Forming a Workers Public Art Practice….

Posted by Barrie Cline, Sep 04, 2014 0 comments

Barrie Cline Barrie Cline

Some years back, I was fortunate enough to be asked to develop an arts course for the mainly rank and file construction workers that are required by their union to attend our Labor College. I chose to develop a class on public art seeing it as a vehicle to take up issues around working class studies by initially focusing on the built environment of New York City, thinking that engagement might be sought as my (sometimes reluctant) students were builders of that environment.

The emphasis on NYC’s built environment in Tom Finkelpearl’s text Dialogues in Public Art proved one way to introduce this study, as well as to take up issues of representation and to open up what art can be and whom it can be for. At some point, it became obvious that the class actually should allow for making art, particularly after incorporatingreadings from Larry Shiner’s The Invention of Art which helped us look at the possible re-elevation of the construction tradesperson’s own artisanship, given Shiner’s argument that Fine Art is a relatively recent construct of the west in the eighteenth century. We began to think about work as art, and about making their labor—and the worker—more visible.

One early project we did had several former students answer a request for proposals by the pier next to an abandoned building. “Representations of the Worker” was the exhibit we presented that directly referenced the WPA and built upon a challenge issued to the students in my public art class:

"Since you see so comparatively few representations today of workers, how would you (if empowered to create your own public art) want to represent the worker today?”

Electrician Brian Petrocelli, who had long admired the work of Dorothea Lange, responded creating photographic portraits of his fellow workers that I believe riffed on this WPA past, but enacted a critique of this imagery. Whereas most of these works of the WPA era portray a characteristic hypermasculinity in the workers depicted, he instead portrayed each of his colleagues at relative rest by each of their respective trades. Each worker seems to be in a more reflective moment thereby challenging the emphasis on brawn and effectively illuminating the reality of the construction trades, a far more diverse group than one might immediately imagine. The interesting space Brian occupied as an artist/worker from the inside seemed compelling and important to build on in public ways.

tradeswoman Photo by Brian Petrocelli


Several years later, myself a student at SPQ (Social Practice Queens) a partnership between Queens College and the Queens Museum, this exploration of the potential of public space from a labor studies perspective continued.

Building off of the Queen’s Museums own unique approach to community engagement, SPQ introduced me to Corona and the work of local groups like New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE) and their worker center. Soon after, former student and Corona native Jaime Lopez who is a union electrician, fellow SPQ student Sol Aramendi and I spearheaded a collaboration between NICE and union workers. First we created a publication, an edition of Sol’s PROJECT LUZ, that featured images and texts created by the workers with a special focus on safety conditions, thinking this a good way to build common ground. The publication was distributed on Workers Memorial Day (April 28th2013) in Corona Plaza.

Then we returned to the Plaza later that August where the first iteration of the WORKERS PAVILION was created, featuring a light box exhibition structure the workers developed together for the PROJECT LUZ images in color, along with bi-lingual texts created by the labor college’s students who had recently taken a class on immigration. The crowd received the piece warmly—cheering, in fact—and later Jaime told me that he would never see the plaza or its people in the same way again. Soon after he and I formed the Workers Art Coalition, seeking further engagement of trades people in art and movement building projects.

Corona Plaza. Photo by Edouard Rogers Corona Plaza. Photo by Edouard Rogers

In doing some research for our next project, I learned that the planning committee of the 1939 World’s Fair was originally hoping to commission a “Temple to Labor” that unfortunately did not get built. With this thwarted attempt in mind, and building on the structure and content of this first WORKERS PAVILION at Corona Plaza, the Workers Art Coalition collectively designed and created an LED lit exhibition structure/sculpture for Open Engagement at the Queens Museum this past May which also was the 75th anniversary of the 39’ World’s Fair. It featured a spectrum of projects ranging from a new media initiative with Sol Aramendi that addresses wage theft affecting day laborers, to an homage exhibit to the unknown worker, all while creating space for the performance of collective labor and camaraderie framed by the pavilion while it was being constructed. What elation and solidarity was expressed when Jaime lit the structure up!

World Fair. Photo by Bobby Andrew World Fair. Photo by Bobby Andrew

As time has gone by, I have noticed both a greater sense of ownership of the ongoing WORKERS PAVILION platform, as well as a growing tendency for members who came aboard just wanting to “tinker” to take up and become invested in the social and political issues that some of our content raises. In some sense, the Workers Art Coalition is the first public for its own project, but overtime we are building momentum, and more workers are giving up their precious leisure time to work with us. I believe this is a direct result of creating an ongoing, inclusive practice in public space- with results not achievable in any other way, but in public space.

I wonder, what do others think about the role and potential of public art practices in the formation of an expanded social and/or political consciousness?


The Emerging Leaders in Public Art Blog Salon is generously sponsored by Carnegie Mellon University.

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