Viewpoint Discrimination and Impact: Funding for Public Art in Oakland

Viewpoint Discrimination and Impact:  Funding for Public Art in Oakland

Kate Wivell


On July 23, 2015, the Building Industry Association of the Bay Area (BIABA) filed a claim in the Northern District Court of California against the City of Oakland, asserting that the newly revised Percent for Public Art Ordinance violated developers’ constitutional rights.  Basing their claim on two causes of action, under the First, the Fifth, and consequently, the Fourteenth Amendments[1], the outcome of this suit could potentially jeopardize similar Percent for Art programs in other major US cities, notably Philadelphia and San Francisco, both of which rely on contributions from private developers.[2] 

Scheduled to go to trial in September 2016, this case presents a unique opportunity to look more closely at the intersections between public and private investment in public art as a form of social engagement, and the degrees to which this social imperative is mandated and regulated by constitutional law.  More pointedly, the precedential law relating to government arts funding will help to anticipate the court’s holding in this case and allow for a consideration of its consequences.

Percent for Art programs are generally supported for their ability to champion positive social aims and foster economic growth, however they are more commonly associated with public development projects.[3]  The public art ordinance in Oakland is not unique in exacting funds from private developers, however the case requires

careful consideration of how the public and private sectors are delineated within the law and how constitutional rights and restrictions are subsequently imposed. 

Having previously allocated 1.5% of municipal capital to the funding of public art projects the City of Oakland amended the code in December 2014, to adopt Chapter 15.70, requiring that an additional .5% of residential or 1% of nonresidential development project costs be set aside for production and display of publically accessible art. [4]   The new Public Art Requirement states that should the developers forgo the on-site installation of government approved art projects, they must pay an in-lieu fee to be used at the city’s discretion for public art initiatives.[5]

The plaintiff is pursuing its first cause of action under the Fifth Amendment based on the precedent set forth by Koontz v. St John’s River Water Management (2013)[6], wherein the court expanded on the Nollan/Dolan test which does not allow governments to exact fees from “developers that are unrelated and disproportionate to the direct impact arising from new developments”[7], adding that compensation could also be sought for the denial of such land use applications.[8] The plaintiff is seeking a declaratory judgment that the exactions of the ordinance are unconstitutional and injunctive relief to compensate for the takings of their property without reasonable connection between exaction and social impact of developments. [9]

In pursuing this claim the BIABA echoes a long-held distrust in the ability of public art to remedy social ills, particularly if such projects fail to meet the immediate needs of the community being displaced or impacted by development. [10] Currently, there is an affordable housing crisis in Oakland, however, there is no evidence that proposed public art projects have the capacity to mitigate these conditions. [11]

This Fifth Amendment claim is further informed by holdings in the Ehrlich v. City of Culver City (1996) case where the city refused to approve a rezoning application unless the developer agreed to pay fees; one to mitigate the social impact of repurposing recreational facilities for a condo development and the second a 1% public art fee.  The appellate court held that there was an “essential nexus” between the exaction of both fees and the impact of development.[12]  More importantly, the court held that the public art fee was an aesthetic requirement, and being similar to any other design or landscaping requirement was within the jurisdiction of the city to impose. [13]

The Fifth Amendment serves to protect individuals from being singled out to bear a disproportional share of costs for community improvement projects, and the Ehrlich v. City of Culver City case offers direct precedential law supporting the City of Oakland’s defense of the Public Art Requirement, particularly if the city focuses on appropriateness of exactions based on aesthetic requirements.

The second cause of action being brought forth by the BIABA pertains to First Amendment jurisprudence.  Under the First Amendment it is unconstitutional for the government to infringe on the free speech of its citizens and as such it is required to maintain a position of viewpoint neutrality.  The neutrality mandate is upheld within the analytic framework of the public forum, an archetypical site of free expression and public discourse, which has been subdivided within the law into a three-tiered system for the purposes of regulation.  Public and limited public forums are generally open to all forms of expression without governmental restriction, with the exception of time, place, and manner of speech restrictions. In the third, nonpublic forum governmental restriction of content is allowed, however, viewpoint neutrality is required. [14] Much of the debate over government funding of the arts assumes that such activities take place within a nonpublic forum.

