class report

Public School Consults the Law (10/31/17)

Part 1: Scores, Format, and a Sonic Digression

In the New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Halloween afternoon, we ate lunch and continued our discussion about what our final public interventions will look like.

Negotiating this is complicated by structural questions (how many times will each of us perform/implement our pieces? Will we each choose our own public space, or will we all create works for the same space?) and personal commitments (what I’m perceiving as a methodological divide between those who want to work site-specifically, those who want to work site-responsively, and those for whom collaboration with audiences or other artists takes precedence over choice of site). But there are also the practical constraints of a class that resolutely meets in public spaces. This week, the practical was represented by the presence of an extremely active helipad in the water just beyond the memorial. Claire remarked that, while it’s easy to find a POPS in which to gather in New York City, it would help a lot to have a sonic map to go along with that if you’re looking for a location where you can actually hear one another. It turns out there’s a national solid start in that direction, the National Transportation Noise Map covering road and aviation noise in the United States, though there are plenty of other types of NYC-specific noisiness such an overview would leave out.

To supplement, there are also these maps put together in 2015 by data nerd Ben Wellington for The New Yorker, more granular and NYC-specific, based on noise complaints. Wellington also notes that in 2014, City Council introduced a bill that would require the Department of Environmental Protection to sample noise levels across the city. And in 2013, graphic designer Karl Sluis also used 311 noise complaint data to make an array of slick-looking sonic maps. These are public (art) projects that live at the intersection between data’s public availability and public comprehensibility, one place where artists can make an impactful public intervention.

After talking about locations, format, and iterations, and introducing the concept of scoring,

John Cage, Water Music, 1952

we moved indoors to the NYCLU offices for our legal briefing.


Part 2: A Handful of Candy Helps the Medicine Go Down

Our friendly NYCLU lawyer offset the density of the legalese with bags of Halloween candy.

We started with the First Amendment and how it applies to us as artists. At its core, the amendment is meant to ensure four freedoms (of religion, speech, press, and assembly) against government, as opposed to private, overreaching. There was a takeaway big enough to be worthy of some glitter here:

Basically, if you can prove that your artwork has the intent to convey a particular message that is likely to be understood by its audience, you are highly protected under the First Amendment.

The presentation then moved to cover art, artists, and the public, introducing a legal definition of “public” to our lexicon through the concept of the public forum, which is a space specially designated as open to public expression and is broken down under law into three subcategories:

  1. Traditional public forum (parks, sidewalks, streets)
  2. Limited public forum (the subway, a courthouse lobby, POPS)
  3. Non-public forum (jails, public schools, military bases; these are subject to great government restrictions)

Making public art in a way that will be constitutionally protected, therefore, is partially a matter of locating yourself and your work on a matrix defined by whether your work will be protected by the First Amendment and whether the space you have chosen for public expression is a forum where First Amendment rights are strongly or weakly protected. For example, vomiting on Trump Tower as artistic protest (a real example from a consultation between the NYCLU and an artist) is not a protected First Amendment activity, no matter how public the forum; it’s a public health hazard.

Fake vomit, on the other hand…

None of this guarantees you won’t be stopped, and tips also applicable to protestors might help if you are:

  • Don’t use your fingerprints or face to lock your phone; use a numeric code
  • Use an encrypted app like Signal for messaging
  • Memorize some phone numbers, including National Lawyers’ Guild
  • Comply with police orders, contact NYCLU, and challenge it later

In the end, our guest emphasized the importance of pushing back in public forums as artists, especially against “safety” pretexts that threaten to further and further curtail First Amendment rights out of existence. This suggests another way in which artists might create meaningful public interventions: making public art that defends, and pushes at, the boundaries of what constitutes First Amendment-protected activity.

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