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Issue 214

Nancy Baker Cahill's Ghostly Monuments

The artist's augmented-reality works are freeing public sculpture from the ‘ideology of control’

BY Elvia Wilk in Features , Thematic Essays | 15 SEP 20

To find Nancy Baker Cahill’s Liberty Bell (2020), I hiked for 20 minutes through Shirley Chisholm State Park in southeast Brooklyn, holding my iPhone in front of me for directions. An arrow on the 4th Wall app – which Baker Cahill built in 2018 so people can access works like this one – pointed south, directing me to a pier jutting into Jamaica Bay towards Rockaway Beach. I lifted my phone screen up to the horizon and, suddenly, there it was, hovering above the water: an enormous bell, composed of swirling red, white and blue marks, tolling gently back and forth, seemingly in the wind. An ominous, clanging soundtrack emanated from my phone’s speakers in time with the movement. 

This work can’t be viewed without a smartphone or tablet; it exists in the uncanny in-between world of augmented reality (AR), where a live, real-world backdrop hosts virtual objects pinned to geolocations. Baker Cahill has been working with both AR and VR to produce not-strictly-physical experiences for several years. Hand-drawing remains at the core of her practice, but she told me that, the first time she experimented with three-dimensional mark-making in VR, her ‘heart-pounding love affair’ with the technology began. Now, her hand drawings can be seen hovering over sites across the country. 

Nancy Baker Cahill
Liberty Bell, 2020, AR demo via the 4th Wall app, Philadelphia. Courtesy: the artist and Art Production Fund; photograph: Darian DiCianno/BFA.com

Viewing Baker Cahill’s AR works can feel like a scavenger hunt. Four versions of Liberty Bell can be found in various places around the Rockaways (two of them shaped more like ocean waves than bells), but I struck out with my first try at Fort Tilden, where I couldn’t get a 4G signal. Yet, Baker Cahill does not desire a totally seamless technological experience; she prefers ‘the scrappy glitchy stuff – that’s where the opportunity is, where it’s a little bit slippery, uncontained, not knowable’. It’s only when you trip over a seam in the technological landscape that you’re forced to consider how things work – what processes underpin each encounter with Google Maps, Zoom or Netflix? What liberties are promised by any technology? At what cost? 

Liberty Bell, commissioned by the Art Production Fund in 2019, was originally conceived as a single, Philadelphia-based AR artwork, inspired by the city’s iconic, cracked, 18th-century bell. Although the giant bell is touted as a symbol of US independence, Baker Cahill was intrigued by the fact that people in Philadelphia referred to it, ‘albeit lovingly, as sort of a local joke, a tourist trap’. She became fascinated by the object which, like the term liberty, has been commodified and robbed of its integrity in today’s political landscape. Despite being renamed ‘liberty bell’ by abolitionists in the 1830s, in the eyes of many it has been reduced to another piece of Americana kitsch. So, how might the symbol, and the concept it stands for, be reinvested with meaning? 

In addition to the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the four Rockaway locations, Liberty Bell can also be viewed, until July 2021, in: Selma, Alabama, adjacent to the site of a 1965 police attack on civil-rights protestors; over the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in Washington, D.C.; facing the Fort Sumter National Monument to the civil war in Charleston, North Carolina; and over the harbour where the Boston Tea Party revolted in 1773. Baker Cahill refers to these places as ‘contested sites’ where, like the bell, the notion of liberty has been cracked open at various points in history to reveal the inequality at the heart of the American mythos. She told me she wanted the one-and-a-half-minute animation ‘to build and to become dissonant, arrhythmic and ultimately sort of chaotic’, reaching near dissolution but managing to retain cohesion – a metaphor for the perpetual state of the country. 

Nancy Baker Cahill
Liberty Bell, 2020, animated AR drawing with sound via the 4th Wall app, Rockaway Beach. Courtesy: the artist and Art Production Fund; photograph: Neil Rasmus/BFA.com 

Baker Cahill planned the piece long before pandemic-induced lockdown and the closure of cultural spaces around the world, but Liberty Bell’s multi-city launch on 4 July this year could not have been more timely. ‘Working with geolocation for over two years has weirdly been great training for this moment,’ she remarks. With social distancing in effect across the US, the only art that can be encountered live is public art, virtual art or, in this case, both. And, even when institutions eventually reopen, a work like this will remain uniquely accessible to a broad demographic.

Baker Cahill thinks deeply about issues of access when it comes to both art and technology. Although a public park may be free and relatively easy to reach, and although a smartphone is less pricey than a VR headset, the tech, like a museum ticket, does remain a potential barrier. ‘I can’t think of a better or more democratic means of outreach at this point,’ she says of using smartphones, ‘but it’s still incredibly imperfect.’ For this reason, public engagement has been a major part of the Liberty Bell initiative; nearly 20 local partner institutions across different cities are involved to address context-specific concerns. In Selma, where community members suggested that access to tech could be an obstacle, Art Production Fund donated iPads for public use. 

