The Art & Politics of Public Space: Symposium in Honor of MIT Professor Antoni Muntadas

“Urban Crisis” was spelled out in red capital letters, against a neon background, on the screen behind Antoni Muntadas, a professor in MIT’s Art, Culture and Technology (ACT) program. Muntadas, now retiring, was at the podium discussing his multi-decade art and activist practice at the symposium, “Public Space? Lost and Found,” held in his honor.

From photography and video to installations and urban interventions, Muntadas’ work has served as a model for an engaged practice in which art and politics are intimately entwined. His exhortation, “Perception requires involvement,” a phrase appearing often in his work, was a call to arms for a symposium geared towards seeking new ways to intervene in the public sphere.

As exemplified by reform movements such as Occupy Wall Street and the demonstrations at Tahrir Square, people today are fighting for social change. The question posed by the symposium was: What role might artists and architects play in these struggles? Bringing together artists, architects, planners, and theorists from MIT and beyond in a two-day event and exhibition, the symposium explored how creative methodologies can produce new knowledge and effect social change. Presented by ACT and the Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST), the symposium aimed to show how space — physical, social, and virtual — can be rethought, rebuilt, and redreamed to create a more democratic society in the face of increasing militarization, corporatization, and ecological destruction.

The interventions displayed and discussed at the symposium spanned the globe — from a crowded Tokyo streetscape, to a rural Alabama town, to the sun-choked borderlands between San Diego and Tijuana — revealing the often-invisible ways in which public space is produced and regulated, and how artists reshape these geographic and social contexts. In one instance, artist Jennifer Allora SM ’03 placed immense pieces of chalk in city plazas around the world, inviting citizens to scribble ephemeral messages on the urban canvas. In another project, Matthew Mazzotta SM ’09 created an open-air theater out of salvaged materials from an abandoned house.

The themes of the symposium drew from Muntadas’ long and influential career at MIT. Muntadas came to MIT in 1977 as a research fellow at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS), a decade after the pioneering interdisciplinary program was founded. His work embodied the center’s commitment to “art on a civic scale” and belief in the social role of the artist. Muntadas became an ACT professor in 1990 and has since tirelessly investigated the relationships between mass media, the public sphere, and private life. During his early years at CAVS, in the late 1970s, Muntadas coined the now common phrase, “media landscape,” giving name to the beginnings of today’s information-rich society.

The exhibition accompanying the symposium, installed in the lobby of the MIT Media Lab, features several large free-standing photographs, striking in scale, with their plywood supports exposed. Shelves are attached to the back of the structures to form a viewing station, where visitors can peruse documentation — such as posters, research materials, and travel photos — of various public art works created by Muntadas’ students since 2001. The exhibit is also a celebration of the art of pedagogy — an homage to an artist and educator who inspired his students to critically engage with the world.

The greatest strength of the symposium was its gathering of artists, architects, philosophers, urban planners, and engineers in conversation, says Gediminas Urbonas, an associate professor and the Mitsui Career Development Chair for ACT. “We all could speak the same language,” he says, adding, “and that was built on understanding that art is the shared and common territory.”

The interdisciplinary discussions catalyzed by the symposium will be continued through an upcoming publication that seeks to “identify and frame the tools, tactics, and consequences of actively reclaiming public space,” according to Urbonas. “In addition to symposium participants, contributors represent a diverse array of key scholars and practitioners across the disciplines of art, architecture, and urban studies who are shaping the discourse around public art and public space.”

The “Public Space? Lost and Found” exhibit will be on display in the lobby of the Media Lab from April 18 to Oct. 30, 2014.

Posted on May 21, 2014 by Anya Ventura