Dara Greenwald & Olivia Robinson's "Spectres of Liberty"

Dara Greenwald & Olivia Robinson's "Spectres of Liberty"

Date posted: 2008-05-28 15:58:00

http://timesunion.com/AspStories/storyprint.asp?StoryID=690774

Taking 'Liberty'
Former Troy church memorialized by an inflatable artwork

By AMY HALLORAN, Special to the Times Union
First published: Sunday, May 25, 2008

"Spectres of Liberty" is an inflatable gone wild. This is art based  
on the model that props up Santa Clauses and Great Pumpkins in front  
yards: make a shape of some lightweight plastic and use a fan to  
inflate it. The shape in the case of "Spectres" happens to be a  
building, the Liberty Street Church, an African-American Presbyterian  
Church that burned in downtown Troy in 1941. The representation of  
the building will stand for one night, on Friday, May 30, on Liberty  
Street in Troy between Third and Fourth Streets, starting at 8:30 in  
the evening. The event coincides with the monthly Troy Night Out arts  
walk.

The project is the work of three artists directly and indirectly  
drawn to the city by RPI's Electronic Arts Department. Media artist  
and writer Dara Greenwald is pursuing a doctorate in Electronic Arts,  
and Olivia Robinson finished her MFA at RPI last spring. Josh  
MacPhee, a longtime collaborator of Greenwald's, lives in Brooklyn  
but has lived in Troy. Robinson now teaches fiber arts at Syracuse  
University.

The three have used the Internet to communicate and, to a certain  
extent, work remotely on this project, even creating a Wiki -- a  
collection of Web pages -- to share thoughts and materials over the  
course of the last year.

"You can only do so much in that kind of space," Greenwald notes  
while being interviewed at the Troy Public Library. "New media  
artists advocate a spiritual collaboration but I haven't found that  
to be successful at all."

What has worked for the group is daily meetings in the month of May,  
when they've all been in the city, working. Material that's come from  
five minutes of in-person discussion has been richer, the trio has  
found, than all the work they did while apart.

The three started working together last summer, doing test runs of  
potential structures, and beginning to develop theoretical  
explorations of the church and its pastor, Henry Highland Garnet,  
whose words will be projected onto the inflated church's walls.

"Henry Highland Garnet was actually very famous internationally,"  
notes Greenwald, opening a discussion of their research. "He was  
known around the world for his orations and publications. So it  
actually wasn't hard to find all the basic information about him on  
the Internet, even though it's hard to find out about him walking  
down the street in Troy. We also went to the Rensselaer (County)  
Historical Society, which has a curriculum about the Underground  
Railroad in Troy."

Robinson got a stack of books by or about Garnet from Syracuse  
University, which has an African-American Studies Library, as well as  
many titles in their general collections. "It's been interesting  
looking through those books," MacPhee says, "and seeing that Garnet's  
writings seem like they were really pretty influential to the  
thinking of the Black Liberation Movement. Yet when I learned about  
this stuff I don't remember ever seeing his name. He's this ghost  
that floats all over our knowledge about the movement of Black  
Liberation in this country but he's never fully present."

Words from an 1843 address Garnet made to the slaves of the United  
States will be featured in the sculpture. This particular writing  
represents a pivotal shift in abolitionism, which had focused on  
asking masters to release slaves while encouraging slaves to be  
obedient; Garnet's words urged slaves to resist, rebel and runaway.

This building made of air is a curious foil, at the very least, to  
the land of puffy creatures that populate roofs and lawns. But it  
might also be much more than that, a moment of public remembering  
that points an arrow to a very intriguing time, a time when Troy was  
on the map of abolitionism.

"You have this structure and hopefully," Robinson says, "people feel  
the invitation to go inside."

"Our monument is temporary," says MacPhee. "It's made of air."

"It's ephemeral," Greenwald adds.

Whatever your perspective, aesthetic or historic, the ghost of this  
building will be a wonder to witness.

Amy Halloran is a freelance writer living in Troy.

'Spectres of Liberty'
What: A site-specific art project by Dara Greenwald, Josh MacPhee and  
Olivia Robinson.
When: Beginning at 8:30 p.m. Friday, May 30.
Where: Liberty Street, between Third and Fourth streets, Troy
Info: http://spectresofliberty.com/site/about
Note: "Spectres" coincides with the monthly Troy Night Out, also  
taking place Friday, from 5-9 p.m. at venues throughout Troy. For  
more info, visit http://www.troynightout.org/.

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