Dara Greenwald & Olivia Robinson's "Spectres of Liberty"
Dara Greenwald & Olivia Robinson's "Spectres of Liberty"Date posted: 2008-05-28 15:58:00
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
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
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
When: Beginning at 8:30 p.m. Friday, May 30.
Where: Liberty Street, between Third and Fourth streets, Troy
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/.