For the past five months, individuals driving, walking, and biking down St. Claude Avenue have been interacting with LINKED, an outdoor installation by New Orleans-based Sally Heller. One of her few public works, Heller developed this large-scale collage—measuring 20 feet high and 60 feet wide—to mask an empty, wooden wall connecting Melvin’s bar and Gene’s Po-Boys. Originally conceived of as a billboard project, Heller decided to use the existing wall by suggestion of a supporter. While both platforms offer greater public visibility than a museum or gallery setting, the current work, more importantly, is an interruption in the block’s landscape and the daily routine of people passing by. (Heller will begin dismantling parts of the work this month.)
This format is not new, and the imagery is not unfamiliar. Artists have engaged publics with messages and artwork in seemingly unlikely places for decades. Images have been plastered to buildings, inside metro stations, on buses, and billboards; sculptural works have been inserted into parks, outside private and public buildings; and performances have engulfed train stations, taken over street corners and developed all around us, offering intriguing disruptions in our everyday lives. Past projects, such as the Public Art Fund’s Messages to the Public (1982-1990) that featured projects by such individuals and collectives as Adrian Piper, Martha Rosler, Anne Bray, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and the Guerilla Girls on the Spectacolor board in Times Square; and billboard projects such as How Many Billboards? (2010) in Los Angeles have also placed artworks throughout the city in formats generally reserved for high-dollar marketing.
LINKED began as a series of photographs of gaudy Mardi Gras beads and colorful mirrored Plexiglas. With “Prospect.3: Notes for Now,” the city’s contemporary art triennial approaching, Heller felt driven to respond to the skyrocketing market for and commodification of contemporary art. Collectors, curators, and writers from around the world would be descending on New Orleans to see more than 300 artworks presented throughout the city, and she wanted LINKED to offer a connection between these visitors and the social realities of New Orleans.
The installation is a maze of bright purples, greens, and blues of unrecognizable objects hovering above a dark background. Printed on AlumniGraphics, an adhesive foil-like material, the work exposes the texture and roughness beneath it. A big shiny, silver chain drapes across the center of the abstract composition. Albeit utopic, Heller has always considered the work’s chain imagery as a vision of how we are all linked, à la DNA strands. Symbolically, this linkage moves beyond the human body to create connections among different neighborhoods, lifestyles, and experiences. The piece has sparked varying reactions and dialogue among neighbors and passers-by. Many appreciative individuals spoke to Heller as she was installing the piece; others, however, were strongly opposed to the imagery, with one resident asking why Heller would bring the chain of prison to the street and neighborhood, one that remains somewhat impoverished while also rapidly gentrifying.
Heller primarily creates collages and installations that encourage viewers to move through or around the work. Her process focuses on straying from the predictable. LINKED is a direct response to her background as well as the work’s surroundings. Situated on an active corner in the Marigny, the work is embedded among a local poboy and daiquiri shop, a bar, Walgreens, and a thrift store, and is pasted to a wall guarding the shell of a building (the interior of which was poetically occupied by Dawn DeDeaux’s Mothership III: The Station installation, another Prospect.3 satellite project). Rampart Street, which turns into St. Claude Avenue, is somewhat of a rampart itself, a blurred dividing line of the Marigny, Bywater, and Upper Ninth Ward neighborhoods, but also currently a sign and site of the city’s growth. In January, construction began extending the streetcar line down to Elysian Fields from Canal Boulevard, increasing public transportation, which will, eventually, increase the flow of goods and services along this corridor. But the rapid growth and gentrification in the city has also contributed to the dislocation of residents from once reasonably priced neighborhoods. In many ways, LINKED mirrors these developments, and it quickly became a site of transmission for the neighborhood—about a month after Heller installed the work, large swaths of graffiti appeared on the installation. Heller responded to the additions, mostly confined to the lower half of the mural, by adding some collage pieces herself. Leaving the majority of the graffiti, the mural developed into a more dynamic place for thought and action as observers witnessed an oscillation of authorship play out on the wall.
Over the span of a few blocks along St. Claude, there are multiple boarded-up properties, many of them tagged by street artists. The “dialogue,” as Heller describes the community interaction with LINKED, looks and feels as if it was the plan all along, cultivating a sense of collaboration. Since its installation in October, small amounts of graffiti have continued to appear, further complicating notions of authorship and ownership, and instilling questions of intention and reflection in public art practices.
Emily Wilkerson is a writer and curator based in New Orleans. She is a Curatorial Associate for Prospect.3: Notes for Now, a project of Prospect New Orleans, and is a regular contributor to Pelican Bomb. Her ongoing research focuses on socially engaged art practices and the alternative educational strategies of international artist and curatorial residencies.