Redefining Common Space

A conversation with Liz Glynn and Stephanie Cardon, moderated and written by Leah Triplett-Harrington, July 2018.

Do you feel at home in malls? Are they places where you feel free to sit, relax, or walk? Can you visit for some fresh air, or gather with friends to talk while you rest on a bench?

When we think of malls today, we often think of shopping malls that became popular in the 1980s: gleaming white retail promenades that serve one purpose: shopping. But originally, malls were spaces designed for people to gather and in join their city, their common home.

Liz Glynn's Open House and Stephanie Cardon's UNLESS are the first two of Now + There's projects addressing how we live with the history and place in Boston, and how memory, access, and power shape our shared history. Glynn, based in LA, is known for her work that contends with how materials traffic. Open House, comprised of 26 pieces of Louis XIV  furniture cast in concrete and currently situated on the Commonwealth Ave Mall, asks how we navigate common spaces. Later this summer, Cardon's UNLESS will be unfurled inside the Prudential Center, at the center of its shopping hub. The installation’s bright orange and blue colors will entreat us to consider how the most ubiquitous of materials— plastic— affects the most vital common home, the earth.

Here, I chatted with Liz and Stephanie about public space, Boston, and how their projects recontextualize two of our city's most iconic malls.


Leah Triplett Harrington (LTH): To my knowledge, these projects (Liz's Open House and Stephanie's UNLESS) are the first large-scale public artworks that you've each done in Boston. I'd love to start our dialogue by talking about how working "in public" (ie, outside of a gallery space) affects your work. How do you define "public space"?

Stephanie Cardon (SC): Public space, in theory, is space open to anyone. Free of cost, accessible at any time of day or night. In practice, of course, we each experience public spaces in different ways. Most spaces will draw specific audiences and users, demand different modes of engagement, affect our behavior explicitly or subtly.

Ultimately, it is the lack of homogeneity of places and the people within them that makes public space interesting to me. Who goes there and why? What are their frames of reference? I see UNLESS as an interruption of the usual flow in the Prudential Center and as an invitation to engage in different behaviors and considerations than this space usually allows.

Liz Glynn (LG): “Public” goes back to the Latin publicus “of the people.” Open House was initially inspired in part by a number of texts written about New York City’s public parks in the 1980s declaring the parks “unsafe” and likening the people using the parks to vermin. The very notion that people using a space officially designated as free and open seemed antithetical to the notion of the public park, and raised questions for me about historic inequalities.

I think about public space as a commons, a space for all members of society to use as they see fit. The nature of public space is that it is shared amongst people from all walks of life, and as such, offers the potential for chance encounters amongst people who might not otherwise meet.  When Open House was first installed in Central Park, one the most exciting aspects of the project was realizing how many people would have access to the work who might never walk inside an art museum.


LTH: These projects both complicate two familiar types of malls— an outdoor, open space and a commercial retail setting— and reintroduce a contemplative space within both. What I mean by that is that historically, malls were conceived as communal city spaces to walk, talk, or think— but in recent decades, the mall has taken on a much more capitalistic purpose. So it's interesting to think about these projects in this context to reclaim the mall. With that in mind, I wonder if you could each talk about how you initially approached your sites. Did you have particular connotations that you brought with you?

LG: In seeking an appropriate site to present Open House in Boston, we sought to balance both practical and aesthetic concerns. We considered an iconic location near Copley Square, but the rapid pace of pedestrian traffic– perhaps a consequence of hardworking people responding to the incessant demands of capitalism– felt challenging to interrupt.  

I wanted to find a site that was central and accessible, but also offered the possibility of a contemplative pause. The Commonwealth Avenue Mall was ideal in that it had a historic connection to the work, as Stanford White, the architect who designed the William C. Whitney Ballroom on which the work is based, also designed six opulent private homes on Commonwealth Avenue and in the surrounding neighborhood, as well as the Hotel Buckminster.  When it was originally designed, the Commonwealth Avenue Mall was originally designed as a strolling promenade for people of leisure. Open House was originally designed for Doris C. Freedman Plaza in Central Park, five blocks south of the original Whitney mansion, now demolished. The original ballroom was designed to host only the most elite one thousand members of New York society at the time only once a year for the elaborate social ritual of the ball.