The government speech doctrine, however, is a constitutional exception, which allows the government to decline this neutrality for the purposes of its own speech.   As a speaker or as a subsidizer, the government may favor one viewpoint over another in expressing its own interests.  The government cannot, however, force or coerce its citizens into the expression government speech and this is the cause of action under which the BIABA bring forth its second claim.

The invocation of the government speech doctrine as it relates to government funded activities within a nonpublic forum is often seen as problematic and has historically been called into question by many lawsuits, including Rust v. Sullivan.[15]  The government speech doctrine was famously applied within the context of arts funding in The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) v. Finley case, where the court held that the government could selectively fund projects, by applying decency criteria, without compromising the mandate of viewpoint neutrality.[16]  Many have argued that the government speech exception negates the position of neutrality in nonpublic fora, allowing the government to flood the marketplace of ideas and limit the speech of opposing viewpoints through a lack of funding. [17]

In his analysis of viewpoint discrimination in the NEA v. Finley [18] case, David Hungerford, a UC Davis Juris Doctor, presents a paradoxical, yet possibly useful solution to limitations imposed by the viewpoint neutrality requirements within the three-tiered framework of public fora in First Amendment rights.  He proposes that the creation of a fourth forum would allow for government funding to be granted with an allowable degree of viewpoint discrimination.  He argues that by narrowing the scope of permitted expression, from one that already relies heavily on subjective standards of artistic excellence, to one that permits some degree of viewpoint discrimination, public funding would regain relevance and increase its capacity for social impact. [19]

Although Hungerford is making a case for public arts funding it is relevant to the discussion of private sector Percent for Art programs, as a fourth forum would also allow for Oakland’s Public Art Ordinance to exact funds from developers and freely use it for public arts projects without implicating the private businesses in government speech. Moreover, the relaxation of the neutrality mandate may increase the correlation between the impact of development and art as its remedy, diminishing the BIABA’s first cause of action under the Fifth Amendment.

Taking a similar position, professor in constitutional law, David Cole calls for the reassessment of the selective funding of speech through government subsidies, recommending that institution-specific spheres of neutrality be identified and enforced.[20]  Rather than the strict binary of discrimination and neutrality being applied across fora, Cole believes that First Amendment rights would better serve the public good if tailored to specific circumstances.

Unfortunately, in the BIABA v. City of Oakland case, it is likely that the court will hold in favor of the plaintiff, as the Public Art Requirement does coerce developers to adopt government speech as a means of obtaining building permits.  The argument could be made that the city is exacting these fees as they would any other levy meant to correct the detrimental effects of development or to uphold aesthetic requirements, however by insisting that developers fund only select projects, the municipal government is forcing private developers to collude in viewpoint discrimination which in turn infringes on their free speech.  The City of Oakland would be best advised to base their defense on the precedent set forth in Ehrlich v. City of Culver City (1996) which would justify the Public Art Requirement as an aesthetic requirement.

As it stands, arts funding cannot be left solely to the government, due to the issues presented within the current framework of viewpoint neutrality restrictions and the government speech exception, but it also cannot be left to the private sector, as this would essentially silence the interests of the poor.[21]  The BIABA would not have a case against the city of Oakland if the there existed a more nuanced articulation of the neutrality framework along the edges and convergence points of public and private interests. By identifying specific needs within institutions, including both public funding mandates and private development ordinances, and refining constitutional law accordingly, public art may be able to reclaim some of its social relevance.













[1] U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1. The Fourteenth Amendment extends constitutional law by preventing individual States from “enforcing any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States”, and for the sake of clarity in this study will be assumed going forward in the discussion of both the First and Fifth Amendments.

[2] Laura Gilbert. “Who Should Pay for Public Art?”, September 8, 2015,

[3] Ibid.

[4] City of Oakland, Public Art Requirement Amendment, Ordinance 13275 C.M.S, December 2014.

[5] Ibid. Developershave the third option of allocating space in new developments for public art galleries, however the cause of action still considers this a taking of property.

