Transcript for Seeing Cities


Mary Miss: I've spent years looking at cities and working on large-scale projects that try to integrate art into the public realm. 
Jim Fleming: Artist Mary Miss. 
Miss: I'm really trying to imagine a way that we can have cities come to understand a really essential role that the arts can play and I've developed this framework called City as Living Laboratory. Artists can really be effective in making these complex issues that cities are dealing with apparent to the citizens of the city.  
Fleming: So, what you're saying is that art has a role beyond dressing up a city; it is an opportunity to introduce people to the city they live in? 
Miss: I think there is a wonderful opportunity to use art as a way to decode the city. For instance, people don't think about the infrastructure it takes to support their lives or the natural systems, and if you could do projects that call attention to that, that everybody at ground level gets to see walking along the street, there becomes this shared or the possibility of a shared interest. 
Fleming: Maybe we can get some sense of it by talking about one of your recent projects. You did the Flow Project based on the White River in Indianapolis. 
Miss: In Indianapolis, I realized that the river was very beautiful and bucolic-looking and it's kind of invisible so people don't pay that much attention to it. So, I started to look at the river in detail and found out that 70% of the drinking water of the city was supplied by the river and yet it was very polluted. So, I started working with scientists and historians and over a two-year period we developed this project to create a hundred points along the river where aspects of its ecology, infrastructure or history could be revealed. This started, in a way, because I started looking through this information that had been given to me and it was frankly kind of boring; it wasn’t engaging in any way. So, I developed these stopping points that consist of a mirror where you see yourself but then there is a red mark on the surface of the mirror - something is called out. It might be a fish hatchery in this area that I'm asking you to look at. To get you to note that area, I've put an oversize red map pin, a 6 or 12 inch diameter red ball...shiny red ball, and when you look in the mirror you can align the mark on the mirror with that distant marker. So, you can find out where the fish hatchery is; there's a number that you can dial up and listen to someone describing how things work in that lagoon area along the river. And so, there are these almost acupuncture-like points along a six-mile stretch of river describing many different aspects - where a civil war encampment had been or where the levee starts. So, the place comes to be revealed. I think the mirror is really a great device for a situation like this because you get to see yourself in relation to that landscape in relationship to the river. 
Fleming: That sounds as though you had a lot of enthusiastic response in the scientific community. What about city planners? What about officials in the city? Were they enthusiastic about this? 
Miss: They were very supportive. I think the city saw this as, "Oh, here's a freebie. Somebody wants to help us communicate with citizens about these issues, about water and..." The best thing to come out of this project for me is that there is a group of citizens who've put together something called 'ROW' (Reconnecting with Our Waterways) to make six of the tributaries that lead into the White River more apparent to people. It's being played out that artists really can have this major and very effective role communicating these issues. 
Fleming: What I like about this story is that it is not a case of a project being finished and then somebody saying, " You know what would make this look nice is a nice statue over there. Let's find an artist who can plop one in there and it will make everything fine." You've flipped it, haven't you? 
Miss: Right. I think it takes a while for people to understand a new definition of art. It isn’t the guy on a horse in the park only, or the abstract sculpture in front of a building, but this was a great precedent project for me to show how this City as Living Lab works. Now, we're trying to do another project here in New York City looking at another kind of corridor, the Corridor of Broadway. We're going from the tip of Manhattan to the top of the Bronx. Our intention is to have up to 20 sites along that corridor where we reveal different aspects of the city, of the natural systems that support the city, of the infrastructure, because the city agencies in the last 12 years have been coming up with great plans but I was interested in getting those ideas out on the street - at street level. It seems to me, it's fine to have the city agencies having these intentions but, unless you engage the citizens of the city, it's going to be a much longer process. 
Fleming: Of course, in a city the size of New York, there are millions of people involved and getting them to stop and pay attention to anything is not simple, is it? 
Miss: Well, in this case, I'm using convex mirrors that are almost like jewels or something. New Yorkers aren't big on stopping for a long time but they are really quick studies. Everybody's got their radar out all the time. So, I think we did a test up at 137th Street and we found that, yes, people did stop and after these elements were out for a long period of time they'd maybe stop again and bothered to tile up and hear the story behind the mirror. Someone who was somewhat critical of the project said, "I saw someone putting lipstick on in front of one of your mirrors." I said, "Wow! Great!" I figured once they stop they will see the content that I've got juxtaposed with that. 
Fleming: New Yorkers do have a reputation for being difficult to impress. When you did the test hub for the Broadway project, did you see how you'd have to tweak it to engage people? 
Miss: Yes. It was done with support from the National Science Foundation. You have to do a real serious evaluation so someone was out there (the environmental psychologist) talking to people before the installation went up, during the installation and we found out that people were becoming more aware of the issues of the environment by the end of the three-month period. 
Fleming: Is there something about beauty too aesthetics anyway? Is it because of the practice of visual and spatial communication that artists have a unique job to do in helping people see their cities? 
Miss: Beauty is a very complex issue but how something is made, the craft of the making of the object, things aren't believable unless they are done in a way that really make sense with the issue. So, it's that layering together of content. If you can get people to have a direct experience of something rather than only walking the surface of a place; if I can get people to just think briefly about the connections of everything that they touch, breathe, eat and do in the city, make that tangible in just some small way, that will satisfy me. 
Fleming: And presumably, it allows people, perhaps, encourages people to become enthusiastic about things that planning commissions have made seem dull. 
Miss: I think that's the main thing. I've worked on many different city-scale projects in St. Louis or Milwaukee or other places in the country and I've just come to have such an appreciation of the richness, the possibilities of cities. I want to find a way to help us re-imagine them. You know, the city can be remade but people have to not be hit over the head and told that they should do things differently. I'm trying to get them interested in these issues. It's not trying to give people vinegar water all the time. It's really trying to get people interested and I think citizens are greatly underestimated. If you can just give them an access point, I think there's a chance of engaging interest and that's the first step that I can see in getting us to re-imagine our cities. 
Fleming: You can find the links to Mary Miss's projects on our website

Comments for this interview

Mary Miss (RitaSue Siegel, 10/19/2012 - 6:03pm)

Good food for thought. Reducing visual events or what we take for granted as we pass them by to opportunites to learn about where we live-very good ideas.