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“This Tangled Jazz of Cinderblocks”: The History & Future of Public Art at SUNY Purchase

A shorter version of this story was originally posted in The Beat magazine issue 18

By Ben Lipkin

Jesus' [Brian's] pilgrimage

One day in the fall of 1986, you would have seen something transgressive and revelatory if you were driving down Anderson Hill Road: Jesus making a pilgrimage on foot from SUNY Purchase to White Plains, carrying an awkwardly large cross.

The pictures here are from a performance done by Brian in April of 1986. The photos were published in the student newspaper, The Load, without the artist’s last name and without any further explanation or credits. The picture was placed beside two other group photos taken on campus, respectively captioned “The Expulsion” and “Nightmare.” Those photos featured mattresses in the middle of the campus and nudity by various performers. Other photos were published of Brian’s sojourn through White Plains itself, with Westchester locals seeming for the most part unamused or uninterested.

Brian and crew walking down what looks like Mamaroneck Ave.

The whole project is but one example of dozens, if not hundreds, of performances and events staged on and around campus by Purchase students over the past half-century.

In a 2002 article for the website Transversal Texts, titled “Public Art as Publicity,” the art historian Miwon Kwon discussed some of the tensions within the public sphere: public art as a populist form on the one hand, versus the mechanisms by which public art is commissioned and deployed by governments and corporations in the name of taste and expertise, on the other:

“...More recent theories of the public sphere cast it as a site of varying types of competition and contestation, itself fraught with social fragmentation, of unequal and exclusive access [...] With its panels and committees of select experts deciding the fate of public art commissions, with the purpose of bringing the ‘best’ accomplishments in art to a general public, programs like the National Endowment for the Arts were established upon what [Raymond] Williams described as the paternalistic model of communication. The underlying presumption here is that the lives of the general public, thus far deprived of exposure to high culture, would benefit from the presence of great art in the spaces of everyday life, and that the government, with the aid of art experts, can function to provide such educational and elevating experiences to its people.”

But Purchase, despite being affected by government funding, has in its best moments swayed closer to what Kwon terms “democratic mode of communication,” where “the modes of expression and communication and the means of their distribution or dissemination are owned by the people who use them.” Because Purchase is fundamentally an art school, many of the most creative expressions have always come from the hands, desire, and labor of students.

There are two main awards for public art on campus. Many students, however – online, in class, in conversation – bemoan a lack of public artwork, student or otherwise, given how much work is produced on campus annually. Their ideas on the placement of public art may be more akin to Kwon’s “democratic mode.”

Public Space

The archives of The Load, a student publication from the ’70s to the ’90s, make clear the political tension that surrounded public art and its ability to transform space on campus.

In 1986, a group of students took to the plaza, and adorned it with balloons and other decorations. In The the Load, an article about the event titled “MORE MALL MADNESS” notes that the actions of the students were in response to a lecture that took place on campus by the artist Marilyn Wood, a choreographer known for art which she called “celebrations’: events in public urban spaces which invited passerby to participate, or to reconsider their environment. “On Friday afternoon, October 24, three visual art students- Michael Dwyer, Dennis Del Zoto, and Brad Lowry- collaborated to brighten up the mall with plastic figures, balloons and banners.” There were red and blue banners, there were bright orange balloons, and there were black plastic humanoid figures with their dog… the intent of the artists was to liven up the mall and to get the community at large involved or to at least get reaction from people.” Was it effective? The Load writer adds, “It certainly caught my eye!”

In early September 1986, according to an article titled “Dressing the Henry Moore,” a student constructed a large black box around Moore’s “Two Forms” sculpture, at the time placed at the center of campus. “On the morning of Friday, September 20, The Moore was found to be completely covered on all sides by black plastic. Neither Public Safety nor the students who initially discovered this had seen it being erected or known who did it.”