[6] Koontz v. St John’s River Water Management, Florida Supreme Court (Fla., 2013)

[7] Nollan v. California Coastal Commission, 483 U.S. 825 (1987) and Dolan v. City of Tigard, 512 U.S. 374 (1994) As described the Nollan/Dolan test measures the proportionality and relatedness of takings to the impact of development and emerged out of the two cases cited.

[8] Building Industry Association – Bay Area v. City of Oakland, N. D. Cal (2016)

[9] Ibid.

[10] Christopher Caldwell, “Art for Politics’ Sake.” Commentary, February 1998, 55.

[11] Darin Moriki, “Oakland: Forum Spotlights Bay Area Affordable Housing Crisis”, Contra Costa Times, February 20, 2016

[12] Ehrlich v. City of Culver City, 911 P. 2d 429 Cal. Supreme Court (1996)

[13] Curtin, Daniel J.; Lindgren, Adam U. "Impact Fees After Dolan - Ehrlich v. City of Culver City." State and Local Law News, 19.4 (1995-1996): 3.

[14] Garner, Bryan A., and Henry Campbell Black.Black's Law Dictionary. (St. Paul, MN: West, 2009), 1157. Nonpublic forums, typically comprised of jails, schools, military bases, extend to other government funded institutions. In nonpublic forums governments are allowed to restrict content, but cannot impose viewpoint discrimination. For example, the government can restrict speech related to religion all together, but cannot discriminate between faiths, allowing the speech of one religion and not the other.

[15] Rust v. Sullivan, 500 U.S. 173 (1991) In this case the government speech doctrine was invoked to allow for the prohibition of abortion counseling at a government funded clinic.

[16] Hungerford, David. "Fallacy of Finley: Public Fora, Viewpoint Discrimination, and the NEA." U.C. Davis Law Review 33.1 (1999-2000): 268.

[17] Hungerford, "Fallacy of Finley”, 280.

[18] National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley, 524 U.S. 569 (1998)

[19] Hungerford, "Fallacy of Finley”, 284.

[20] David Cole, "Beyond Unconstitutional Conditions: Charting Spheres of Neutrality in Government-Funded Speech." New York University Law Review, 67.4 (1992): 748.

[21] Cole, “Unconstitutional Conditions”, 703.

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Vanessa Prager at The Hole, New York

The familiar and inimitably seductive aroma of oil paint floods the senses within seconds of entering the gallery and, without so much as a glimpse, it is immediately apparent that a great number of tubes (possibly vats) of paint have been sacrificed in the making of this exhibition. Turning the corner and entering into a maze of temporarily erected, half-height, white walls the olfactory suspicions are validated once a series of small, but densely painted panels come into view. Real or imagined, faces emerge from the garish, inch-thick layers of pale pink and orange paint, then are again submerged in the heavy materials.

Presenting paintings similar to those seen last year at the Richard Heller Gallery, this is the LA-based, self-taught artist, Vanessa Prager’s first solo exhibition in New York. The installation of flimsy drywall partitions is not out of place at The Hole, where scrappy exhibition design is a well-tried and often effective strategy for interrupting white cube assumptions. Soon, however, the function of the thin walls becomes evident, as many of them have been fitted with generic apartment-style spyholes, making some of the paintings, particularly the larger ones, viewable only through their cheap telescopic lenses.

Known for producing large, thickly painted, abstract portraits out of her imagination, Prager has attempted to complicate the experience of her paintings by displaying them within a larger installation. Although it feels a bit awkward and heavy-handed, the venue, as well as her inexperience afford her room for unapologetic experimentation.

Prager has blankly entitled the exhibition “Voyeur” to imply that the peepholes are not simply tools to enable optical mixing, while simultaneously

resisting textbook connotations with the use of relatively desexualized subject matter. Prager is pointing more specifically to the current status of viewership as it is increasingly experienced indirectly through social media. By looking through the tiny lenses, her six-foot paintings are reduced to the size of postage stamps and flattened by proximity, much like they would be if viewed on a mobile device. The peepholes, hastily implanted in drywall, offer an alternative; the choice to back away, circumvent the constructed barrier of the wall and enter into an intimate dialogue with the work.

