Students in the School of Art and Design regularly explore how art achieves meaning and significance through experimentation with setting and presentation.
Recently, as part of a non-major class assignment, a student left a class project on the South Terrace of the Illini Union, a place on the quad that has historically functioned as this campus’ most public platform for pronouncements, demonstrations, and displays.
This site has served for decades as a place where students and other community members gather to invite collective address of urgent matters. For example, black students gathered on the South Terrace on September 10, 1968 to discuss the inadequate housing provided as part of Project 500, Illinois’ first concentrated effort to admit more students of color. That gathering turned historic when, after staging a sit-in just inside the Union in the South Lounge, the university responded by arresting 240 students - a galvanizing moment for civil rights at Illinois.
When students, staff, faculty, and community members think of “public” on campus in terms of “public address,” they often think of the South Terrace. So it’s understandable that a student artist looking to understand how an artwork’s meaning takes shape through its setting might try siting a work there. There is even a justifiable precedent for doing so without permission, as sometimes an artwork that has been granted permission is already constrained in what it can say, do, communicate, or symbolize.
We teach about public art and other approaches to site-specific aesthetics, and we explain the implications of seeking permission to our students through examples and principles. We explain that the decision to seek permission is actually a choice as significant as the choice of color or shape in a public sculpture. And we explain that should they choose not to seek permission, they bear all the more responsibility for the work’s impact on others.
The maker of the work that disturbed many on the South Terrace last week did not seek permission. Whether that was a good choice in terms of the assignment is a matter best left to the instructor and student. What we can say for certain, however, is that the sculpture in question certainly acquired new meaning through its site. Recent events have for many associated the South Terrace not just with the whole history of protest on campus, or with a generic sense of “publicness,” but with specific black voices, calling through rallies as recently as last Wednesday for address of systemic racism and historical violence against black students. So the anonymous placement of any sculpture there would understandably be read by many as either a response to those voices, or an attempt to represent those voices.
Though the School will continue to support student experimentation of this kind, however poorly conceived, the last thing students of color need on this campus is another act to examine as a potential threat or slight. The School regrets that this interpretation of a classroom assignment contributed to the already burdensome work of black students at this critical moment for our campus. We have addressed this matter with the students and instructor involved, and apologize for how the work of one of our classes caused yet more strife for those who have borne much.
There exists a rich history of public art on this campus that more effectively facilitates discussion about rights to display and speech, both through its execution and response. If anyone wants to learn more about this area of art, you need look no further than the history of the Edgar Heap-of-Birds sculptures that existed on Nevada Street just a few years ago, only to be vandalized. (For more on that, please read here.)
We hope that many within and without the School of Art and Design will continue to freely explore how our public spaces serve to contain, constrain, or enable robust reflection and action about the sort of university we wish to be. We also hope they will do so with a close eye to implications for those feeling most vulnerable during a time of tension and controversy for this campus and others.