A mugshot of the artist Jonas Mekas from New Yorks Department of Records and Information Services, part of Julia's Weist's Public Record project Photo: Julia Weist
The artist Julia Weist is rethinking the role of public art and, with it, what the public offers artists. Although her stint as Public Artist in Residence (PAIR) for the for New Yorks Department of Records and Information Services (DORIS) began before lockdown shut down the city—and with it, many of the parks and squares where public art can be found—she had been working in isolation for months in the municipal archives, dredging up examples of artists whose work, even if little known, has helped shape the citys cultural landscape through government-sponsored programmes.
Her resulting project is partly archival, partly participatory. Entitled Public Record, it represents the culmination of Weists year-long residency and consists of 11 individual photographic prints submitted to DORIS as official correspondence. Her compositions were created by overlaying archival items with retrieval slips, leaving only essential sentences visible. Once the photographs of the collages were complete, she transferred a print of each to the Commissioner of DORIS with a simple memo attached: “Ive completed eleven artworks in a series called Public Record.” As of this week, the digitised artworks, themselves now embedded in the bureaucratic structure in which she was working, are available for free for anyone if they submit a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request by following the instructions on the archives.nyc project page.
Rubrics, a photographic work by Julia Weist, part of her Public Record project © Julia Weist
As the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic pushes people online for most human interactions, Weist sees it as an opportunity to reclaim the digital commons for the people. These municipal records, she says, are owned wholly by citizens and made available for the publics benefit.
“Typically public art utilises shared physical infrastructure such as parks, plazas and sidewalks. I'm interested in spaces owned by the public that may be abstract or immaterial,” Weist explains, adding that this project asks New Yorkers to consider two such alternative public sites. “The first is the public record, meaning all information that's already public or that can be made public according to laws and protocols. The second is the only truly public space on the internet: government websites and platforms. Although the internet is a public commons—a place where the public gathers—it's made up of privately owned and operated sites.”
A warehouse for New Yorks Department of Records and Information Services Photo: Julia Weist
As her work now lives sandwiched between both physical and digital documents related to everyday life in the city—such as birth certificates, court documents and old wages ledgers—Weist was confronted by the uneasy relationship between how art and the artists who make it fit within the city. While it is evident that New Yorks municipal government has historically understood the value that art offers the city, one of the most culturally dense in the US, Weist says it was less clear what the city offers back to artists.
She describes decades-old records in the Department of Employments collection that stated: “Even prosperous economic times may find up to an estimated 75% of the work force in arts professions unemployed.” These statements are even more haunting now as 95% of artists report having lost work due to the pandemic. A few notable public work programmes show up, such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA), established in the 1930s, and the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) in the 1970s, each of which could provide models for economic recovery for artists and cultural workers at large in the months ahead.
International, a photographic work by Julia Weist, part of her Public Record project © Julia Weist
But Weist says mostly the records are exhaustive in their documentation of art workers struggling to survive in New York. “Artists are defunded, victimised, rejected and evicted,” she writes in an essay about Public Record. “They are turned in to the House Un-American Activities Committee and are surveilled by undercover NYPD “Red Squad” officers who infiltrate their gatherinRead More – Source