By dedicating efforts toward the installation, her concept seemingly takes precedence over individual works, but then paradoxically leads the viewer back to the physical objects with a revived sensitivity. In one of the more interior rooms a cadmium orange streak of oil paint on the wall evidences an imperfect, but very real instance of engagement.

Upon first glance, the heavy impasto of Prager’s paintings is not so much aggressive, as it is nauseatingly saccharine in its glossy, clashing hues. The convoluted and slow journey through the labyrinth of makeshift rooms does a good job of dissolving the initial tension and allows a communion with the work that would otherwise be absent. Although ostensibly naïve, Prager’s approach grants the viewer an uncommon entry into her process, forced into close quarters with the work such that they might momentarily share in the reverie out of which it was created. 

Horror Vacui: Politics of Filling the Void

As is custom, my oldest friend sends a parcel of unnecessary trinkets each December in celebration of the holidays. This year the package included, much to my disgust, a DIY-produced adult colouring book, outlines of sad-eyed puppies and ironical positive affirmations populating its pages. Part of her inscription reads, “Hope your Christmas is ____________ (you fill in that blank and rock it!)” For obvious reasons there is a psychic block to filling in the space above the line, however the ideological minefield occupying the space between all the other lines becomes the more daunting and anxiety provoking of the two imperatives.

Skipping over the first task, approaching the second in the expected manner by neatly applying a chiaroscuro treatment within the preordained contours of a fluffy little dog’s ass, I soon become frustrated and turn to a more radical approach, obscuring the platitudinous message of healing with perpendicular layers of rainbow-coloured bands. The grid provides respite from the irregularity of the figurative outlines, and although the two structures are not so unlike each other – there are lines, and there are empty spaces between said lines – the competing systems produce diametrically opposed psychological effects.

Invented in the late 19th century, colouring books have been lauded by psychologists, including Carl Jung, as therapeutic instruments. More commonly used to keep children occupied and augment traditional pedagogy, they have recently gained popularity among adults seeking reprieve from the stresses of daily life. The mindless blocking-in of predetermined forms is marketed as the ultimate means for fostering tranquility, pacifying an elusive inner turmoil.

In speaking of the countless acts of vandalism to which her work fell victim, abstract American painter, Agnes Martin explains, “people can’t stand that those are all empty squares”1, proving that the solace of the grid is not universally felt. Martin is no doubt irritated by this narcissistic audacity, as it stands in stark contrast to her own storied propensity for self-control. Haunted by the traumas of youth and afflicted with paranoid schizophrenia, Martin was uncompromising in her pursuit of egolessness, in her life and in her art. She adopted the schema of the grid to make manifest her Taoist ideals, because it allowed her ego to dissolve within subtle geometries. Though she acknowledged its beauty, the lack of symmetry found in nature was disquieting for Martin, and the grid functioned as a means for distancing herself.

Unlike contemporary attendees of colouring parties, Martin was not looking to escape nature, insomuch as she found comfort in getting beyond it, embracing the emptiness of her geometries rather than fighting to fill them2. The fear of and impulse to fill empty space, termed horror vacui in visual arts discourse and philosophy, stems from our shared reluctance to confront the anxiety inducing absurdity of our existence. Martin’s modernist project places her on the other side of this fear, leaving the colourers to their own devices.

1 Haskell, Barbara. Agnes Martin, (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1992), 140.

2 Martin, AgnesOral History Interview with Agnes Martin, (Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. May 15, 1989), 30. 



Jane Corrigan at Feuer/Mesler, New York

A week before the exhibition opened, Jane snaps a shot of the glistening wet canvas and poles her captive online audience, “should she have pants, or no pants?”

Identification with female subjects, nude or otherwise, is almost inevitable when you’re a girl – supposedly a female subject yourself.  Natural comparisons are made; an assessment, not only of the two-dimensional, painted figures, but also of oneself.

The subjects of Jane Corrigan’s latest painting series on view at Feuer/Mesler are predominantly female.   Painted in effortless, unbounded gestures they ooze a nervous, ill-articulated and uncertain femininity that confuses the imperative of an indentificatory process.