SC: Boston Properties approached Now + There with that particular space in mind for an art commission and Now + There approached me for the piece. I didn’t grow up in the US and knew of malls from visiting and from movies. I don’t have any particular affinity towards them; quite the opposite. So it took me some time to think through how I would respond to the space. In the end, I was drawn in by its democratic potential— the fact that it is open 24 hours a day, and is used by many different people for different reasons, and therefore would have a large, if not necessarily captive audience. Because it is a space devoted to capitalism, it seemed pointless to avoid the topic. In fact, capitalism, its allure and its dangers, became the pivot point from which I took on a variety of other interconnected social and environmental issues in the piece. UNLESS considers the intersection of material production and the circulation of goods, urban development, social inequities and climate change. This may seem vast, but not if we understand the current climate crisis as a social and economic one. While huge in scale, UNLESS is visually very minimal, and can be experienced in an instant. It doesn’t necessarily require contemplation. But for anyone wishing to get lost in its intricacies there is also much to offer.


LTH: UNLESS and Open House both utilize everyday construction materials (concrete and construction debris netting, respectively). Why are these materials appropriate for your projects?

LG: Relative to the opulently carved hardwood of the original Louis XIV furniture referenced in Open House, concrete is a “poor” material.  Invented by the Romans around AD 69, it was used widely by modern architects including Le Corbusier in utopic public housing projects designed to provide high quality housing to the masses.

SC: I suppose I have a love affair with “poor” materials and their inherent narratives (most people recognize them, don’t regard them as fine art, but understand their associative power). In this piece I exclusively used construction debris netting, much of which was repurposed from building sites around the city of Boston. This netting shrouds buildings and is most often black – for UNLESS I chose to use a safety orange version, which, being neon, casts a glow onto surfaces around it. Neon orange has an immediate connotation of danger and the necessity to remain alert. The blue circles, made of similar repurposed netting, illustrate a simple data point: that at US rates of consumption, the global population would require 4 earths to sustain itself. The blue intensifies as the circles overlap in the middle of the installation. At a distance though, the piece might read more like an abstract drawing. The netting in itself contains the narrative thread of urban development, which emits significant amounts of greenhouse gases, while also, in Boston in particular, exacerbating income inequality.

LTH: You both have backgrounds in photography. What made you move from flat, two-dimensional forms to spatial ones? How do photographic processes affect your current work?


LG: I was fortunate to study under the great conceptual artist Annette Lemieux while I was in college. Prior to that time, I didn’t understand the potential to create meaning out of space and scale. However, when I began making sculpture, I didn’t fully trust my hands to “sculpt” in the conventional sense, and so I turned to mold-making and casting. Like photography, casting is an indexical process, which means that every cast or photograph is connected to a real thing in the world. The elements of Open House were each cast from molds taken from models created in my studio. I began with pieces of antique furniture as skeletons which were subsequently reinforced, built-up, and detailed in my studio in Los Angeles.

SC: One of the ways photography is translated into my sculptural work is through the attention to light, space, and pattern. A few years ago I began using moiré patterns as a way to draw attention to the space in-between places. It’s hard to know before seeing UNLESS how much this will be true of this piece, but certainly, creating repeating and layered elements, with lines or grids, has been one working method for me to coax the interference into being.

Back when I was photographing full-time, it was already clear to me that the act of picture taking was foremost about being in or journeying to a place and trying to commit something of its essence to film. The site-specific installations I make always are attentive to shifting light and the possibilities of the piece transforming as a result.


LTH: And finally, Liz, you grew up in Boston, and Stephanie, you've lived and worked here for some time. Boston has seen so much change in recent years. What change do you hope to see with your projects?

LG: When I was growing up in Braintree, I was obsessed with the ancient Egyptian collection of the MFA Boston, and almost all of the art I saw was made at least a hundred years ago.  My mother was an architect, and I was very aware of Boston’s piety to traditions of historic preservation when it came to old buildings and patriotic history. What’s exciting for me as an artist working today is the possibility of using history as a site to rethink our present moment and the way forward. Open House uses a lesser known history of the Gilded Age to spark a conversation about questions about who has access to real estate and public space today and in the future.  

SC: I wouldn’t presume to try and change anyone’s mind with an artwork, so it was important to me that the participants who collaborated with me in fabricating UNLESS have a meaningful stake in the project. This was one reason for the partnership with La Villa Victoria, the Puerto Rican community in the South End, which was impacted by last year’s hurricane. Students from San Juan, PR, who had transferred to MassArt to complete their studies after their school closed, also played a huge role. The budget for the project was largely devoted to paying all participants for their labor. Patching and embroidering the piece with the excerpts from Pope Francis’s Encyclical Letter on climate justice took the longest amount of time. About 30 different people helped with that alone and the piece is a drawing of sorts, with many hands, and levels of technique represented.

I doubt anyone who denies the fact of climate change will walk away a changed person. But for them, perhaps there will be a moment of reverie provided by color and light and scale. For others, who are already concerned with the state of our environment, perhaps UNLESS will provide some additional awareness of the injustices of climate change: that those least responsible for it are often the first impacted by the warming and devastation it is causing.

Header photo by Ryan McMahon