The student who put up the plastic box, referred to only under the pseudonym “R.T.,” gave an anonymous interview in a bar off-campus, where he noted “it was a piece that was not art for art’s sake, but with the direct intention of causing audience participation. What it was about is what it wasn’t about, [...] only the first in a series of pieces to be presented as part of ‘Visual Awareness Year’ at SUNY Purchase.”

A former PSGA executive, John Fallot, wrote his senior project in Political Science with the title “Boring, But Important,” on the topic of Jeff Stein, a PSGA President in the mid 2000s; in it, he gives a relevant history of the PSGA itself that is worth recounting here.

From 1972 to 1979, the Student Senate Association was effectively run by an office staffer, a situation that changed in 1979, when a president and executive model similar to what we have today took hold. According to Fallot, “in 1980 alone the Student Senate Association went through five Presidents, and could be compared to a hurricane…Around this time, a parallel organization arose called the Students’ Union. The Students’ Union was vocally in juxtaposition to the Student Senate Association.”

Fallot goes on to describe the comparable efficiency the Students Union had in organizing events, while the Student Senate began to atrophy attendance. At the first meeting in 1983, only six out of seventeen seats were filled. Only three senators bothered to actually show up. This situation will sound familiar to students who have been involved with the PSGA senate or entities since Covid, where the number of sitting senators has remained low in comparison to the number of seats available, and which were generally filled prior to the pandemic.

In 1986, a slate of students from the Students Union ran for the executive seats of the Student Senate Association on a platform of direct democracy, and won. However, Fallot notes that this did not spell utopia for student government: “Yet surprisingly, apathy and low participation plagued the next fourteen years under the Students’ Union, as well as resignations, drama, and even an embezzlement scandal.”

In 2000, a referendum was passed which returned the structure to a representative model, with executive, judicial, and legislative branches. With this motion, they also renamed their entity to “PSGA.” Fallot suggest the reason for apathy in participation during these years were various historical and environmental trauma: AIDS and drug use were apparently rampant, and occasional spectacular deaths and stabbings were taking place. In 2003, Glen Parker became president, during which time the Stood was opened and his board voted-- against Parker-- to rename Culture Shock, “Vulture Cock.” Also during this time, notably, murals were sandblasted off of dorms, something which greatly upset students.

With Stein as PSGA President, the tradition of the the Annual Public Art Competition was created, which Fallot notes was in “direct response to two historical landmarks being taken from everyday student life. The Henry Moore Two Forms sculpture, which had until 2000 been the central landmark of the Purchase mall, which was relocated to the campus entrance so that the Student Services Building could be built. There were also the murals on the dormitories that had been sandblasted in 2003.” The Purchase College website states that Two Forms was moved to the entrance in 1993.

A photo of students with "Two Forms" when it was still on Purchase mall

As Stein explains in the Purchase Independent, Purchase’s student magazine of the 2000s, “I have held two meetings with different members of the administration and the Neuberger Museum in order to establish guidelines and a process by which we will be able to return murals as well as public outdoor art exhibits to our campus.” After the success of the Public Art award, in 2010 College President Thomas Schwarz created the Presidents Comittee for Public Art on Campus, “to solicit and support the display of student-made, public art on campus,” according to a recent email from the college.

The most institutional public art on campus comes from the collection of the Neuberger Museum of Art, from which a selection is installed on campus. The most iconic, of course, is the Henry Moore “Two Forms” sculpture (a picture of which is currently the default wallpaper on many campus desktop computers).This semester, the reception desk of the Neuberger has a hand-out map of the locations of all nine of the sculptures in their collection installed across campus, and upon leaving the museum I bumped into a sculpture I must have passed literally hundreds of times without noticing, a kind of tall slab situated across from the Humanities building, a warm reminder that you can still stumble upon art in the wild here.

