Decoding the City: An interview with Mary Miss, DDC artist-in-residence

By NYCxDesign

Image: Artists + City conversations at Earth Day—Nobuho Nagasawa (artist), Ashwini Karanth and Salman Javed discussing how art can be incorporated into Green Infrastructure. Image courtesy of Mary Miss Studio.

By Emma Ng

When it comes to public works, Mary Miss believes that keeping residents informed is good but engaging them is even better. As an artist, she has dedicated much of her practice to advocating the role that artists can play in city projects. She also has the benefit of hindsight; in the 1970s and 80s—a time when there was much talk about including artists at the planning table—she was the artist lead on South Cove, a climbable sculpture installed in Battery Park City in 1988. She tells me that her team, which included an architect and landscape architect,  was lucky that the project came to fruition. More often, for all the talk, little would come of the thinking and work that artists had contributed to conversations about how to enliven urban planning.

Now, Mary Miss is coming to the end of a year as the first artist-in-residence at the Department of Design and Construction (DDC). In that role, she’s been developing a framework for how the agency might continue to involve artists in their work. We caught up with her to talk about cities, artists, and how the two can work together.

Emma Ng: You’re the Department of Design and Construction’s first artist-in-residence. How did that come about?

Mary Miss: The Department of Cultural Affairs was thinking about having artist residencies at different agencies, and they have a program called PAIR (Public Artists in Residence). When the commissioner at the Department of Design and Construction (DDC) asked me if I would be interested, I said that my goal would be to look at the agency and see how more artists could be involved in projects that DDC is doing.

EN: How does your residency at DDC relate to what you were already doing through your organization, City As Living Laboratory?

MM: City As Living Laboratory is a non-profit that I’ve run for the last seven years, and the main goal is to support the idea that artists are able to make issues of sustainability tangible and accessible to people, and that artists can help cities deal with the pressing issues—whether social, environmental, or looking at infrastructure or natural systems.

At DDC, as they’re designing and working with architects, they’re asking that issues of sustainability and equity—key priorities for Mayor DeBlasio―really be stressed. For instance, they’re trying to get green roofs on buildings and make them LEED certified. But my interest is really how do you communicate what is going on to the person who lives in the neighborhood or who’s walking down the street? You can walk by a new building and not have a clue about what’s happening there. In a way, it’s about decoding the city.

EN: Why do you think artists are suited to working as connectors between the city and its residents?

MM: First of all, what artists are good at is thinking about things in a way that other people might not have thought about them before. Imagination is our primary territory, whereas others have to spend most of their time thinking about other things.

The other part of it is that for many artists their reason for being is to engage people, whether it’s viscerally, physically, emotionally, psychologically. I recently read a book called The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh. He’s looking at the problem of climate change through the lens of the novelist. He was pointing out the ability of writers to be able to get people’s psyches and hearts into the issues that they’re addressing. I really love that book, because he was illustrating the role that culture could have.

EN: Yes, a recent report on NPR suggested that in the case of climate change, presenting facts and evidence actually does very little to convince people. I see a resonance between that and the work you’re doing—trying to move beyond informing people to engaging them.

MM: We felt that it doesn’t do any good for people to know those facts. They must also feel some agency, even just a modest ability to respond. I really desire a situation where people can respond. The idea is to be able to do it in a way that we are giving agency, not just trying to hit them over the head and say, “You have to learn this. You have to know this. You have to recycle.”

EN: And now, as you come to the end of your residency, have you figured out possible ways to do this?

We came up with three approaches:

  1. There could be an artist in the role of community liaison, which is a role that actually exists at DDC already [the idea of artists filling this role is new], so that it’s not just about telling people when the water is being turned off, but really doing projects that engage people with what’s happening in a community.
  2. Artists could be on design teams from the beginning, making recommendations that might actually get built into the project.
  3. The third idea is to have artists as fellows. They have student fellows at DDC, but having artists as fellows could really make it possible for artists to begin to understand how this agency works. I think many artists, especially younger artists, are interested in socially engaged practices and how they could impact the city.

EN: How does this differ from the ways that cities have tended to engage artists?

MM: Instead of the Percent for Art model*, which applies to very few projects and has artists come in later in the project, here we are trying to get the effect of artists’ thinking distributed throughout the city, not just in the high-profile projects, but in all scales of projects.

EN: What do you think holds people back from being engaged? Is it human nature, or is it the opaqueness of city work?

MM: A lot of conversations occur at an upper level, among agencies. I’m really curious about how you get those things down on the street. How can you take large scale initiatives and get them to be embedded in neighborhoods through smaller scale projects? I think it’s about getting it in the language of the community, and by that, I mean the interests of the community. It’s really important to have strong community partners.

EN: Do you have an example of how those partnerships can work?

MM: I’ve got this long term project, Broadway: 1000 Steps and the idea is to begin to think of Broadway as a continuous corridor from the tip of Manhattan to the top of the Bronx. It’s about 18 miles. The issues vary tremendously along it, from Bowling Green, which has flooding, to 34th Street where the whole fabric of that neighborhood was built for a different time, to Harlem, where gentrification is such an issue, to 167th Street, where air quality is really affecting the children.

The idea was to ask how we can address the issues that are important along that corridor? In Harlem, we do it by engaging artists and scientists, sociologists and other experts—taking walks, introducing them to each other, so artists know the people they can turn to if they have questions or would like to collaborate with somebody. Then, we have workshops within the community.

What came out was that the residents really wanted a place where they could go to get information in case of emergency—whether it’s Hurricane Sandy, or it’s a power outage, or there’s violence in the apartment next to them, or that their child has asthma and they don’t know where to go or what services are available. So the idea is to do a kiosk on the property, and the housing authority is really excited about this. You begin to hear what the issues are within the community.

* New York City’s Percent for Art law requires that one percent of the budget for City-funded contstruction projects is spent on public artwork.

Read more about City As Living Laboratory, including the Broadway: 1000 Steps project on their website.