Planning, Place, and Displacement: An Interview with the Boston-based “Lumen Collective”

Last week, CitySMARTS sat down with members of the Boston-based artist group, the Lumen Collective, to discuss their first art opening entitled “Urban Planning: A History of Public vs. Private Space in the Heart of Downtown Boston.” Brooke Scibelli, a founding member of the collective, answered a few of our questions about the relationship between the artist, public space, and a history of displacement within the Dewey Square community. 

Brooke ScibelliCitySMARTS:  Thanks for sitting down with us to discuss your work. I just have a few questions: what is the Lumen Collective? How did it come to be and who was involved in its creation?

Brooke Scibelli: The Lumen Collective is around ten people of young creative students and recent grads from different schools in Boston, including MassArt, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, and Tufts University. Originally, we decided to form a group to meet once a week to talk about the creative processes, what we make, and how we can stay on track with deadlines. Then, we applied for a grant with the Rose F. Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, who awarded our project with funding.

CS: What does “Urban Planning” the art exhibit have to say about the profession itself?

BS: We started with “Urban Renewal” as a working title, but then we decided to go with “Urban Planning.” With this project, we wanted to explore: how does the history of, and what happened in Dewey Square – which went through all these different changes – relate to urban planning? Specifically, how did the Big Dig, the Central Artery, and these large-scale public projects affect the space and largely the people who used to live in that space?

CS: Did this project alter your initial impression of the Dewey Square Park history?

"The Giant of Boston"

“The Giant of Boston” by Os Gêmeos

BS: As a child, I remember visiting the city and seeing an elevated highway. It was how we traveled into the city. Now, my connection with it is Occupy Boston and the Os Gêmeos mural. It’s a really politically charged space. During our research at the Boston Public Library archives, we learned a lot about various highway projects that displaced communities. For example, residents of Jamaica Plain organized to prevent the construction of a highway through their neighborhood, an effort by which they were successful. Another working title for the project was “Displacement” because it reflected on the various kinds of displacement possible in our cities.

CS: What was the process by which the collective chose public and private space as the opening’s conceptual focus?

BS:  We went through a lot of discussion about the concept, and whether we would aggressively showcase ‘displacement’ as an on-going political issue, or whether we would artfully reflect on the historical content of this space. The whole piece is geared around a lighting installation, involving one thousand feet of LED lights outlining the perimeter of the buildings that were destroyed by the construction of the Central Artery. So, this idea of the light schematic was our starting point from which there was a lot of discussion and debate.

The Project for Public Spaces in New York argues that “placemaking capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, ultimately creating good public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness, and well being… Unfortunately the way our communities are built today has become so institutionalized that community stakeholders seldom have a chance to voice ideas and aspirations about the places they inhabit. Placemaking breaks through this by showing planners, designers, and engineers how to move beyond their habit of looking at communities through the narrow lens of single-minded goals or rigid professional disciplines. The first step is listening to the best experts in the field—the people who live, work and play in a place.” How does “Urban Planning,” and the contributions made by individuals, relate to this philosophy?

BS: There’s a huge difference between the people who inhabit it now and the people who inhabited it then. We spoke with some of the former residents of Dewey Square who worked in production there, making shoes, rubber, wool, etc. They talked about the space being dirty and crowded, but exciting and bustling – which sounds like a vibrant place before the demolition of the area. Personally, I found that to be kind of sad, to lose that vibrancy. Today, it’s in the middle of the financial district beside the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

During Occupy Boston, there was an amazing mix of people in that space. For example, there was a successful fruit seller in Dewey Square who didn’t have adequate permits anymore, so he was asked to leave, which is another form of displacement. Though, the city and The Rose F. Kennedy Greenway Conservancy have provided this destroyed land with beautifully kept public parks, trash receptacles, benches, lights, and space and grants for public art.

CS: Planners and policymakers seek solutions to social and economic problems which requires a degree of control within the urban space. Architects are faced with the same difficulty in that their task relies upon a level of permanence within public space. Is it possible to allow for flexibility in a space without forcing the artist to compromise?

BS: It’s hard, especially in Boston, to produce public art. Going back to Os Gêmeos’ controversial mural, people misinterpreted the meaning of a shirt wrapped around the pictured boy’s head. The artists were referring to the struggle of making anonymous street art in Brazil. Additionally, murals of this size and location require funding and permission from donors and organizations. Within this type of dynamic, public art struggles to be provocative and to push boundaries of what will be accepted. So, in relation to flexibility in public space, an artist has to clearly deliver their message and prepare to defend their position.

CS: What difficulties do artists face in using public space as a canvas, specifically in Boston?

BS: Largely, artists must deal with the permit process, but it usually depends on the scale of what artists are doing. For example, some art in public space just appears on columns or other public objects like an electrical box. This is art on a much smaller scale in a different way – the same goes for graffiti, like the wall in Cambridge. In Boston, it’s really difficult to do large-scale public work that pushes boundaries because lack of funding, and approval or support from organizations or institutions. Specifically for “Urban Planning,” there were limitations to how long we could run our audio and keep lighting elements installed.

Though, an example of a successful public art platform is Art on The Marquee, a collaboration between Boston Cyberarts and the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority. Artists can submit video work to Art on The Marquee and selected pieces will be displayed on the set of huge digital screens on the waterfront. This provides great public exposure to many different kinds of artists. Interestingly, it’s also used as signage for advertising – just the other day, the Blue Man group was using it. It’s similar to how MTV in the ’80s showed “art breaks,” where it’s the same medium.

CS: What are artists doing today to change the rules that control public space?

BS: There’s a performance artist who marks off a square on the sidewalk, and she stands in the midst of on-coming foot traffic and protects her square. It was interesting, because some people were offended, some people found it amusing, and some people started to mimic her, protecting their own spaces. It was an interesting command of public space.

Even here in Boston, some artists – largely out of necessity – use their own residential spaces at home as venues for artwork.

CS: Does the ephemerality of some art, like performance art, make it less potent?

BS: No. It is just as potent. Performance art can be in public space, private space, space including your lap on a Tuesday in the subway. Performance art is ephemeral, but it can be invasive. And when something stirs you unexpectedly, it’s debris can linger.

Urban Planning: A History of Public vs. Private Space in the Heart of Downtown Boston opens on Thursday, March 7, 6:00 – 7:30PM at Dewey Square Park between Summer St & Congress St., Boston, MA. Visit the Lumen Collective‘s website for more information.

2 Thoughts.

  1. As a student of American politics, I found this interview to be very illuminating in multiple respects. The political science literature does not always pay sufficient attention to the issue of community displacement rendered by development projects over which residents, especially those lacking political clout, have little, if any, control. So, I learned a lot from Matthew Gardner’s interview with Brooke Scibelli regarding the Lumen Collective and the broader issues its efforts raise.

  2. Thanks Elizabeth! Thats great to hear. This piece is truly focused on the communities no longer in existence because of these public development projects.

    I want to state that the event, Urban Planning was post-poned due to weather last week, and is taking place this week Thursday, March 14th. Same time, same place. So if you are just seeing this article now, you are welcomed to our event this Thursday! Thanks, and hope to see you there!

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