing] with a seemingly endless expanse of concrete and wire,” or at its most utopian, providing a view as if, “construction and surrounding architecture were not there.”  Instead of art that engages the site of the Department of Environmental Protection’s Water Tunnel #3 shaft at Grand and Lafayette streets – perhaps posing questions of efficacy or stressing the importance of publicly maintained utilities in some elegant way, there are dogs of various colors.  Rather than interrogate whether or not downtown Manhattan needs another “80 stories of luxury condominiums, a restaurant, and a Four Seasons hotel,” or why and for how long “new construction at 99 Church Street is currently on hold,” there is a cold and glib stab at urban universalism that has all the charm of a circuit board.  Where an earlier generation of public artists enabled processes that led to the physical displacement of working class communities, today’s crop aims for the psychic displacement of scattered urbanites.

Caitlin Hurd’s Flying Animals is inspired by suburban and rural landscapes and domesticity to symbolically weigh the promises of happiness and predictability against everyday’s complicated realities.  The mural aims to create a contrast between the hectic city and the tranquility of rural life.

(All images in this post courtesy of me!)