Fort Hauser, a recurring sculptural spectacle

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Islands of LA congratulates Fort Hauser on its use of traffic islands for public space and wishes success for 2012 as it embarks on new projects. Its great to see Faith Purvey‘s project evolve. Faith first contacted Islands of LA in early 2008 wanting to do an event on a traffic island. Through correspondence, phone conversations and meetings, Ari Kletzky, founder of Islands of LA, shared with Faith U.S. Island Law as well as the urban, conceptual and theoretical analysis for understanding traffic islands and their use and availability for public interaction.

Fort Hauser's birth at the Washington Art Concert and Islands Anyone? in October 2009

Islands of LA theorized these spaces could be used in a recurring way to foster community interaction and had investigated these spaces using a plural lens of law, history, political theory, psychology, geography and urbanism. Faith proposed doing a tea party and was also thinking about creating a sculpture with the community that was beautiful and would bring people together in public, pointing to the spectrum of public art/public sculpture ranging from traditional public sculpture to modern concepts and work like Joseph Beuys‘ notion of social sculpture and his Sculpture Park/7,000 Oak Trees.

In October 2009, Stephen van Dyke invited Islands of LA to its second road show on Washington Blvd. Islands of LA and Fallen Fruit, who were collaborating on Love Apples, had jointly participated in the first road show on San Fernando Blvd in 2008.  For the show on Washington Blvd, Islands of LA mapped all the traffic islands on Washington blvd and invited people to use them for the road show. This was an example of Islands of LA’s  role of providing freely available information about traffic island use.

Knowing of Faith’s interest, information about participating in the show was shared with her. She was also contacted to find out what dynamics she wanted in an island. She said she wanted an island that had pedestrian traffic and was large enough for her to do an event. After mapping the islands, Islands of LA contacted her and discussed a couple of possibilities. She settled on using the island at Hauser and Washington.

With her creative insight and understanding of the urban, legal and socio-political dynamics of these spaces, she developed a children’s art studio and gallery that she put up and left for the week, serving as as a community and legal test since structures are not allowed to be left over night. The structure was watched by a local resident drawn to the project. She decided to title the gallery Fort Hauser, implicitly referencing the long tradition of fort, fortification and fortress in human culture. In this case, it is used to defend and create art, community and notions of public. Her fort was welcomed by the community. Kids drew pictures and hung them up. Parents were delighted and contributed food. Local residents stayed with the structure over night. After the event, Faith wrote about the experience.

Faith has continued to develop the project staging other art events that involve children as well as adults, moving beyond the children’s art gallery concept. As of late 2011, she describes the project as “a recurring sculptural spectacle” and invites people “to create artworks to interact with a series of installations and events, collectively redesigning and occupying “forgotten” public space.” The notion of framing these spaces as forgotten warrants closer attention as does the desire to produce spectacles.

If these are forgotten, when were they remembered and by whom? Was it the “city” or the specific people who built them? Moreover, if they were remembered at some point by some group, that implies that other people who remember these spaces are dismissed. Certainly, this is not Faith’s spirit but framing these spaces in terms of memory lost and regained raises certain issues worth considering.

There is an important history of the usage of traffic islands that is worth understanding, which points to people who have and continue to remember these spaces. This is important because understanding of space and place impacts how we interact with it and how other people who haven’t considered these spaces begin to think about them. Examples of the use and understanding of traffic islands for gathering include Memorial Day in the U,S., political activity globally (i.e. protest for democracy in Bahrain, Sudanese refugees in Cairo, Raging Grannies of Greater Westerly, Occupy LA), art and politics, as urban artifact of one of the most ancient “public structures” Stonehenge, and as the freest place in the American city for peaceable assembly. Islands are also an example of everyday urbanism as they are used by some homeless as a refuge, for individuals to rest or sell things and for the LA Fire Department to raise money. Islands of LA suggests these artifacts in the urban landscape should be framed as “hidden in plain view.” Some people are aware of these treasures and other people drive by them, never noticing them at all. Faith’s work is compelling because it helps a local community interact with the resources in their locale that they have overlooked rather than remember something, which has been forgotten.

Let’s also consider using traffic islands as places for spectacle. First, the notion of spectacles on traffic islands raises the issue of safety. Personal safety in the built environment is a major trigger point for many people, including the city. People’s notion of spectacle may unintentionally result in unreasonable fear about the use of traffic islands for gathering. Faith’s projects have always been safe, attracting people without overly diverting and inundating their attention or the attention of drivers thus her usage doesn’t suggest unsafe attention but her description of the events has the possibility of being interpreted in this way. Moreover, there is a cultural critique of spectacle (anchored in the Society of Spectacle) as something that titillates but leaves no room for engaging interaction and reflection. This is clearly antithetical to Fort Hauser’s tradition and intention, which is a compelling project because it isn’t a spectacle like a Las Vegas weekend lion show. In short, the use of the word and the concept of the spectacle may be worth revisiting.

Fort Hauser presents the sophisticated notion of a recurring, resident created temporary sculpture as a way to use available public space legally and creatively to bring people together. Its creativity and heartfelt intention have been well received by local residents, which is a testament to her efforts and is most difficult to achieve. To keep up with the development of her project, please visit the facebook page or the website.

Islands of LA is intrigued to see how the project continues to develop. Everyone is welcome to explore these spaces and Islands of LA hopes the theory and information it has developed about the use and availability of pedestrian accessible traffic islands for gathering and community development is helpful.

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