The Space Subject to No Earthly Dominion
(The Curious Tale of the Berkeley Art Project)
By Michael Rossman
Since I was a leader of the Free Speech Movement, people sometimes ask what I think about the sculpture recently installed in Sproul Plaza to commemorate the FSM. If I choke and sputter, it's because I know the inside story, having served on the committee that commissioned the sculpture. Indeed, I feel particularly responsible, not only because I helped the Berkeley Art Project hustle so many other FSM vets for funds for an FSM memorial, but because I wrote a key part of the invitation to BAP's design competition, describing the values and spirit that the winning sculpture was meant to celebrate.
Given the outcome, you might well agree that I have good reason to feel betrayed. Yet I'm sputtering less in indignation, than in amazement and perverse delight. For in truth, I think the sculpture has turned out to be quite marvelous -- a much richer and more profound work of art, and a more perversely appropriate memorial to the FSM, than its artist or the project's organizers ever intended.
I had my doubts at first, when the winning entry was announced. Mark Brest Van Kempen's work is simple and elegant. Around a six-inch hole in the plaza's pavement, revealing the earth below, runs a six-foot granite ring with this inscription: "This soil and the air space extending above it shall not be a part of any nation and shall not be subject to any entity's jurisdiction."
His sculpture was said to evoke the spirit of free thought. I do think it's pretty nifty in its own, conceptual terms, even though its "free" space is too small to contain a person, or even one person's brain unless it be tilted sideways. That the sculpture provokes such thought as this is already proof of its power; and anyone pondering it seriously will find it provocative in many ways. It's surely appropriate for a university campus. But what does it have to do with the Free Speech Movement?
Free thought is vital to free political speech -- but no more so, than to every other kind of academic inquiry and art. What was special about the FSM was not our private thoughts, but the way we talked together and acted collectively to affirm our rights as citizens and learners, in the most intensely democratic campus movement of our generation. Surely this spirit of democracy alive deserved a memorial -- and still does, for I think Brest Van Kempen's sculpture completely missed the point.
Even so, I held my tongue when it won the competition, not simply from loyalty to the project, but because the sculpture was chosen in a reasonably democratic process. After raising $150,000 to fund the project, BAP publicized the design competition across the nation and abroad, received 280 entries, and put all the designs on display for weeks in Kroeber Hall. The competition finalists were selected by a panel of distinguished judges, arranged by two of BAP's three key organizers -- Professors Peter Selz (Art History, emeritus) and Galen Cranz (Architecture). I wish the third -- the long-term faculty activist Charles Schwartz (Physics) -- had been more involved; for I thought the judges were distinguished more by their leanings toward conceptual art than by their political sensibilities. But surely they were practical in choosing five designs from among so many provocative entries, and perhaps were governed by politics after all. For each finalist they chose was so innocuous and/or vague that the university administration could have had no conceiveable reason to object to it -- save perhaps for the public-access telecommunications display, which might flash an obscene slogan.
After this sanitary selection, democracy ruled. The five finalists were put on display on Sproul Plaza for weeks, drawing 559 written comments from the campus public. These were duly tabulated and digested by the final committee of judges, which included representatives from the student government, the graduate students, the faculty, the staff, the City of Berkeley, the County of Alameda, BAP itself, the FSM veterans, and the first panel of judges. The university administration was invited to participate, of course, but refused. Despite two years of polite pestering by BAP's faculty organizers, the Chancellor's office still refused to say whether or not it would actually permit a memorial sculpture to be installed on campus. But even BAP's most political organizer, Professor Schwartz, still had hopes, and BAP had an "extemely helpful" meeting with two administration officials right before the committee assembled to decide on the winning design.
Sixteen people met for four feverish hours, agonized democratically over whether any of the five finalists were worthy of winning, decided barely to go on, winnowed them down, and chose one by a bare majority. I don't know how they decided, and can hardly fault them; their choice coincided with the public choice among the five pre-selected candidates, a lukewarm favorite. Neither of my own favorite designs had even made it to the finals. I swallowed my disappointment. It was a done deal. Except for one little hitch: would the administration accept it?
At this point, we must pause to think about art, and about why Brest Van Kempen's sculpture turned out to be so remarkable and appropriate. In this post-modernist era, we are sophisticated. We understand that a work of art, such as this sculpture, is constituted not only by the physical art-work itself, but also by the drama of its production and presentation, as a performance in the world.
