Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Master Plan

by Patrick Nagle & Andrew Doty

Brown's nascent Creative Arts center is nothing more than a collection of moveable equipment and structures (all created or supplied by for-profit corporations) surrounded by a tarp-lined fence emblazoned with the logo of the "Building Brown" campaign. It is surrounded on all sides by Brown University buildings; the bookstore and office building to the East, the Sidney Frank Hall for Life Sciences and the Biomedical Center to the North, the once-doomed Urban Environment Lab and Career Development Center to the South, with the Walk Campus route and the relocated Peter Green House bordering the construction site on the West. 

More immediately surrounding the construction site, signs abound. A sign on the Northern side identifies the not-yet building as the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for Creative Arts, as well as a part of the Plan for Academic Enrichment. Other signs designate pedestrian, bike, and automobile routes through the construction, coordinated with a map of the campus showing construction sites as inaccessible swathes of red shading. A green sign forbids idling vehicles in the name of clean air, while another sign encourages workers to "Think Like a Parent / Consider the Students / Please display the highest level of respect for Brown University students and their campus at all times" (emphasis ours): no smoking, swearing, or inappropriate remarks. 

An American flag flies within the bounds of the fence, the only openly visible aspect of the site besides a crane, an outhouse, and a few trailers, all bearing corporate logos. Around the site where Brown is constructing this new building, the streets are cracked and patched, and the sidewalk above a storm-drain has collapsed. Above even the flag, a webcam surveys the site from its hidden perch in the Bio-Med Center. 

The webcam puts images of the site publicly on the internet, giving the illusion of access and transparency, offering a God's-eye view from the Bio-Med Center, a building that most Providence residents cannot enter. The site is shown from one angle, chosen without community input. Visibility does not confer transparency on the building's design or construction processes, which are strictly regulated by the University administration. Moreover, the camera can function equally as workplace surveillance, placing workers in a state of constant self-awareness reminiscent of Bentham's panopticon. Taken alongside signage that reminds workers to respect Brown students' campus, the webcam functions as a guarantor of workers' self-discipline. 

The Creative Art Center's neighbors, Building Brown scrim, and ample signage mark its distinction from the city in which it's located, designating the site as Brown University property. The Center is an integral part of the planned Walk Campus that connects Pembroke and Lincoln Field, creating a larger, uninterrupted Brown campus stretching for blocks across College Hill. The construction site, formerly a gas station, claims what was once a public area for the exclusive use of Brown & RISD. 

Front-View of Diller Scofidio + Renfro's digital maquette

The Center acts as an incitement to produce art, a charge that many on campus will take up enthusiastically. Yet this invitation to produce comes with its own limitations, its own forms of management and administration. Although the Center hasn't been finished, it is already home to a few pieces of street art. This graffiti is public, yet unauthorized, art of a sort unlikely to be sponsored under the aegis of the CAC. The Center participates in the increasing bureaucratization of art, as commissions and funding restrictions set limits on the kind of works produced, who is eligible to produce them, and where these works may be displayed. Moreover, academic art is often subject to deadline pressure, graded evaluations, and ideologies of art that are consumer- and critic-oriented. Art and the expression of self associated with it are thereby managed, regulated, and channeled into commercial and academic spheres (much like the administration of sexuality through "self-expression" Foucault analyzes). 

The Master Plan for Building Brown

The Center is but one part of an ongoing makeover that is designed, in part, to make Brown more appealing to prospective students & donors; a keystone in the massive publicity campaign aimed at rebranding Brown to compete with its peer institutions. The building's glass façade and contemporary design give it curb appeal for campus tours and bolster Brown's image as a cutting-edge institution. But before the CAC is completed, printed scrims control damage to the University's image, while signs tout the site as a "clean air zone" and "apologize for our appearance." 

The Center has a $40 million budget, connecting the non-profit University to a network of for-profit corporations including architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Shawmut Construction, Triumph Leasing Cooperative (for trailers), Caterpillar (manufacturers of bulldozers and tanks alike) & Georgia Pacific (a notorious polluter linked to toxic waste sites around the country). Even the barcodes on the materials are branded (by Viritec). Flows of capital thus cycle from private donors to University coffers and out into private enterprise. 

Ruth Simmons' connections to Georgia Pacific as of 2004, courtesy of theyrule.net

Although it does not look like much more than a massive hole in the ground right now, the Creative Arts Center is already imbricated in the privatized geography of Brown University, global flows of capital, and the regulatory mechanisms of official art, not to mention its contributions to Providence's arts and tourism economy. Once the fence surrounding the construction site is torn down, will the completed building be any more inviting to the general public? It is clear that the crystal tower excludes by its very definition unsanctioned art like the graffiti sprayed on the construction site's scrims; yet these resistant art practices will survive, perhaps even on the very walls that are meant to keep them out. 

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