Melvin Edwards. Confirmation. 1988.
Public sculpture outside the Joseph P. Addabbo Federal Building in Jamaica, Queens, NY commissioned by the General Services Administration’s Art in Architecture Program.
Photo: Annie Dell’Aria.

Last month while walking back from teaching a morning class at York College in Jamaica Queens, I decided to take a different route on a sunny day and look at a public sculpture outside the Joseph P. Addabbo Federal Building.  As I stopped to photograph what I originally thought was a David Smith, a man on the street came up to me and we had the following exchange:

“I wouldn’t take pictures of that.”

“Really, why?”

“This is a federal building, you can’t take photos of it, ya know, after 9/11 and all.”

“I don’t think that’s a rule.”

“Well, they’re going to come out and question you… just saying. That’s the world we live in.”

“Thanks, for the heads up, but I’ll take my chances.”

Of course, no one came out, and I wasn’t arrested, but this made me look at the work in an entirely new context.  Situated in the open plaza space of the bland modernist building, this sculpture was not only out in the open, but also enclosed within a set of anti-truck bomb barriers.  Furthermore, by being in this enclosed/open space, I became aware of myself and my immediate surroundings (and therefore, the public sculpture) as a target.

In a city like New York, we experience public spaces variously as protective (a coffee shop for a blind date), intrusive (a crowded subway), exposed (a terrorist magnet), empowering (a rally), anonymous, etc.  In the case of the Addabbo building and other buildings like it, the interplay between security and publicity becomes more pronounced and can make us question what does it mean for a space to be public in a democracy.

Believing the work was a David Smith, but not certain, I looked around for a plaque, but did not see one.  I walked into the building, stopping just inside the entrance at the metal detectors to inquire if anyone knew about the art out front.  The security guards were polite, but had no clue who the artist was nor where the plaque was located.  I looked around once more, then continued down the street, taking extra notice of the barriers on the sidewalk.

Anti-truck bomb barriers on Jamaica Ave designed to incorporated existing planted trees.
Photo: Annie Dell’Aria

In 2013, these barriers are common sites outside government buildings and private offices with any type of plaza or setback from the street.  While more aesthetically pleasing than the concrete “Jersey” barriers erected outside of important buildings in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11th, these permanent architectural interventions are constant reminders of the threat of terrorism and implicit reminders of the society of surveillance that has arisen out of that threat (the man on the street wasn’t concerned about me taking photos, but rather that someone was watching me take photos).  The public physical and virtual spaces we inhabit each day are constantly monitored and tracked by both public and private entities.  Beginning with the Patriot Act and unfolding in ways we are only just beginning to understand, the US government has increased systematic surveillance of its citizens in response to the randomness of the threat of terrorism.  The trade-off for protecting certain targets of terror is the production of an ideal targeted market.

Gilles Deleuze warned in 1992 of the emergent “society of control” in the wake of centuries of Foucault’s “society of discipline.”  Dispersion defines this concept as opposed to the confinement of hospitals, schools, prisons, and factories analyzed by Foucault.  Control is made possible via technologies of tracking and data collection, whereas discipline uses physical enclosure.

Enclosures are molds, distinct castings, but controls are modulation, like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other. (Deleuze 4)

In the case of the Addabbo building, the randomness (dispersive nature) of the implied threat (terrorism) necessitates a physical enclosure around the building.  In the flip of Bentham’s ideal prison, the target in need of protection becomes enclosed rather than the subject of discipline.  The architectural intervention on Jamaica Avenue is into public space rather than the interior of a particular institution.  It is an operation of keeping out rather than enclosing.  Contemporary panopticism operates across data and digital video streams, giving the “watched” free range of movement and reorienting enclosure from a prohibitive to a protective space (such as the home in the probably terrible summer Ethan Hawke vehicle, The Purge).

Highly reflective information panel for the sculpture at the Addabbo Federal Building. Photo: Annie Dell'Aria
Highly reflective information panel for the sculpture at the Addabbo Federal Building.
Photo: Annie Dell’Aria

Returning to our public sculpture, the work takes on a new valence.  Rather than a work in a public plaza, breaking up an open, monotonous, space (a function of the bland architecture of many modern federal buildings), it is now enclosed, part of the interior of a protected space.  My enjoyment of the work and understanding of the space were shaped by this new context.  I was unable to even ascertain the artist or title until a second visit a week later.  Curiously this panel, once found on a sunny day, was as difficult to read as it was to find.  It’s lengthy discussion of the work’s “meaning” when produced in the 1980s seems arbitrary and secondary to its new context within the security-obsessed public spaces of 2013 New York.

Works cited:

Deleuze, G. “Postscript on the Societies of Control. October 59 (Winter 1992): 3-7.