Indeed, the artist took some of this into account, for his work was richer than I've said. One might think it merely silly, for claiming that its six-inch space is free; but Brest Van Kempen's original design included an effort actually to organize its freedom, by lobbying the university, county, state, and federal governments to forsake their jurisdiction. Whether or not this were feasible, he originally proposed to invest most of his prospective $70,000 award in hiring lawyers and political consultants. This so troubled the final committee -- from fear of offending the university adminstration, I suppose -- that it agreed to pay only for the design, fabrication, and installation of the physical sculpture; and required the artist to agree to conduct any political effort as "an independent grass-roots endeavor," completely separate from the Berkeley Art Project. I hear he's still trying.
If this curious divorce had been the last act of the sculpture's performance, it would hardly have been worth celebrating. But what happened next was truly bizarre and wonderful. BAP offered the (modified) winning sculpture to the Chancellor, as a gift to the campus. The offer rose slowly through three levels of administrative review to the office of the Chancellor himself, who at last responded. Yes, indeedy, the university would be honored and glad to accept this gift, in memorial to the better spirits of student movements past and future. Provided that BAP agree to one small condition.
When the letter offering this deal finally arrived, BAP's organizers hastily convened a last show of democracy. Ten of us who had been involved with the project during its long gestation met with them to consider how to respond to the Chancellor's small condition. Like most present, I thought his demand was both ridiculous and shameful. Almost all besides Selz and Cranz agreed that we should try to organize faculty and public pressure to change his position, now that the winning sculpture had been chosen in so public a process. As I recall, a bare majority agreed that we should seek a temporary public site for the sculpture off-campus, perhaps in front of Cody's Books, where its presence could help inspire the pressure that might bring it finally home without disgrace. As the night drew on, we disbanded to check out the options, on tenterhooks to know what would happen next. It was weeks before I unraveled the twisted tale.
The next day, BAP's key organizers met again by themselves, and with the artist, in what seems a hasty panic. As I hear the story, Selz and Cranz were afraid that the fine and worthy project they had championed for so long was in danger of being aborted, by the very same sort of political controversy that their careful approach and the winning design had so far dodged successfully. The artist was afraid that his work would die if it were left to languish in some shed or even on Telegraph Avenue. They insisted that BAP accept the Chancellor's condition, so strongly that Schwartz -- who had spoken most persistently for democracy in the project, and endured many compromises diplomatically for the sake of seeing it through -- finally threw up his role in disgust and quit the project, in dignified silence.
Left to themselves, Selz and Cranz quickly sent a letter to the Chancellor accepting his terms, and the deal was done. The sculpture meant originally to commemorate the FSM was installed this past summer in Sproul Plaza; no one bothered to tell me about this either. All that's left of its performance is the official dedication, first planned for the twenty-eighth anniversary of the Cop Car Capture that galvanized the FSM. BAP's remaining organizers wanted to get Anita Hill and Jesse Jackson to speak -- imagine their crust! -- but couldn't, so the dedication has been postponed. I hear they're still trying.
So what was the Chancellor's small condition? Simply this: that no mention of the Free Speech Movement would be allowed, either in the sculpture itself, or in the documents donating it to the university, or even in the press release which BAP would issue jointly with the administration.
What genius to propose, what genius to accept! With this one stroke, the Chancellor, Selz, Cranz and the artist together rescued a minor and unmemorable piece, transforming it into a world-class work of conceptual and performance art, fit for a world-class university.
If this story be remembered as part of the work, it will stand for the ages, or until a censorious jackhammer erases it from the Plaza. A century hence, our descendants may read the truth written in stone: What happened here in 1964 was so significant and so deeply contested that nearly thirty years later the university administration still would not permit faculty and students to honor its name, but instead insisted on censoring their political expression. In this perversely perfect monument to the FSM, they may read a larger truth applying far beyond the campus: that the issues opened in that conflict and era, of civil liberties and rights, had still not been resolved, but continued deeply contested.
Those who pay closer attention to late twentieth century U.S. history may cherish two other ironic details. Chancellor Ira Michael Heyman first came to prominence as chair of a faculty committee (the “Heyman Committee”) which issued a scathing report during the FSM, scolding the Administration for its mishandling of student discipline. This led many to consider him a friend of the FSM, and even somewhat indebted to it for his rise, which he was later at pains to disprove.
Shortly after he chose to treat the history of his own campus in this way, as if this had been a qualifying test, Heyman moved on to be entrusted with our nation's history as Director of the Smithsonian Institution. There he oversaw craven, reconstructionist exhibitions concerned with our dropping the first atomic bomb, and with our first great pollution of the Alaskan wilderness – censoring them, respectively, to remove references to Japanese suffering and to the misdeeds of Exxon Corporation -- again moved to muffle vital truths of history.