Defaced or Merely Revised? Either Way, My Public Art Installation Has to Go

To deny that I was disappointed with the city that is New York on that warm June morning would be dishonest. I’d had just walked the length of Houston Street’s First Street Green Park where I’d installed a series of portraits from across all 50 states along the outside of its fence. Of the 86 large-scale portraits combining to extend 350 feet in length — longer than a football field — 52 had been heavily tagged by one or more vandals. On some, the tagging partially obscured the face or body, on most however, some form of semi-legible commentary about the subject was scrawled in large loping letters next to the subject’s head. Visually, the effect was devastating.

I’d begun working on this series in 2015 by photographing men and women from Logan Heights, a historically Hispanic and African-American community of San Diego where I lived. After having only recently moved in, I wished to document my neighbors and through them create a portrait of the neighborhood that we now shared.

Using a high-resolution medium format camera, I created uniformly lit portraits of shop owners, mechanics, military retirees, the local city councilman and other inhabitants of the neighborhood. I then exhibited the resulting four feet by five prints on the outside of the fence surrounding my home — which was conveniently situated near a well-traveled intersection in the midst of where my subjects live and work.

Logan Heights — San Diego, California; 2015

Through these dramatically enlarged photos, local residents (and later those from all across the city) were able to witness the character of their fellow neighbors in ways with which they could intimately connect and identify. I purposefully did not remove the photos to some far off exhibition space where community members would have been unable to experience them. Instead, the photos lived in the community where they could uplift and honor the people exhibited and, by extension, the entire neighborhood. In that spirit, I decided to name the project Neighbors.

Word quickly got out and favorable press soon followed. The success of the project encouraged me to photograph individuals in other locations in other states. Eventually, in March of 2016, I made the commitment to travel to all 50 states (plus Washington D.C.) to create a body of portrait work able to represent a cross-section of America. Taking advantage of my RV that I’d purchased just for such photographic adventures, I systematically crisscrossed the vast continent in search of portrait-worthy subjects.

In the midst of my travels, Donald Trump declared his candidacy for United States President and fully unleashed the Pandora’s box of political, racial, ideological, religious and other divisions that had been bubbling at a slow boil for years. Previously boxed in by norms of decency and consideration, all manner of animosity was given full permission for expression by Trump. What little unity remained among and between Americans of different backgrounds and beliefs, Trump quickly dispatched.

However, as I traveled the country, I saw the opposite. Wherever I went, no matter how small the town nor how far I drove away — either physically or culturally — from my big-city home, I found myself universally welcomed and in the company of friends. I came to realize that despite the vitriol that exists online and in the media, Americans are in reality a friendly people who share much more in common than not.

Shell Gas Station — Oak Hill, West Virginia; 2016

In this space between how American conducts itself in social and traditional media versus what I experienced, I saw a powerful role for my Neighbors Project. Where much socially engaged art serves to comment on or protest a societal ill — and thus create the unfortunate side effect of further driving each side apart — my portraits could be used to connect Americans from across their many differences. By bringing together the cattle rancher from Nebraska with the same-sexed couple from Maryland with the retired African-American autoworker from Detroit with the suburban mom from Fort Collins along with subjects from every other corner of America, I could perhaps begin the process of familiarizing America with itself and create some much needed empathy across our many perceived differences.

Indeed, as I wrote in my 2017 Guggenheim Fellowship application, “I intend to piece back together our shattered national unity one photograph at a time.” I meant those words then and stick by them now.

I envisioned creating public Neighbors Project installations across the country in a widespread democratization of art — and am today still working to this goal. Where the typical arc of photography (and much representational art) is that it is incepted and created in public spaces but then removed to some distant white-walled gallery to be experienced only by an upper-income (and typically white) audience of art lovers, buyers and art-minded hipsters in search of free beer, I could reverse direction and bring my finished work back to the cities, towns and hamlets of its birth. Instead of the typical one-way transaction that offers little benefit to the individuals and communities that spawned the art, I could return and perhaps make an impact.

In 2017, the Anchorage Museum in Alaska soon offered me an opportunity to carry out my artistic vision. There I installed my work within the gallery walls, on the façade of the glass-encased building and on a fence out in the community where I’d photographed the work. The result was a visual success. Most important, however, was that I created a template for working with an institution to not only display work within their traditional gallery space, but also use public installations of my work to drive engagement with communities not traditionally served by art institutions — specifically those inhabited by people of color and lower income. By using a mix of traditional and public installations, I could effectively amplify the voice of the museum or other cultural institution.

Anchorage Museum — Anchorage, Alaska; 2017

Also in 2017, I moved to New York City. Some months after moving, I engaged in conversation with a dance choreographer while attending a performance artwork typical to the city. He had also applied to the Guggenheim Foundation for their Fellowship Grant so we had much to talk about — it’s both a tedious and nerve-wracking process. When I shared the details of my Neighbors Project with him, he exclaimed, “Have you photographed any Trump supporters!?!” He asked as though they were three-headed monsters who joyfully chomp the heads off of any outsider who might dare to cross their path. His comment made clear to me the reality that New Yorkers’ exposure to outsiders stops somewhere near New Jersey Transit’s western end-of-the-line.

