REALITY SHOW: SCULPTURE CENTER’S CROSSROADS ARTISTS REIMAGINE CLEVELAND LANDMARKS
As an emergent artistic technique, augmented reality (AR) may seem like a pretty high-concept notion, long on what George W. Bush called “the Vision thing,” arguably a bit short when it comes to reality itself. But AR offers at least one hugely important advantage to artists and museums, anywhere and everywhere: a fresh and flexible way for audiences to interact with works of art. The technology also bypasses various barriers, accessing the cultural space that art institutions often too jealously guard, as arbiters of value and historicity, and as trustees of actual treasures. Augmented reality walks right in (virtually) and hangs its stuff on the wall (on your smartphone or ipad), which when you think about it is a strikingly revolutionary act. The technique is genuinely “transformative,” in the sense that it facilitates a reimagining of the world, nailing its manifestos on the doors of perception. For those reasons AR has been gaining traction since about 2010, and is beginning to come into its own in a big way due in part to COVID-19 and the urgency of social distancing, plus an ever-increasing awareness that access often perpetuates hard-to-spot structural inequities, as well as very obvious racist discrimination.
So what is augmented reality? In the case of a ground-breaking exhibit titled And Still We Rise opening this summer through The Sculpture Center, it’s a free app known as 4th Wall, available online courtesy of LA artist Nancy Baker Cahill. It works by superimposing new information into/onto a real place, via your phone’s camera lens. First you have to actually go to the place: the show is billed as interactive. Then GPS software pinpoints the location, identifies the structure—a museum wall, a public building’s façade, a bridge—and the app goes into action, hanging there an image, or anything else an artist can supply.
For The Sculpture Center’s upcoming hybrid exhibition And Still We Rise, which is part of their Crossroads program, curator Robin Robinson of Sankofa Fine Arts worked with Director Grace Chin to kick off promotion of the show. The two cooperated with Cahill to produce an AR image of the well-known Cleveland mural Our Lives Matter—which is the original work of Robin Robinson herself and fellow artist Gary Williams. But instead of showing it in its actual location on East 105th Street, the image of an African American man wearing a black hoodie, pictured with his wife and child, was superimposed on a photograph of the façade and front steps of the Cuyahoga County Courthouse in downtown Cleveland.
The twelve artists chosen from the city’s African American arts community to participate in And Still We Rise are Lawrence Baker, Donald Black Jr., Marcus Brathwaite, Gwendolyn Garth, Amanda King, Hilton Murray, Edward E. Parker, Shani Richards, Vince Robinson, Charmaine Spencer, Gina Washington, and Gary Williams. Working in many different media and disciplines, most of these artists and their works are familiar to Cleveland art audiences. They were chosen in part, also, to represent six East Side neighborhoods: Glenville, East Cleveland, Buckeye, Central, Kinsman, and Slavic Village. In several cases, the Crossroads artists revisit all but forgotten Cleveland connectors and locales that at some point figured prominently in Cleveland’s checkered, eventful history. A powerful system of symbols emerges from these works, describing a city Clevelanders may think they know and its narratives of freedom, through new metaphors, or from barely familiar perspectives.
In the Kinsman neighborhood, located not far from Slavic Village, an historic suspension bridge spans the Kingsbury Run Valley, high above the rapid transit tracks there. It was built by the legendary Shaker Heights entrepreneurs the Van Sweringen brothers as a replacement for an earlier wooden structure. Connecting Polish and Czech neighborhoods, the 1930 Sidaway Bridge—Cleveland’s only example of a classic suspension bridge—soon proved ill-fated. In the years immediately following the opening of the bridge, Kingsbury Run was the bloody site of the era’s notorious Torso Murders. The structure soon acquired an evil reputation, though many children used it regularly at that time to get to school. During the same period, the demographic transformations of the Great Migration were in full swing, and the Kinsman area became predominately African American. Sidaway was soon a flashpoint for racial tensions. During the Hough Riots of 1966, when the main action took place just west of University Circle a few miles due north of Kinsman, white rioters set fire to Sidaway’s wooden planking. Authorities deemed it unsafe, and the bridge was closed. It stayed closed, and the city’s unwillingness to repair and reopen it was ruled (in a federal court ruling that mandated school busing) to be proof of collusion among powers in city government, resisting desegregation. After half a century, what matters to artists like Shani Richards, who explores the community dynamics of the situation in the Crossroads show, is the incredible fact that Sidaway Bridge was never repaired, and never reopened. It’s still there, in fact, sealed off and accessible only through privately-owned land. Online articles state that the best way to get a good look at the historic structure is from the window of a rapid transit car, passing nearby just east of the 55th Street RTA stop. Since access is impossible, Richards, who earned her MFA in Metalsmithing from Myers School of Art at the University of Akron, will project images of the bridge and information about it at Elizabeth Baptist Church, which serves the nearby community.
Another fascinating, now neglected chapter in Cleveland’s important Black cultural history centers around the Majestic Hotel. Unlike the Sidaway Bridge, the 250-room hotel opened in 1907 was demolished decades ago. East-Side multimedia artist and community activist Gwendolyn Garth intends to make a work of art in AR envisioning a cultural center that would commemorate the Majestic on its original site at the corner of Central and East 55th Street. In its heyday the hotel was Cleveland’s answer to Harlem—an oasis for black visitors and performers over a span of several decades, an important part of Cleveland’s Black artistic renaissance stretching into the 1950s. The hotel was home to one of the nation’s great jazz clubs, opening and reopening over the years as The Furnace Room, The Heat Wave, Ubangi Club, and most famously the Rose Room.
The Crossroads team of artists explores many other long-lost corners of the city, bringing to light the stories, achievements, and struggles of several generations of African American East-Siders. Photographer Gina Washington, who earned her MFA at Ohio University, uses the damaged, but still functioning stone footbridge, uniting Cleveland Heights and East Cleveland as it spans Forest Hills Boulevard, to display photos of East Cleveland residents of all ages. They’re shown holding their written answers to the question, “Who Are You?”
The well-known sculptor, painter, and educator Ed Parker, who long ago brought two huge classical columns to the street in East Cleveland where he lives and who has owned and operated a school, an art gallery, a café, and a B&B establishment, is using his columns—which mark a sort of gateway between Cleveland and East Cleveland—to frame an AR work about gun violence. There will be much, much more. The exhibit is likely to inspire new hopes based on Cleveland’s illustrious past, and it also might wake a few ghosts and touch a nerve or two, in an always surprising city, noted for industry, arts, innovative rustbelt-style segregation, and a whopping amount of denial.