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Columbus: A City for Important National Political and Civic Discussion

Walker Evans Walker Evans Columbus: A City for Important National Political and Civic Discussion
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In January, we wrote briefly about a newly installed public art piece that was one of the final projects of the Finding Time public art series that helped to celebrate the bicentennial birthday of Columbus in 2012. That piece is titled “The Time and The Temperature” and while it may seem like a simple concept on the surface, it sparked some lively conversation both here on Columbus Underground as well as in public events held earlier this year.

Local cultural, academic, civic and religious leaders gathered in January to discuss US-Iran relations with the public art installation serving as a jumping-off point. Local Iranian-Americans living in Columbus offered their own points of view on various related subjects and hope that the conversations sparked here can continue throughout the year. With Columbus being such an important city during the election season, there’s no reason to think that it can’t continue to be an important place for continued national and international political discourse and discussion.

In collaboration with Finding Time Program Director Malcom Cochran, we’ve decided to launch a series of articles, interviews and opinion pieces that explore these cultural and political conversations on both a local and global scale. To kick things off, we spoke with The Time and The Temperature artist Jon Rubin to find out more about his background in evoking these types of discussions.

Q: First, can you tell us a bit about the installation itself, what inspired you to participating in Finding Time, and why you saw it significant to connect Columbus to Tehran?

A: People have asked why connect Columbus to Tehran and my answer is usually, “why not?” As the capital of what was arguably the biggest swing state in the recent election, Columbus seems like an ideal city for the installation, but I actually feel that the project could happen in any American city, and that the same answer to the question would be true.

Lately, I’ve been really curious about how we perceive the differences and similarities between local and global places. Certainly, when we are online the differences all seem to collapse, and although I have more international “friends” than I did in the pre-Facebook world, it’s still hard for me to perceive that same kind global collapsing in my daily non-digital life. So when I was invited to present a project for the Columbus’s bicentennial via Finding Time I thought about how the city might be seen through the lens of this contemporary condition we are in and how different that is than say 200 years ago.

I’ve been recently working on several projects that seek to initiate more conversation and contemplation about places that seems quite distant from us personally, but which our country, and sometimes even our troops are engaged with on a daily basis. Iran is perhaps the most obvious of these countries at the moment, not because our troops are engaged there, but because they might someday soon become so. This moment in time is remarkably similar to the years before the war in Iraq. Obviously, the histories and geopolitical dynamics are quite different when looking at U.S. relations with Iraq and Iran, but one thing at this moment is eerily similar—the distinct lack of public discussion about the culture, history, and daily life of the people of Iran, let alone the complexity and wisdom of a military engagement.

Q: Your piece, “The Time and The Temperature” sparked some strong love/hate reactions when we first wrote about it on Columbus Underground. What do you say to folks who react with assertions that your installations are “not art” or similar reactions of confusion?

A: One of the things I like about the sign is its stubborn neutrality. It serves as an important juxtaposition to the strong polarization that exists in the American consciousness around Iran. Even an empirical and neutral measure of a place, can, because of contemporary political circumstances, evoke highly non-neutral feelings. In this way the work functions as a kind of social mirror, reflecting the range of feelings people in Columbus have about Iran.

As for the art/non-art reactions, I’ve never really found that debate very useful. Usually, when people say they don’t think something I make is art it is just a stand in for “I don’t like it,” or “it doesn’t look like other things that I have called art in the past.” I’d much rather people just outright say one of those two things, or something else far more specific since I don’t think the definition of art is something we can collectively agree on anymore.

Confusion however is something I am very interested in. I think the right balance of confusion—or let’s say disruption from the norm—is quite an important element that an artist can use to make what seems familiar unfamiliar. Too much confusion is obfuscating, but just enough can start to open up a space for curiosity in the viewer and that space of curiosity is one that I feel we shut down very often when it comes to thinking about how we define ourselves in relation to what is unfamiliar in the world.

This slightly confusing idea that the project seems to represent the “wrong” time and temperature is to me a great starting point for thinking about how hard it is to experience simultaneity. The sign is a really simple attempt to be in two places at the same time. And obviously, with the choice of Iran, the recognition that this is a country that regardless of your political ideology, we need to think about deeply at this time.

Q: One of the most interesting aspects of the piece was the follow up public discussion event on January 30th. I don’t believe any other piece in the Finding Time series here in Columbus got a similar treatment. Was this public forum something you typically do in other cities, or something unique to this piece in Columbus?

A: I’ve done many projects that have a participatory or discursive element to them and we (Finding Time Program Director Malcom Cochran and I) saw a great opportunity to do that with this work as well. Its always nice to create a platform where people can unpack the thoughts they are having, not so much about the sign, but about what the sign evokes for them and more specifically how we are thinking and talking (or not thinking and not talking) about Iran today. I’ve been a bit spoiled in this regard by a project I co-direct with Dawn Weleski in my hometown of Pittsburgh called the Conflict Kitchen, which is a restaurant that only sells food from countries with which the U.S. is in conflict. The restaurant rotates its focus every few months and the set up of an eatery allows for a political conversation to happen in the public in a very organic fashion. Of course there is more than one way to spur debate and I’m curious about how we can take the interest in The Time and The Temperature sign and turn that into opportunities for localized public discussion.

Q: Beyond that initial public discussion meeting, what sort of ongoing discussions would you like to see in regard to the Columbus-Tehran connection?

Well, one way we are looking to keep the conversation going in Columbus is through this series of interviews in the Underground that will bring in a diverse set of local voices and perspectives to the tough questions around U.S./Iranian relations. In addition, we are organizing several other events over the next three months that will be announced soon.

More information can be found online at www.columbuspublicart.com. More information about Jon Rubin can be found at www.jonrubin.net.

Photo by Malcolm Cochran.

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