Art reminds Berkshire Quad of riotous history

“Anti-Nazi show turns into riot as masses mill” reads one of ten signs recently installed in the Berkshire Quad. Walking by quickly, a passerby might do a double take at the words “Nazi” and “Hitler” littering the lawns. A careful observer would note that the signs are headed The Williams Record and dated April 30, 1938.

As one examines this recent public art installation by Joshua Frankel ’02, more questions are raised about the issues of space, history, activism, violence and objectivity. Frankel’s piece was created for the tutorial “Art of the Public,” taught by professor of art Peggy Digg, and will be up until March 14.

The signs are presented on simple wooden frames and stands, each with a cartoon hand pointing to the next in the series. The signs evoke the feeling of a tour through a low-budget historical museum, leading to the conclusion that, if the signs are the captions of the piece, then the “exhibit” is the space and dorms of the quad itself. The signs lead audience participants all around the quad instead of along one linear path.

This placement helps raise the importance of the physical space of the quad and ensures that most passersby will encounter at least one sign. In each encounter, a walker is transformed into a participant, whether willingly or not. Those who consider public art to be aggressive by nature are right in one sense, but this aggression is a necessary function of an art form that touches and affects those who may not commonly enter a gallery space.

The signs’ texts describe an event on April 26, 1938. H.V.E. Mitchell III ’38 planned an anti-Hitler demonstration for the Berkshire Quad, which was transformed into a riot when other students stole the effigy of Hitler created for the event. The five hundred students present proceeded to create three bonfires and rip apart a Nazi swastika, and police were eventually called to quell the riot. The ten signs each contain a piece of the puzzle, not necessarily proceeding in a chronological fashion but referring back to each other. Within the piece, a number of stories exist; Frankel chooses to focus on some, refer to others and imply many in the space between the signs.

One effect of the installation is to link the physical space it inhabits to a sense of history. Visitors are invited to consider both their distance and proximity to the student activists and rioters of 1938. However, the event chronicled here involved many more students as well as an overt political motivation.

Questions of history, sociology and psychology are raised. Are today’s Williams students capable of violence in the name of a cause? Has the campus changed and diversified beyond the point where such mob mentalities are possible? On the flip side, are we as students still capable of activism of the level that Mitchell planned for? Do we have social concerns large enough to inspire our activism? Do we still search for a “Hitler” to vilify and attack in order to release our rage? Does this rage still exist on campus, now channeled into the form of personal attacks, racist attitudes and fights with local Pittsfield residents?

The timing of Frankel’s installation speaks to our nation’s recent patriotic fervor and shows how political energy has led to mob violence in the past for Williams students. It has been said that in order to learn from past mistakes, we must know our history. However, Frankel’s piece does not presuppose that campus demonstrations against Osama bin Laden must be headed off before they go the way of the 1938 demonstration. The piece is clearly much more complicated in the questions it poses.

An episode of the 1938 riot which highlights an ambivalent attitude towards Hitler brings up these complicated questions. The article printed on the sign reads, “Up on the second floor balcony in Currier Hall, Emile de Planque Jr. ’39 adjusted a small black mustache, swung out his arm and received ‘Heil Hitler’ plaudits from the crowd until flying missiles drove him back between the doors.”

Audience members are invited to look inside themselves for similar ambivalence toward those we purport to hate. The thoughts and attitudes of de Planque and the crowd below can only be inferred, but it seems to point to a need among the students to both mock Hitler as well as express a desire to assume the power associated with him. Furthermore, were the students throwing objects at de Planque for his audacious display or were they throwing them symbolically at “Hitler”?

The installation tells its audience that we can never truly know the event on an objective level. The recording of the event has passed through too many subjective minds: the article’s writer, the questionable objectivity of his presence at the 1938 demonstration; the editors of his words for the Record and Frankel as editor of that article in his selection of text for his piece. Because the installation only offers one perspective on the event, it may more than anything else point to the impossibility of recording and remembering history.

An issue that Frankel most likely did not intend to deal with was raised when the first two signs in the series of ten were vandalized and subsequently removed late last week. While denouncing such vandalism is the obvious gesture to make, it probably has little effect on the ignorant and angry few who engage in it.

A more interesting discussion is to consider how artists who present outside gallery walls can have the foresight to incorporate the possibility of vandalism into their work. Frankel’s installation, for example, still functions without the missing signs. Because the puzzle is impossible to fully assemble even with the missing pieces, it is now just a little bit harder.

It is important to remember that not all of these questions will be raised for any one audience participant, and many not mentioned here will of course come up. That is the vitality of public art and the diversity of experiences it fosters. However, one effect will be achieved for most everyone. This is the simple, yet supremely important, effect of undoing familiarization with the space. This effect accompanies all public art until the art begins to become familiar, such as the Louise Bourgeois’ sculpture “Eyes,” installed on the lawn in front of the Williams College Museum of Art.

For everyone on any given day, art should encroach upon spaces taken for granted and lead to questions about the environment. The questions raised by the most unexpected encounters may lead to the most rewarding answers.Â