Enter the Neighbors Project. On one of my walks through the Lower East Side I came up with the idea for my portraits to run the length of the exceptionally long and public fence running most of the distance between First and Second Streets along Houston Street. Once installed, New Yorkers of all ethnicity, lifestyle and economic station would be able to both enjoy my portraits and gain a sense of unity with — or at least knowledge of — their fellow Americans from across the nation.

After gaining approval from the local park committee and the NY Parks Department, I installed my work at the end of April 2018. Right away, I witnessed my vision for the work come to life. I’ll never forget the older Latina woman who stood before the prints just after we finished their installation. “Que preciosa!” she exclaimed, her Puerto Rican accent ringing clear. Seeing such a wide range of community members, including people of color and lower income, actively experiencing my work and responding to it so powerfully felt so rewarding and made the whole project feel worthwhile.

First Street Green Park — New York City, 2018

To take a video tour of the entire exhibition, please click here.

First Street Green Park — New York City, 2018

In planning for the installation, my greatest concern was theft of the artwork. I assumed that the work would be tagged or marked up, but I also thought, based upon previous experience, that street artists would respect the art and would keep their tags to a minimum. In first weeks following the initial installation, a few bodies and faces were marked up, but for the most part, the work remained intact.

At some point on a Friday night five weeks in, some tagger systematically sprayed well over half of the portraits. That then unleashed a torrent of similar defacement. As I mentioned before, my initial response was disappointment. I had worked hard to present my work in a specific manner and to see it so significantly altered was not easy for me to digest.

First Street Green, 2018

But… I also accepted it. Welcomed it even. To me this installation is not just about showcasing my work, it is an experiment in presenting photography in the public space. When photography is publicly exhibited, it’s typically high on a billboard or wheat-pasted in low-definition with the expectation that it will soon wither and peel away as the elements take their toll. By positioning my work in public, I ask the question, “What happens when the public can look, touch and alter the work?”

I expected the answer to be that they will change it. Where two-dimensional art is typically fixed in its finished state forever, I knew from past experience that my Neighbors portraits would be amended and added to through their engagement with the outdoor environment. Via this process, new works would emerge that are not just representations of individuals and moments in time, but would instead constitute an actual record of their exposure to the elements and the community. In collaboration with the birds’ droppings, the sun’s fading and the vandals’ destruction and the taggers’ markings, unique works of art would — and have — emerged.

So, though witnessing the scars to my work may be unpleasant, I embrace the creation of new works. I look forward to the day that these revised works may be exhibited in their own right. I welcome art that pushes both its viewers and its creator outside of their comfort range.

Sadly, the NYC Parks Department does not agree with me. To them, the graffiti is a defacement that cannot be allowed to stand. As I have been advised, my agreement with the city states that if graffiti appears on the art that cannot be removed, the artwork itself must be removed. NYC Parks is insisting that the entire installation be removed immediately.

And so, in two days time, I along with a small group of volunteers will remove each segment one by one. I’ll gather the detritus of clipped plastic zip ties and metal wire used for affixing the work so as not to leave a mess. Then, with some sadness and feeling of loss, I’ll roll the work up and place it in storage, hopefully to return it one day in exhibition form as a witness to its time spent on the streets of New York City.

John Raymond Mireles 
June 21, 2018

Before I close the door on this chapter, I would like to thank all the individuals who made the Neighbors Project possible. Tiffany Street worked long and hard to assist me in shooting the portraits and plow the through the bureaucracy necessary to bring this exhibition to life. Without the blessings and assistance of Ann Shostrom from the First Street Green Park and Elizabeth Masella from NYC Parks, this installation would not have been possible. Zach Bollinger accompanied on many of my journeys and did no small amount of cross-country driving. Geralin Maloney’s PR efforts landed me my first TV interviews and numerous other media stories about the project. Julie Decker and her team at the Anchorage Museum were a dream to work with. Kinsey Morlan wrote the first article about my project — which nudged it into the fast lane. Along the way I received help from so many friends, both new and old: Joe Paulicivic, Tulsi Briones, Chris Becker, Jenna Williams, Brian Kissick, Michael Candee, Mike Davis and his wife Kim, Stephen Stapleton, Nick and Signe Adams, Kevin Mireles and family, Gina Pagano, Alfred Pagano (no relation to Gina) and the staff at Giant Photo in San Diego and Ryan Urcia and Kristina Ratliff from State PR.

Finally, looking to the future, the Neighbors Project will be installed in Surprise, Arizona (near Phoenix) on August 1, 2018 courtesy of Connie Whitlock, the WHAM Cultural Center and the City of Surprise. My ongoing experiments in private/public exhibitions of art in New York City will continue with a solo exhibition of my work at the Lower East Side’s Storefront Gallery in September 2018.