Dignity and Collaboration
In a divided time, it’s clear we’re better together.
We’re reaching a crisis point. In the United States, our social divisions and isolationism threaten to tear apart the fabric of democracy. Real and perceived walls divide us—from each other and from other nations. In the midst of these tensions, public artists and architects are responding by bringing to their work a renewed spirit of collaboration, increased attention to visible and invisible borders, and a focus on social justice and human dignity.
You can see it in Teeter-Totter Wall on the cover of this magazine. In 2009, architect Ronald Rael and designer Virginia San Fratello considered how building walls between the U.S. and Mexico severs relationships between the two countries—politically, economically, and at the level of human-to-human interaction. That’s when they conceived of the seesaw project at the U.S.–Mexico border, in which very simple steel beams with delightful banana seats could slide through the border wall and allow children to play together.
Teeter-Totter Wall was made real in 2019 for 40 minutes. While the installation faced some criticism for making light at the border where children and families had faced horrific experiences in recent years, people around the world—through social media—responded to its humanity, to the way people coming together can bring joy and a sense of possibility.
Peter Svarzbein, an El Paso city council member, Jewish-Latino artist, and El Paso native, rode that seesaw that day and was proudly moved. “For 20 minutes, this wall and all the tension and the misrepresentations and mischaracterizations of our city fell behind and we got back to doing what we do: sharing with each other across this imaginary border,” he says. “Walls don’t define us. It is the way we cross that defines us.”
This is just one of myriad examples of how artists and designers are currently working to help us shift toward connection rather than separation. They’re also pursuing an increasingly integrated approach to addressing critical social and environmental concerns by working closely with other professionals.
In this issue of Public Art Review you’ll find many stories about how artists and designers are collaborating with practitioners in other fields and with communities to address concerns. Here are just a few examples: Architects across the country are putting their skills to work to address equity issues. Artists around the world are addressing historical injustice by creating a more just world today. And communities are imagining their own futures and then acting them out on stage to try on new perspectives.
WE WANT OUR WORK TO BE ALIGNED WITH THOSE FIGHTING FOR EQUITY, JUSTICE, HUMAN DIGNITY, AND ENVIRONMENTALLY AND CULTURALLY SUSTAINABLE POLICIES AND PRACTICES.
We’re stronger when we’re working together, not when we’re divided. And so it makes sense that in the field of public art, we’re learning that we’re stronger when we work in partnership with those in other fields. That’s where we’re seeing the most impact. That’s the kind of leadership this country and the world needs to see today. So that’s why, here in Public Art Review and at Forecast (which publishes the magazine), we’ve also focused on a vision of allyship and alignment.
We want our work to be aligned with those fighting for equity, justice, human dignity, and environmentally and culturally sustainable policies and practices. Our vision of allyship is focused not only on improving the aesthetics of place, but also on building platforms for voices that are underrepresented, celebrating local culture and customs, questioning power dynamics, and standing alongside those who want to take action in their own communities.
We hope you’ll join us.
And we hope you enjoy this issue of Public Art Review. It means a lot to us. We hope you, too, find meaning in it.
THERESA SWEETLAND is executive director of Forecast Public Art, publisher of Public Art Review.
KAREN OLSON is editor in chief of Public Art Review.