I met Baker Cahill through our mutual affiliation with the Transformations of the Human programme at the Berggruen Institute, a Los Angeles-based independent think tank. Director Tobias Rees describes the evolving initiative as ‘an effort to place philosophers and artists in conversation with scientists, so they can collectively study the understanding of the human’. Given recent scientific leaps in, for example, microbiome research, AI language processing and ecosystem mapping, any stable notion of ‘the human’ must be called into question. Ten artists, including Baker Cahill, are currently developing projects through the programme, now in its second year. (My fellowship places me in conversation with the participants.) 

Nancy Baker Cahill
Nancy Baker Cahill, Hollow Point 101, Animated VR drawing still, 2017. Courtesy: the artist

The impetus to decentre the human has prompted Baker Cahill to consider how technological mediation might replicate or repudiate human power structures; how the human becomes observer, actor or protagonist in the story of technological progress; and how humans see themselves as distinct from, dependent on or in control of machines. Questions like these ‘have long taken root in my brain, particularly as they relate to the body and systems of power, and systems of oppression and resistance’, she says. In conversation with Rees, scientists, engineers and designers, she’s currently developing a wearable form of animated camouflage that could potentially allow the user to evade surveillance capture.

Revolutions, one of two outdoor AR works Baker Cahill made for the 2019 Desert X biennial in Coachella Valley, had to be relocated after major floods wrecked the viewing area. AR works are ephemeral, mutable and relocatable; unlike monumental land art, the modification of this large-scale piece was fast, simple and free. Minus the digital server space and pre-existing hardware, the project as a whole left no ecological footprint. Such pieces use advanced technology not to further narratives of progress and domination, but as a  distinct counterpoint to (masculinist) land art traditions that exalt human intervention into the natural landscape. 

In their innocuousness and agility, land works such as Baker Cahill’s could be called anti monumental. And, currently, as monuments to white supremacy and colonial domination are being torn down around the Western world, her work offers a tentative answer to the question of what to place on these now-empty pedestals. What do we want to monumentalize, if anything? Even when it doesn’t look like a man on a horse, does the permanence and authority of a stone or metal statue inevitably embody a structure of power? With liberty in mind, Baker Cahill emphasizes how important it is not to ‘overshape or overdetermine someone’s experience’ with an artwork. ‘The most interesting artworks give you choice.’

Nancy Baker Cahill
Nancy Baker Cahill, Margin of Error, animated AR drawing via 4th Wall app, 2019,  Desert X Biennial, Salton Sea. Courtesy: the artist

Baker Cahill launched the 4th Wall to help artists and curators to situate other AR works and exhibitions. In June, artist Brianna Harlan created an AR monument to Breonna Taylor. She Ascends (2020) can be viewed at a square in Louisville, where Taylor was murdered, using the ‘Coordinates’ feature of the 4th Wall app. On Independence Day weekend, messages by 80 artists hovered in the sky above 80 Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centres across the US for the project In Plain Sight (2020). Led by artists Cassils and Rafa Esparza, the initiative was both virtual and actual: sky-writing planes wrote physical text, while 4th Wall users could view the messages in AR. 

Attempts at getting art into the virtual realm (witness the ‘online viewing rooms’ launched during lockdown) tend to overlook the sitedness of sensory experience – even that of sitting in front of a laptop. With her focus on contested sites, Baker Cahill points out that AR work, like all art, is contextual, and leaves behind ‘a kind of ghostly image’. Viewing Liberty Bell, I did experience a curious phenomenological effect. Was the bell still there when I put the phone away? How big was the bell in relation to my body? Where was the sound coming from? Why was it located here, of all places? 

Paradoxically, this virtual animation was the most site-specific work I’ve seen in a long time, reinforced by the knowledge that, should meteorological or political conditions change, it could morph along with them – or disappear entirely.

To use emerging digital technology as an artistic medium is, more often than not, to repurpose tools made for marketing and surveillance, associated with a particular ideology of control. Baker Cahill, then, could be said to be in the business of re-tooling. These tools, like the sites she chooses, are already contested, and they should continue to be so.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 214 with the headline ‘Ghosts in the Machine’.

Main Image: Nancy Baker Cahill, Margin of Error, 2019, animated VR drawing still. Courtesy: the artist

Elvia Wilk is the author of Oval (2019) and Death by Landscape, a collection of essays forthcoming this July from Soft Skull Press.