PUBLIC ART IN A PANDEMIC: ART ALL DAY/NIGHT
Updated: Dec 13, 2022
The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has had an undeniable and all-encompassing effect on all parts of our daily lives, but it’s been particularly difficult for art festivals and participatory public art events that thrive by gathering crowds and sharing space for artistic expression and communal activity. Three of Trenton’s largest annual events rely on this type of event focused on art for all and the coming together of a local and regional arts community. In different ways, Art All Night, Art All Day and The Jersey Fresh graffiti jam present outlets for a tactile and engaged public art experience and pull together thousands of people annually. With lockdowns in place and distancing a necessity, how can one still create a community-based art event that provides a feeling of connection and provides the inspiration and electricity that these in-person events are known for. In this post I’ll be looking at the various ways that each event approached the restrictions, creatively improvised, and provided lessons on how they could be more effective in community-building in a post-pandemic world.
ART ALL NIGHT
Trenton’s most popular and well attended annual arts event relies on its ability to gather thousands of art and music afficianados into the historic Roebling Wireworks building, a connection to the city’s industrial past. With social distancing and limited crowds, the norm, how would the event be able to provide the gallery art show with hundreds of entries, artist talks and demonstrations, and a 24 hour slate of musical performances that the event is known for? Artists and organizers met virtually for months to answer those exact questions. Unfortunately, this was not the first threat to the continuation of Art All Night, a shooting in 2018 led to talk of cancelling the event in 2019, but an increase in security and changes in protocol allowed the event to carry on. One of the required changes was closing the venue to visitors from 1 a.m. until 6 a.m. effectively eliminating the “all night” and changing the nature of the event. So precedence was in place for a slightly altered version of Art All Night and the solution for 2020 was an attempt to take everything that makes the event popular, live art and music, the ability to see a wide range of artistic output, and an opportunity for Artworks, the event’s organizer, to collect much needed donations for year round programming, and put it all online in a streaming 24 hour event. While this requires a large production staff and some technical troubleshooting at offsite locations, it did provide an opportunity to connect live art with live musical performance, a constant stream of submitted artwork, pre-taped interludes, and Zoom-style panel discussions that could be watched from anywhere in the world. In this way, Art All Night was made available to a larger audience for the first time (creating a larger shared community), without losing the unique touch of local artists who have been part of the event since its inception. I’d make the argument, that if limitations put in place after the violence in 2018, an overnight live-show like the one created for 2020, could be an interesting and effective solution to keeping the event true to its name as Art All Night. This live-stream style also opens up the event to art lovers who may be home-bound, and past participants and supporters who may have moved out of the Trenton area. The goal of the event is to activate a historic space, build community, and share the talents of local artists with a wider audience, and an online digital space that can build on that is a welcome addition.
JERSEY FRESH JAM
Billed as New Jersey’s premier hip hop festival1, the Jersey Fresh Jam has grown from a small 2005 event to a large celebration of graffiti art, music, and breakdancing on the property of Terracycle Inc.2, a global company focused on recycling solutions. Traditionally, the event would tightly pack the company’s courtyard with graffiti and street artists, musicians, break dancers, and visitors for a day full of performances and art-making. The solution this year to comply with government regulations was to require masks for all, limited entry, a request for social distancing, and providing six feet of space between the artists working on the walls and the viewing public. Although the event had to be delayed roughly one month to account for the changes, the day was a rousing success. Slightly smaller in scale, with less performers and vendors, the main portion of the event, the graffiti and street art thrived with more room to work and potentially fewer distractions. As a patron and painter at the event since 2008, I would say the artwork was some of the best I’ve seen in the history of the jam. For many, this was the first opportunity to get out of the house and participate in a meaningful way with the larger community. Graffiti can be a solo practice, but is also by nature competitive and can be most rewarding when feeding off the energy of the event, attempting to outshine your contemporaries, repurposing space, and sharing the history of the subculture3.
ART ALL DAY/CICLOVIA
The third and youngest of Trenton’s annual arts events is Art All Day, which for the first time partnered with an even younger event, the open streets festival in its second year, Ciclovia. Art All Day (moved up from November to September in hopes of warmer weather) is traditionally an open studio tour that provides maps and guided tours to the public art and work spaces that dot the city. Where Art All Night brings the art and the people to one central location, Art All Day aims to open visitors eyes to the art that is taking place in and around the city every day. The addition of the Ciclovia Opens Streets festivals builds even further on opening people up to the spatial ideal of a city that embraces pedestrians, cyclists, skateboards and scooters, seeing public art in the open air rather than through the window of a car or a post on social media. Once again, COVID-19 protocols necessitated changes to both events in meaningful ways that change how the public interacts with the art and the artists. Rather than inviting visitors into private studios, opportunity was provided for artists to set up in distanced tents around a public park, live mural painting, chalk art and Artworks opened its large gallery space for a group show of participants work, limiting the number of people who could enter at one time. Ciclovia added a new energy to the event, with bicycle repair stations, skateboarding demonstrations, and, combining both elements of the day, an artistic intervention meant to slow traffic entering the downtown area. To draw attention to a pedestrian heavy corner of the park, barriers and two crosswalks were brightly painted by artists and volunteers (see header image). This combination of art, public planning, and social practices help build connections between a city as it is, and a city as it could be. Moving interaction into shared space (while still remaining cognizant of social distancing and mask wearing) and focusing on the arts as an intervention for improving quality of life is the true benefit of an event like Art All Day/Ciclovia and hopefully the altered event from 2020 can provide interesting solutions for a long partnership of art and innovation.
So what can the creative approaches each of these projects took towards mitigating risk while building community teach us moving forward? It shows that Art All Night’s digital approach can add another layer of accessibility and connection through an expanded online audience. The Jersey Fresh Jam’s reconnection of a thriving graffiti culture emphasizes the power of sharing creative space even if it mean not being able to get quite as close to the art and artists as you have in the past. Perhaps most meaningful for the growth of the greater population of Trenton, Art All Day/Ciclovia informs how creating a new public by opening up streets to pedestrian traffic and bringing artists and enthusiasts together inspires new visions of a city and how space can best serve the entire community.4
3. Boyd, Candace. 2018. “‘All your drains belong to us’: young people and the non-representational geographies of public art in drain tunnels” in Public Art Encounters: Art, Space and Identity edited by Martin Zebracki and Joni M. Palmer, 125-138. London; New York: Routledge.
4. Hawkins, Harriet and Ruth Catlow. 2018. “Shaping subjects, connecting communities, imagining futures? Critically investigating Play Your Place” in Public Art Encounters: Art, Space and Identity edited by Martin Zebracki and Joni M. Palmer, 91-107. London; New York: Routledge.