It is worth noting that for a time the Neuberger also organized a biennial of public sculpture, from 1997 to 2003. The first edition featured works by artists such as Vito Acconci, Heap of Birds, Willie Cole, and Louise Bourgeois, according to a 1997 article in Art in America: “the Neuberger Museum has always displayed a certain schizophrenia. The condition may even extend to the whole of SUNY Purchase-- this is, after all, a college in a resolutely bucolic setting with a mandate to train students in art forms which tend to thrive best in an urban environment…the inaguraul Neuberger beinnial takes no position on the debates currently raging in public art. What the show offers instead, is an eclectic sculptural invasion ranging over the university’s neatly tended grounds.” It’s possible the tradition of public art via committee stems from here, which was chosen by “a group of eight nominators and seven-member selection committee, drawn both from inside and outside the campus community, to choose the 27 artists or artist teams.”

Public art is such a lightning-rod for politics and controversy in part because it is not sequestered from everyday life, as it is in museums, which seem to encase artworks in time, or galleries, many of which represent both a designed sleekness and a subtext of both financial transaction and elite status. At Purchase, objects can remain for years and years, and then be taken down overnight with little discussion or fanfare. A good example here is the fabled Danny Devito shrine, which was accessible via a restroom. Its existence went viral and was consequently sealed over by the college.

Photo from Twitter user @KathIeenann

There are very real questions of place at Purchase, which unlike so many colleges, opened only in the late 1960s, minted by Nelson Rockefeller as the “cultural gem of the SUNY system.” In the very same years, groups in New York City such as the Artists Workers Coalition were criticizing the Rockefeller family’s role at the Museum of Modern Art, given their outspoken support for and profit off of the Vietnam war, as well as Nelson Rockefeller’s role in suppressing the Attica Prison Riot.

Those same connections between culture, power, and violence were drawn by the artist Dennis Adams in the aforementioned 1997 show, who made a piece critiquing the campus: “On the underside of a small-scale model of the campus, Adams has installed a large light-box photograph of the 1966 Watts riot. This image of inner-city violence, which is reflected in a large mirror on the floor, not only suggests the urban antithesis to SUNY Purchase’s idyllic suburban setting, but raises the issue of whether the fortresslike architecture of the campus was partly a response to the student unrest of the Vietnam War era.”

The observation about student unrest was astute: although the often repeated claim that the school was designed after a prison or to be riot-proof would appear to be apocryphal, it certainly seems like it would have been a consideration in the late 1960s. And not without good reason, as students occupied various administrative buildings in 1976, 1979, 1989, and 1991, and were involved in other more disperse protests; student organizations also hosted radical thinkers and activists during this time, such as Bobby Seale and other members of the Chicago 7 in 1974 for a Mayday strike, and Angela Davis in 1975, among others. Adams’ artwork is actually permanently installed in the basement of the library, positioned under the staircase, with only the scaled-model (with labeled buildings) immediately visible; his piece, much like a well-developed understanding of all of the social tensions of the campus, requires a more prolonged look, one which moves beyond all too appealing surfaces.

Speaking of surfaces, surely the title of Kwon’s article--Public Art as Publicity-- struck a chord with some students last August, when the school unveiled a new “PURCHASE COLLEGE” marquee sign on its Instagram page. The comments were almost immediately filled with venomous rage on the part of students, incensed that the school's sign was getting a facelift while they were expecting to return to living in dorms and apartments with quality of life issues, among other insecurities. One comment left reads “yall cant fix the olde parking lot thats prone to flooding & destroyed students personal property ?? yall just put up a sign and said ‘good luck,’” while another student observed the overlapping patterns among comments: “If the students can independently bring up the same problems like the stairs, dorms, and cost of living on campus - that is a clear sign administration is not listening to the student body and more importantly, not properly allocating funds that are being sourced through our tuition.” The sign, much like the branding of Purchase College over the more common name of "SUNY Purchase," was just that: publicity. As such discontent accumulates, it demands to be released through some form of creative expression.

Performance as Public Art

A crucial practice within public art that has often been sidelined is performance. At Purchase, there are so many times when music is the eminent public art, much to the chagrin of Residential Life and UPD.