I’m stumped. The characters, while uncannily familiar, simultaneously confound me.  I recognize their transgressions, but they register more as dreamt experiences, not lived.   I’m not even sure what social rules they disobey, but they look either afraid or ashamed of something. Or is that me?

I won’t mention Jane’s sexy-as-fuck painting skills. She’s a master, it’s as simple as that, and I’m too jealous to talk about it any further.

The subjects I will talk about, because they intrigue me. I look for myself in the micro-narratives.  Bare-assed by the river; I’ve done that, but not so sneakily.   Searched through the darkness for demons lurking in the shadows; sure, but not with as much grace and fortitude.  Sat half-naked in the kitchen, heartbroken, my overbearing mother combing my hair; nope.

I haven’t seen Jane in at least three years, maybe more.  We studied together at art school a lifetime ago.  She’s as dedicated now, as she was then, and I’m still impressed.  She is also precisely as warm and welcoming as ever.  Seamlessly switching from self-assured artist, to big-hearted hostess, and back again, she proves herself as complex as her characters.

I asked myself before leaving the house, “Pants? No pants?”  Impulsively I opted for the pants, and as I soon discovered so did Jane.  

Belles Lettres for Performance Art Babes

In lieu of prescribed weekly dustings, coats of blood red paint are regularly applied to cigarette ash laden surfaces in anticipation of guests, often at the very last minute, or so the mythology goes. The red of a thick uterine wall, not of a scraped knee, its glossy, blistered surface gives no hint to its relative wetness.  The sanguine monochrome pervades, camouflaging bedframes, dresser drawers, a claw foot tub and a seven foot phallus that in any other context would be hard to overlook – here, almost invisible, it gets knocked over constantly.

Kembra Pfahler has conceived of her apartment as a womb; blatant and intentional décor that has, no doubt, been analyzed ad nauseam by friends and critics and is one which need not be circumvented.  The space simply serves as a practical extension of her provisional role as our performance art mother.  We meet remotely the first two times, before she effortlessly welcomes the group into her cavernous atelier.  She explains that we are not to leave anything behind, “the pH balance is off and things tend to disintegrate”.  The space we share is fugitive and in it destruction is as inevitable as creation. 

As in nature, there is no plan and imperfect ideas emerge indiscriminately, sometimes lurching forward in awkward bursts.  Each night we collectively birth an orphanage full of monstrous babies.  With the tacit understanding that they are all equally ugly and therefore we raise them unconditionally like a village.  We also understand, few of them will mature, but nonetheless we cherish the short time we have together.  We stay up late cooing and coddling, bleary-eyed and disoriented.

For those ideas that manage to survive, we start making plans,  becoming unrealistically ambitious.  Again, we mutually agree to foster each other’s lofty aspirations despite glaring deficiencies.   Eventually, we take our sideshow on the road and perform at an East Village bar populated by a host of other surrogates.  Mothers in leather, in drag, covered in cake, paint, and plastic sheeting, grin ear-to-ear, shake their heads, and snap their fingers in enthusiastic acceptance of every bumbling articulation.

Here, cultivation and growth spark exchange, but consumption is never a consideration. We are not cannibals.  If our babies are unfortunate enough to survive, the market will voraciously dissect and devoured them.  We mostly choose to put them to rest after the celebration, unwilling to serve them up to idea-starved patrons.

In New York, innumerable ideas are bred in the shadows each night and only a few precocious brats make their way into galleries and fairs. However, it is the ghosts of foundling attempts and concepts that drive the art world; they are what bring us to the show regardless of what endures.   It is fortuitous that the powers that be are oblivious to all the “bad” art being unabashedly raised by a collection of naïve and unfit mothers, otherwise the dirty and delicate ecosystem in which we all coexist may cease to be.  

Romeu Runa & Berlinde De Bruyckere at Hauser & Wirth, New York

New years resolution – learn to accept weekend subway closures and the lateness that ensues.   New York openings, unlike those in the rest of the world, start and end precisely at the advertised time, so I am concerned I will be making an ass of myself being this late, but I’m resolved not to race down the sunny Chelsea streets only to be out of breath when I get there.   As if anyone really cares. 

