Time capsule: Exhibit celebrates anniversary of public art project

Jun. 20, 2014 @ 11:45 AM

The rough equivalent of a time capsule sits at the bottom of a steep ravine on West Corporation Street, across from the Durham Athletic Park. Facing the ballpark and looking at where the stream goes under the street, a visitor can see neatly stacked pieces of concrete that help stabilize the embankment.

They were placed there in 1989, and time has worn away the visible evidence that the slabs were part of a public art project. A new exhibit at the Durham History Hub titled “Remembering Loaded Text” contains photos and other archival materials documenting this public art project.
“Loaded Text” also was known as the “Sidewalk Project.” Artist Mel Ziegler and his wife Kate Ericson (who died in 1995) collaborated on many public art projects. In 1989, using markers, they wrote the full text of the city’s 65-page downtown revitalization plan on a sidewalk fronting Rigsbee Avenue next to the downtown Post Office. The artists later jack-hammered the work and placed the pieces in three dump trucks for display during a regional public art conference held at the Durham Arts Council. After the conference, they used the slabs to shore up the stream bed across from the ballpark and prevent erosion.
At the time, the project drew its share of sighs. The then-editorial writers at this newspaper, and some letter writers, scratched their heads or castigated the project. (The downtown postmaster gave the project good marks because he got a new sidewalk to replace one that was in bad repair.)
“Loaded Text” was installed decades before the Durham Sculpture Project, “Major” the Bull, the Parrish Street sculptures, Jaume Plensa’s light sculpture outside of the Durham Performing Arts Center, before photographer Georges Rousse’s “Bending Space”  installation. All of those public art projects owe a small debt to “Loaded Text,” said Margaret DeMott of the Durham Arts Council. “I believe you can draw a dotted line between this and the Georges Rousse exhibit,” DeMott said. DeMott, artist services director at the arts council, was at the council in 1989 when the local arts council and the state arts council partnered to commission “Loaded Text.” When Ziegler and Ericson were doing the “Sidewalk Project” the Durham Civic Center was new, and there was discussion about incorporating public art with downtown revitalization, DeMott said. The state arts council chose Durham for the conference site because it saw the city as being “on the cusp of doing some great things with the arts,” she said.
“Loaded Text” turned heads because it was about environmentalism, community, reuse and public records, in addition to visual art. The artists heard that two copies of the revitalization plan would be on view at the public library, and that got the artists thinking about access to public records, said Julie Jean Thomson, one of three curators of the retrospective. She first learned about the project from Chicago-based artists Andrew Barco and Sabri Reed. Barco and Reed spent some time in Durham doing art projects and learned about “Loaded Text” while taking an art history course in Boston.
The exhibit has archival photos of Ziegler and Ericson making the work – in the hot sun, with their hands protected by cardboard. The exhibit has a touch screen that includes the full 65-page revitalization report, the program from the public art conference (and some transcriptions of some of the speeches). The 1989 revitalization report includes the following observations: “There is only one occupant living downtown at the present time,” and there are “minimal available units and amenities to attract people to live downtown.”
“Remembering Loaded Text” is on view at the History Hub’s “Exhibits from the Community” section, which highlights exhibits that citizens curate. It offered an ideal place “to present stories like this,” Thomson said. Volunteers came forth and said, “Here is a piece of Durham history that matters to me,” said Katie Spencer, executive director of the Museum of Durham History. The exhibit tells a story “that otherwise might have been forgotten because some Durhamites cared about it,” she said. 

WANT TO GO?

WHAT: Exhibit, “Remembering Loaded Text: The 25th Anniversary of a Public Art Work Made in Durham”

WHEN: Exhibit is open through July 19
WHERE: Durham History Hub, 500 W. Main St.
ADMISSION: Free. A public reception for the exhibit will be held today from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.