One iconic example is the show that the noise-rock band Lightning Bolt put on in 2010. The show was a “secret show”: It took place in front of the library, and the location wasn’t announced far in advance; one student on Instagram remembered “the location was a secret and you had to run around campus finding clues!” Aaron Maine, now famous for his project Porches, as well as past collaborations with Frankie Cosmos, played a show with Purchase band The Shakes in front of the Port Chester Dominos, according to @stoodarchive on Instagram, another good example.

Lightning Bolt

Today, Untitled Noise Night is a great example of music as public art at Purchase: the group formed by anonymously sticking posters across campus, advertising a time and location, and came up with material to play and perform with as a result. Untitled Noise Night (UNN) consists of Emerson Borakove and Shiloh Blue, Studio Production and Theatre and Performance majors, respectively. Each of them also makes visual art, a hallmark of their performances, particularly their “Soundbath” productions, which feature Borkave’s video art. Performing from the middle of the audience, as if in the round, they summon a collective energy that has often been mourned since the onset of COVID. Borakove writes in the QR-code accessible program about her feelings of regional and emotional transformation, and elsewhere has described the sound bath as a cathartic release of the dysphoria she often feels.

Blue frames the performance within the Appalachian musical tradition she is part of, citing “Sacred Harp,” a form of sacred choral music in which there is no single leader. Blue, born in Kentucky, now lives in Ridgewood, Queens with her mother, the contemporary artist Emily Janowick. They collaborated together on Blood Makes the Grass Grow, an exhibition Janowick had last summer at the Los Angeles gallery Foyer; Blue composed original scores for time-lapse videos that her mother took of plants growing on the 40 nights before Blue first left for Purchase. Borakove was born and raised in Lincoln, Nebraska, where her parents run a gong and percussion supply store. She has also premiered original choral music on campus.

The two have made use of various spaces on campus, while other artists like Andrew Gonzalez, known by his artistic moniker “Andrxw,” have used rooms intended for music and theater, creating performances that blend visual and sonic design, presenting immersive experiences enacted under provisional circumstances. His goal is “to turn ordinary spaces into performances.”

Photos of Andrxw performing in 0078 by Alyssa Rosenberg

The Gut

The transformation of space at Purchase is almost always done most effectively by artists. Case in point: Blue of UNN has been facilitating the use of a pile of rocks near the woods as an ad-hoc venue called The Gut. The first program, which took place late last semester, was the “Festival of Theatrical Death,” where participants such as Theo Haegle, Tess Walsh, Grace Castle, James McCallum and Gawain Cedar all wrote plays meant to be performed and then destroyed. The announcement on The Gut’s Instagram reads: “These works are not meant to last. These works are not classics. These are works for THE NOW.” At the end of the festival, they burned all the plays.

The Gut is back this semester with a show of visual art curated by Anne Arocho, titled “The Goose.” In an interview, Arocho said “The Goose” was partially a response to what they, a Painting & Drawing major with an Art History minor, perceived as a competitive rat-race for limited spaces for students to present art on campus.

“Opportunities are a little more few and far between…’ ” they said. “You kind of have to win, almost? I don’t want to win. I want to make my own opportunities.”

Wearing a SuperBad T-shirt and a friendly smile, Arocho said that she had just missed the deadline to get a show at The Forum when they saw Shiloh’s Instagram post soliciting contributions of visual art for The Gut this semester.

Not too long later, on Feb. 25, “The Goose” opened, featuring the work of 13 different students. With a laugh, Blue and Arocho said that one of the pieces has already disappeared. Arocho’s experiment is probably that most similar to those which took place in the Purchase we can access via The Load: uses of the environment that sit somewhere between guerrilla installation and interactive performance.

I spoke to Arocho and Blue together about the ideas behind both The Gut and "The Goose," and what they saw as urgent about the way they presented artwork.

