Forum examines role of public art hype over ‘Pixels’ revisited

Guest speakers discussed controversial public art. (Abby Hocking / Photo Assistant)

By Lauren Piccarelli
Correspondent

Public art has been a point of contention at the College.

This was the topic of discussion at the public art panel discussion in the Mildred and Ernest E. Mayo Concert Hall on Tuesday, Nov. 9 featuring guest speakers Kim Babon, assistant sociology professor at Elon University and Sara Reisman, director of Percent for Art at the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

To begin the night, Sarah Cunningham, director of the College Art Gallery, took center stage, offering a small prelude to the theme of the night — controversial public art.

“One year ago this week our public art pieces were unveiled,” Cunningham said, referring to artist Willie Cole’s “Pixels” found on the campus lawns outside the Arts and Interactive Multimedia Building.

Babon charted the degree of controversy of various structures that she studied across the United States in a table. She based her evaluations on four factors — visual access, physical access, centrality and symbolic saturation. Cole’s “Pixels” scored a 17 out of 18, according to Babon’s chart, rating as a highly controversial piece of art.

“Brightly colored sparkly orbs do not seems to fit into the environment around it and as a result, we have a good recipe for controversy,” Babon said.

Cunningham explained that days after the installation of “Pixels,” The Signal published articles that demonstrated just how quickly a public controversy can start. The first article was “Spherical sculptures modernize campus” and the second which was released just the following day was titled, “Pixels Vandalized.”

“This is an issue that is central to the development of your campus … how the physical context around us shapes very significantly the ways we think about art, the ways we evaluate it, and the ways we may or may not act out against it,” Cunningham said.

Babon said she is interested in what it is about public art that sparks controversy. She began her research by conducting interviews with people who lived in cities where major sculptures were located.

“People have ideas of how to use a particular space and if art does not meet those standards it may cause a negative reaction … there are certain qualities of art and certain qualities of space that when mixed together there is an explosion,” Babon said.

Reisman explained the genesis of the sculpture’s purchase in a short presentation.

“There is the ‘Percent for Art Law’ which is a way of commissioning permanent public art within local spaces,” Reisman said.

Thus, 1 percent approximately $100,000 of the budget for the new buildings constructed on campus was spent on the “Pixel” installation.

Though many students complained about the price of the artwork, others seemed to accept Cole’s work as part of their campus’s identity.

“After learning that Cole designed the “Pixels” specifically for (the College) it made me appreciate his work even more,” said freshman art education major Natalie Huber.

“The Pixels are apart of Cole’s vision (for the College.) We should embrace this fact, not argue it.”