Arts & Culture

Arts First edges toward the edgy in conceptual public art display

4 min read

With John Harvard looking on, four students and their instructor, local artist Gary Duehr, put the finishing touches on their creation, what one of the students referred to as an “interactive piece of visual art.”

Their exhibit was part of Arts First, which took place at Harvard May 3-6. Now in its 15th year, the four-day festival showed off the work of more than 2,000 Harvard students and faculty. While this year’s festival featured neither the first nor the largest display of public art, there was a strong presence of visual art in the form of two classes that created public pieces as part of the celebration.

“We’ve made a real effort to reach out to visual artists and to engage them in the festival, and they’ve responded extremely well,” said Jack Megan, director of the Office for the Arts (OfA) at Harvard.

Duehr’s class spent the entire spring term imagining and planning their public art display, which they called “Ten Red Phones,” with the Arts First outdoor showing as the culmination of their efforts.

“The class is based on this project, the class is this project,” said Duehr. He added, “This year is particularly interesting because it’s more improvisational.”

In the middle of a large patch of newly seeded lawn between Hollis and Thayer halls, the students wrapped a tree in plastic piping and streamers of various sizes and colors, and mixed in reflective poles and fake ivy.

Webbing out from the crazy sculpture enveloping the tree were telephone wires that connected to 10 red phones. The phones sat on plastic folding chairs spread out in equal intervals around the perimeter, forming a sort of circle around the center sculpture.

Peter Hedman ’10 handled the technical aspects of the design, making sure that all of the phones actually worked and also encouraging people to interact with the exhibit.

“I’m standing around making sure people interact with the design [but] don’t take the phones — they belong to Harvard,” said Hedman. “And who wouldn’t want them? They’re wonderful.”

At first people were reluctant to go up and touch the phones. After receiving an encouraging nod of approval from Hedman, Boston resident Keshia Shiver picked up one of the phones and laughed with surprise.

“It’s different, very different; I’ve never spoken to the Earth before,” said Shiver of the phone (which was actually playing sounds recorded on the Voyager space shuttle).

Three of the phones had recorded surprises: One of them played the space shuttle sounds; on another, the listener could hear Kalahari Bushmen chanting and playing music; while a third played people speaking in a variety of foreign languages. The remaining phones connected directly to one another, and anyone picking up a receiver could speak to someone on another phone.

Duehr’s was not the only class contributing to public art this year. Students in the “Sculpture Outside” class, taught by Helen Mirra, assistant professor of Visual and Environmental Studies (VES), learned about sculpture with a focus on architecture and the natural world, but “it was wide open in what people were actually doing,” said Mirra.

And their projects reflected the open-ended mission of the class. The work of one student, Jonathan Sasmor ’07, applied a broad definition to “sculpture”: He placed tiny radios around the courtyard behind Harvard Hall.

Some radios were hanging from tree branches while others were concealed just beneath the ground. They were all tuned to different stations, and emanated sound at a level barely audible to passersby.

Speaking of the free form of the class, Sasmor said, “It has meant more to me because it didn’t have to be a physical object, it could be an experience, or just about anything.”

Cambridge resident Susan Clearmen was waiting for the Gilbert and Sullivan Players in Holden Chapel when she stumbled into Sasmor’s exhibit. As she walked along the path she was delighted to notice a radio hanging in a tree.

“There’s so many things of interest, I’m finding them by accident,” said Clearmen. “I just wish I had time to see them all.”