“Performance art itself has had a history with guerilla and outdoor performance,” Blue said. “During my freshman year I was thinking about how Covid pushed performers beyond traditional theater spaces. The Gut is me trying to show that when we get into making work at college, we end up relying on the really incredible resources we get as college students, but fail to realize that once we leave this space we have to make it our own. I wanted to make a space by and for the impulsive, and also a space that allows like theater, but more broadly like performance and art to be not only accessible to view, but like accessible to make.”

Blue mentioned the performance artist Pope.L as one of her biggest influences. Pope.L became famous for his performance works which were staged across parks and public venues in Manhattan such as Times Square. “He chained himself to the door of a Chase Bank with a link of hot dogs, and the police had to come and remove him… and that kind of stuff has also been interesting to consider in the history of public art, as like what is widely considered by non-art people to be the bad kind of art,” she said.

I asked the two of them what they thought the future of public art on campus was, and their tones turned slightly somber. Arocho expressed some anxiety, saying, “I’m a little worried that they might get a little stricter with the coming of Broadview,” but remained optimistic about the community, “the spirit in the students has remained resilient, and I think it will continue to be.”

Blue herself looks at the biggest potential change to the future of public art and performance on campus as the coming of Broadview, which she regards as a complicating factor. “All of the best performances come from a moment of collapse. I feel like Purchase is either on the verge of or in a state of collapse. I don’t think that public art is going to stop happening on campus, but there might be a more adverserial relationship. If our works don’t get taken down, it’s probably a sign that public art on campus is going to last a little longer. If our stuff gets taken down, or if 'The Goose' gets reprimanded, it’s going to show that the priority of the school is beginning to lie with optics.”

Arocho interjected that she doesn’t think any of the works in The Goose will be touched and points to a decades long history of students making art on campus, and jokingly added, “if they do take down my art, I’m only going to be more annoying.”

As Blue points out, the specter that currently hangs over any discussion of public art at SUNY-Purchase is a momentous experiment in its own right: the construction and existence of Broadview, a retirement community that is being built right in the middle of land that students had found to be a refuge from the constellation of monotonous brick buildings and college living spaces that can feel very clinical, if not vaguely carceral.

Another flashpoint in the construction of Broadview has been the demolition of the wooded and dirt-filled area referred to by students as “the dunes,” a frequent site for parties and representative for many of the nature on that side of campus that now feels enclosed, a symbol of haunting. And the administration might say: Why lament the dunes? All they were at the end of the day was a place to party and get fucked up. But they will be missing the point, as anyone who must don the identity of administrator-cum-beauracrat is wont to do: there was something there, and there is still a spirit in this place that nobody can own, administer, control, or even meaningfully describe.

Again and again in old student publications, the same themes come up that I hear students talk about today. Nearly every issue, a column about apathy; regular complaints about atrocious food and food service; spottings of skunks among residential areas; virulent sexism and concerns of sexual assault; interpersonal and institutional racism; complaints that Purchase is changing, becoming more normal, more complacent, less weird; complaints that the newer Purchase students are not quite the same. However much apathy we may feel or perceive on this campus, all have a role in that spirit.

In the words of an editorial published by The Load on the first week of classes in 1983, “There are two SUNY Purchases. There is, on one hand, a group of buildings located between the main runway of Westchester County Airport and the corporate headquarters of Pepsico Inc, a group of brick brown buildings with an avant-garde statue by Henry Moore squatting in front of it. This SUNY Purchase, the body, can easily be shaped by guiding hands. The walls can be painted, the bricks can be repaired, the floors can be retiled. There is another Purchase though, lurking in the shadows of the structures, the living institution of Purchase. That is the side that lives, and that cannot be painted over or retiled. That is the side whose success is dependent on the will and actions of every member of the community, from the new students to the maintenance personnel and the officers of the College. lt is the side that we must constantly strive to improve.”

We came to this tangled jazz of cinder blocks in order to make, and to live. And so we shall.


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