At the top of the Hauser and Wirth’s vast and dazzling staircase sits a sign warning entrants of the content of the exhibition, specifically directed to patrons with children in tow.  The family trailing up the stairs to my right think twice and turn away. I, however, move through the immense white doors, leaving the massive sunlit foyer in exchange for the equally enormous hazy darkness of the gallery.

As always, everything at the blue chip gallery screams luxury.  The matte black metal shades that surround the spotlights making the room so dark, look as if they have been fashioned by a team of artisans, and no doubt they have; that or a team of overeager, but underpaid interns.

The lighting is very subdued, but it takes a lot of fixtures to make the colossal gallery precisely this dark. Still there is a crispness to the purple-blue-grey atmosphere, that juxtaposes itself nicely with the wintry slowness of the streets outside.  

The room is quiet. Expertly worn high-end high-heels produce a particular decibel of clicking on the concrete floor that does not offend as viewers migrate around the solemn gallery toward its inner most corner which is captivating everyone’s attention. The art demands that patrons be almost silent.  Necks are crooked making imperceptible (possibly imagined) popping noises. People fidget as much as decorum will allow, occasionally breaking with form to send tacit signals of recognition as acquaintances join the group.

After several minutes, my eyes start to adjust and the act of staring becomes interrupted by the allure of peripheral objects and people.  Faces softly lit by a glow reflecting off objects, creatures dwarfed by the shadowy rafters above.   Bodies everywhere, collectively unperfumed and dressed in sloppy Saturday attire in lieu of the regular high fashion opening garb.

A granular “woosh-woosh” breaks the silence, followed by a gurgle that shocks the audience from their collective reverie.  Gallery staff are the first to become restless, advising audience members to step aside to make room for a ceremonial exit.

The mob dispatches and resumes its typical meandering as the space erupts in chatter.  A woman remains against one wall, her head slumped over as her partner consoles her.  It is hard to know if this is a reaction to the work or the continuation of an earlier quarrel they had temporarily suspended for the love of art. 

I take one last look around the gallery and escape to the open air and the sunshine.  In the midst of winter hibernation there is a premium placed on being outside, but I feel renewed after this gloomy interlude knowing it is a privilege to stand amid strangers and fall so effortlessly into a shared silence.  

The Unfinished Conversation: Encoding/Decoding at The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto

By borrowing its name, in part from one of the most well-conceived works in the exhibition, the rest adopted from an influential text by cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, The Unfinished Conversation: Encoding/Decoding, more than adequately debriefs visitors to its theoretical underpinnings before entering the gallery space.  This sort of curatorial guidance may seem pedantic and limiting, but the nudge, instead, is both self-reflexive and strategic, offering a simple cue then encouraging the viewer to encounter the exhibition on his or her own terms.


Otherwise, this exhibition challenges, requires an investment of time, and demands a participatory reading.  Upon entering the gallery, anyone familiar with the space can see immediately how it has been transformed into a series of rooms.  These rooms, branching off the main atrium, house the many video-based works.  With well over ten hours of film and video, the show is decidedly dense, but also captivating and generous, providing space for active contemplation and critical unfolding.


All but one of the six artists in the exhibition are working with the moving image, and the large-scale photographic wall works by Sheelagh Kelley acclimatize visitors in the liminal space of the atrium. These deceptively simple works, take as their subject the abandoned architecture of colonial Zaire.  Seemingly benign and tranquil, the images, shot illegally in 1983, depict buildings that have long been destroyed under the impact of civil war.


The entrance to the first room is the broadest of them all, revealing a cool flickering of white light that serves as a palatable entry point to the exhibition.  Unlike the other spaces, which are essentially black boxes, Zineb Sedira’s three-screen projection, Gardennes d’Images (Image Keepers), 2010, illuminates the minimal white room. The installation is divided into two parts: a diptych on the far wall with a single channel projection opposite. The dual images show an elderly woman being interviewed in French, next to footage of her personal belongings, including a vast archive of black and white photographs.  The woman speaks candidly of her deceased husband and her solitude, while hers and Sedira’s disembodied hands leaf through the pile of decidedly political photographs. The video on the other wall combines similar visual elements, but does so in a comparatively formulaic documentary style.


