City Artist in Residence

Public Art Saint Paul

Funding Received: 2012
St. Paul, MN
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
November 7, 2013

This month, Marcus Young, City Artist in Residence shares updates from the program.

I recently presented at the Congress of the American Public Works Association in Chicago. My talk was titled “City Art Re-Imagines Saint Paul’s City Systems.” I felt very honored to be invited to speak before a national group of public works representatives. I also felt—having studied music and theater in my formal education—some insecurity being in a position so far outside my area of knowledge. I used to dream of conducting symphonies and directing opera. I don’t know the world of high friction surface treatment, sewer and water main rehab, or precast concrete for pavement patching—just some of the other 45 Congress talks that day. As an artist, I never imagined I would one day present at a public works convention. Still, I found a clear purpose for this occasion, a purpose that comes from great admiration for the work our cities do.

As City Artist in Residence for Saint Paul (a position I’ve held for seven years, where I work alongside engineers, planners, and many other city makers), I’m quite used to being the least informed (or otherwise-informed) person in the room. I’m a foreign entity allowed to roam freely in the body of the city, like a virus. When I started my position, I visited Mierle Laderman Ukeles in New York. I distinctly remember when she said to me in her downtown Manhattan office, “Are we the only two in our species?” Over the years, I’ve grown to understand the particular perspective that I need to bring to the conversations about art, place, and the city—a perspective that embraces both the not-knowing that comes with being an outsider and the belief in a deep belonging that would come with a radically changed world.

Recent Wins
-- Following the Chicago convention, I was invited to give the presentation to all of our own upper-level staff at Public Works in Saint Paul. This vote of confidence from the Director means a great deal for our program and the position of art within our City.
-- We have successfully installed four prototypes of newly designed stop sign posts. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it is. In the coming months we’ll install 100 more; a fuller story of this work (and the revolution in city making they required) will be the subject of the next blog.
-- I recently organized a group of public artists to learn the basics of oryoki, a form of mindful and ritualized eating that comes from Japanese Zen monasteries. We learned from teachers at Clouds in Water Zen Center in Saint Paul. There is quite a bit of interest here in the Twin Cities on the topic of art and food, so this experience fits in well. I hope to continue this line of exploration—how eating and other everyday behavior can be ritualized or otherwise transformed to become public art.

For my talk, I delivered a two-part message. One: the work of sustaining the physical body of the city, its assets and facilities, its infrastructure, spaces, and services, is also the work of sustaining the spirit of the city. The spirit doesn’t exist without the physical body. As individual human beings we know this. We don’t just eat, sleep, go to the bathroom, and pay our bills. We also dream, we love, we search for meaning, we long for beauty; we want to belong somewhere. And the converse is true. Life is not just about dreams and love and the search for meaning; we also have to clean, feed, and sustain the physical body. The two go together. We understand this for our own individual bodies. I don’t think, however, we understand this for our city-bodies.

Two: after years of discovery, we have put forward the term “city art,” or art that is made from and within the life-sustaining systems of the city. It’s a new way of art-making and city-making that tests the limits of traditional public art and creative placemaking. With this perspective, one enters into a largely undiscovered world. It’s an exciting place of possibility, not always easy to get to, hidden, yet also oddly within reach, sometimes like the glasses left on top of our heads. Our model of artist residency is a lens onto this world. By placing artists very far upstream in the city-making process and placing them there long enough (could it be at least 100 years or perhaps much longer?), so as to be able to work in rhythm with the daily meter and the long arcs of time of the city, we hope to explore and define this freshly discovered world, this inner world where the physical and the spiritual of the city meet. There is plenty of room in this new civic space for artists and many others to explore.