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Spotlight / Full Circle

Swinging toward participation

The Full Circle swingset stands at the corner of Auburn and Hoyt.

Photos provided by author and Claire Schneider


In the eighteenth century, sculpture, painting, and architecture were set apart from other skilled object-making endeavors and elevated to the status of fine art. If a creative work served some functional purpose, it was labeled craft, design, or maybe illustration. Architecture aside, art was something to be viewed, pondered, and admired from a safe distance behind velvet ropes and motion detectors. You didn’t touch it, and you sure didn’t play with it. 


Interactive art—in which audiences actively engage with work to create meaning—had its roots in early twentieth century Dada. Duchamp’s Rotary Glass Plates was a machine artwork viewers needed to switch on in order to view. Beginning in the late 1950s and into the seventies, the concept of art as a thing to be viewed was turned on its head by conceptual art movements such as Fluxus, and staged events like Happenings, which valued the art experience over the object. 


At London’s Tate Modern in 1971, Robert Morris’s Bodyspacemotionthings—a series of structures that presented physical challenges for the audience—was shut down after four days over safety concerns. In 1972 in Rabinovich Park, Jerusalem, Niki de Saint Phalle created Golem, a whimsical walk-in sculptured head with three tongue slides. Isamu Noguchi built Playscapes in 1976 in Piedmont Park, Atlanta, Georga. The sculptural playground literally turned art into a children’s plaything. This move toward audience engagement reflected the radical cultural changes occurring throughout society at large. It was revolutionary stuff, meant to challenge the commodification of art and the art establishment. 


The trend faded, but reemerged in the nineties, increasingly in public settings where the focus is on social issues. Today, artists continue to conceive new ways of converting passive receivers into active contributors, with a variety of approaches and technologies. Critics and artists vie to define this surge with myriad labels that end with the word art: contextual, interactive, relational, participatory, dialogical, community-based, activist, and new genre public. It has stirred ongoing debate: Is it driven by artistic innovation or economic opportunism? Do audiences perceive the work as entertainment or artistic experience? Does any of this matter?  


CEPA joins in

With this in mind, CEPA Gallery in Buffalo is sponsoring the West Side Lots Public Art Initiative, comprising six temporary interactive art commissions, which, in various ways, engage their surrounding communities. The initiative is made possible by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Warhol Foundation, Erie County, and with the help of numerous individuals. The projects are located in vacant lots, making use of otherwise unutilized land. Part of their intent is to draw attention, through creative activity, to economically challenged communities that are increasingly home to a diverse refugee population. Immigrants from Burma, Bhutan, Iraq, and Somalia are bringing new energy to the West Side, along with a large existing Hispanic population and a mix of other ethnicities. One goal of the West Side Lots Public Art Initiative is to unite these groups in a shared art experience.   


An idea comes Full Circle

One of these projects, titled Full Circle, was completed last October on a vacant lot at the corner of Auburn and Hoyt, and it has already demonstrated a capacity to bring people together. As we enter warmer weather, its importance as a shared community attraction will certainly grow. That’s because Full Circle is a sculptural work that takes the form of a pink, seven-seat, circular swing set. It’s the collaborative brainchild of Claire Schneider’s C.S.1 Curatorial Projects, and the artist team of Coryn Kempster and Julia Jamrozik. 


Even during the cold fall and winter months (mild this year by normal standards), the work became a gathering place for kids—and grownups. “The best playgrounds are spaces for children and also for adults,” says Jamrozik. Schneider emphasizes this point: “Of course, it seems like it is just for kids, but the artists want to encourage adults to try it, to have meetings there, see what it is like to have discussions there, and just think of it as a place to gather.” Jamrozik observes that, in most cities, playgrounds are among the few mixing spots for people of different ethnic and social backgrounds. 


With its clean lines and geometric simplicity, Full Circle echoes minimalist sculpture, but the concept at its core is play. “Play is one of the themes that join many of our projects,” says Jamrozik, “We are interested in the lighthearted, the humorous, and the unexpected, all of which play touches on.” The artists take the idea of play very seriously: “Play is a mechanism that brings people together, where they are more likely to interact than they would otherwise.” 


The interactive sculpture serves as a gathering place.


The dynamics of swinging

Take a swing on Full Circle with more than one person, and the likelihood of interaction becomes self-evident. The swings face each other, though they are spaced and angled so mid-air collision is impossible. Schneider calls it a mash-up between King Arthur’s Round Table or British Parliament and playground equipment. “It straddles the line between the familiar and the unfamiliar,” she adds. With traditional swing arrangements, it’s customary for strangers to disregard one another. With Full Circle, that’s nearly impossible, and this seems to be part of the attraction. Though it’s equally serviceable to face outward on the swings, to do so almost seems rude. There’s something reassuringly communal about facing your fellow swinger. It encourages dialogue.


There’s another important aspect to projects like Full Circle that is seldom discussed. If you only think of art as the end product, you miss a large part of what distinguishes community projects from work made in artist studios. The process of creating public interactive art and monitoring it afterward is in many ways more important than the final product itself (which, in this case, is scheduled to be up for one year, but may be extended). 


It takes a village

Many people were involved one way or another in the production of the Full Circle: Niagara District Common Council Member, David Rivera, became a strong early advocate. There was a school principal and assistant principal, The Coordinating Council/International School Wellness Team, teachers, and community organizers. The project required an attorney and an insurance agent. Members of People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH) lent support. Lamparelli Construction supplied equipment and workers to remove six truckloads of concrete and dirt from the site. The Ciminelli Real Estate Corporation helped with landscaping. There were welders, an engineer, the director of the International Institute of Buffalo, and a translation coordinator who helped create a community flyer in six languages. Habaho Idris, a Somali woman living next to the lot, offered the use of her electrical outlets. Others contributed their time. Many more watched as work progressed.


These individuals, the 120 teachers at the nearby school the artists and curators spoke to, and the neighbors Schneider canvassed in advance, were all compelled to reflect on the nature of art, and how this funky swingset fits into their understanding of it. In museums, visitors routinely breeze past art, offering cursory consideration. Here, people have a connection to the art, and they must resolve the meaning of the work for themselves. “What makes the art great?” Schneider asks rhetorically. “The idea? The physical object itself? And how important is it that people understand it, or even use it?” All good questions that interactive public art raises. But for the multicultural crowd that turned out for the opening of Full Circle, and those that use it daily, the only thing they want is to play.                 


Artist, educator, and writer Bruce Adams contributes regularly to Spree.


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