Zineb Sedira, is an Algerian born artist, raised in France, now working in England, who employs interview as a strategy for excavating oral histories to reflect upon the diasporic experience and question notions of cultural identity as fixed.  More specifically, like much of the work in this exhibition, she focuses on how public and private narratives reproduce and resist dominant representations of black identity.  As Sedira’s subject, Safia Kouaci, the widow of an Algerian war photographer, recounts her difficult experiences of war and immigration to France, her personal story becomes politicized.  By appropriating the visual tropes of documentary filmmaking in the presentation of her subject, Sedira invites what Hall refers to as a negotiated reading, which interrupts hegemonic structures of dominance.[1]


In the next enclave, Steve McQueen’s epic work End Credits, 2012, creates a jarring contrast by confronting the viewer with a relentless spate of sensations.  A scrolling black and white video feed of over 3000 redacted McCarthy-era FBI documents overwhelms to a point of saturation.  The subject of the FBI’s surveillance is the celebrated entertainer turned blacklisted civil rights activist and communist supporter, Paul Robeson.  It’s impossible not to have an empathetic response to this work, imagining Robeson’s lived experiences of exile, impoverishment, and paranoia. This archive both preserves and erases Robeson from history, capturing his resistance speeches and personal correspondence, while making confidential the narrative that oppressed him.


As the rough imagery of this six-hour video speeds by, a set of monotone voices dictate the contents of the documents and the excessive amount of information becomes physically and mentally burdensome to a point of abstraction.  It quickly becomes apparent that the audio and visual elements are out of sync, composed of two separate, staggered loops.  It’s easier to listen to the audio — all fifteen hours of it — than absorb anything from the impossibly fast video. It is this complex relationship of image to text, which works as a reversal of Hall’s hierarchy of arbitrary meaning, whereby the visual is deemed more credible than the linguistic.[2]  Frustrating this structure the viewer is unable to access meaning and is subsequently left to reflect on the futility of looking for it in these documents.


Across the atrium from McQueen’s arresting installation, we find the exhibition’s centerpiece; John Akomfrah’s three-channel video installation entitled, The Unfinished Conversation, 2012.   This sprawling installation, originally commissioned for the Liverpool Biennale, was designed for a smaller space than the main gallery at The Power Plant provides, and again the curators have opted for transparency and reflexivity over authoritative artifice in their exhibition design, deliberately building the temporary walls at half-height.   Three large projectors mysteriously emerge from the darkness above, the light from them permeating beyond the walls into the cavernous peripheral space, the echoing soundtrack forming a gentle layer of background noise throughout the exhibition. This spillage highlights the work’s influence within the exhibition, simultaneously reminding us of its own indeterminacy. 


For this piece, Akomfrah, combines three categories of moving imagery creating relationships that disrupt fixed ideas of history and identity, taking as his primary subject, cultural theorist and personal mentor, Stuart Hall.   Melding footage from Hall’s private life with clips of his public television appearances, then weaving in documentary imagery from both the past and present, Akomfrah invites us to rethink established narratives.  He asks us to make our own narrative connections and question how the identities of public figures are formed in relation to history.[3]  By association he gives us the opportunity to reflect on our own identities with a sense of agency in relation to the easily reproducible histories with which we are presented.


It’s been a while since The Power Plant presented a project this heavily steeped in cultural theory, and they succeed in making it both accessible and thought provoking.  There’s no easy way into this work and the curators leave you to your own devises, but if you take the time it rewards you with a sense of social awareness and personal agency.



[1] Simon During ed., The Cultural Studies Reader, (Routledge : New York, 1993) 100 - 103

[2] Ibid., 96

[3] New Art Exchange, “John Akomfrah in Conversation.” Online video clip.  YouTube, YouTube, 16 May 2013. Web. 22 Feb. 2015.