The Liberty Street Church was temporarily resurrected on May 30 in downtown Troy. Three artists, two of whom have connections to the Institute, built a nylon-and-air monument for a site-specific video and sculptural installation that was a part of Troy Night Out, a monthly downtown arts event.
Olivia Robinson, who earned her MFA from Rensselaer in 2007, is now head of Syracuse University’s Fiber Arts Department and returned to Troy in May to work with Ph.D. candidate Dara Greenwald, MFA 2007, and Josh MacPhee. The three based their structure called “Spectres of Liberty” on the same materials that prop Easter bunnies and Halloween witches on people’s lawns, but the result was far more contemplative.
People lined up at twilight to enter the inflatable. Inside, they sat on chairs and became members of a congregation of memory. Liberty Street Church was an African-American Presbyterian church that played a significant role in the city’s life, and also on the international stage of the abolition movement. The building became a church in 1840 and burned in 1941.
The outside of the full-scale model featured an image of its renowned pastor, Henry Highland Garnet. Words from a speech he delivered were projected spiraling from his mouth; these words represent a pivotal shift in abolition, from a time when masters were encouraged to release slaves, to when slaves were encouraged to rebel.
The room was filled with the sounds of trains and whistles. Images flashed at the front wall, and people saw words from other speeches, and pictures of shackles and other implements of slavery.
At the Oakwood Presbyterian Church, which merged with the congregation of Liberty Street Church in 1963 days after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, people talked about the exhibit. Several current members of Oakwood, some of whom attended
“Over and over again we took on the hard issues,” Oakwood member Linda O’Malley said of her church. “Integration before it was fashionable, AIDS before the crisis was understood.”
O’Malley said she appreciated the attention drawn to the rich history of Liberty. Five years ago Oakwood and Liberty’s bond was documented in a photographic installation by Clifford Oliver. Michael Lopez (M.A. 2001), who is now a member of the church, began researching Oakwood as part of his master’s in building conservation studies, and found funding from the New York State Council on the Arts for the project, which has become a fixture of the sanctuary.
The “Spectres of Liberty” exhibit is a much less permanent endeavor, and that’s why arts professor Kathy High and fellow faculty member Igor Vamos, who also work in temporal elements, were happy to help document the event.
“Dara Greenwald’s very interested in history,” High said, “and local history and politics, and trying to retell history that has been forgotten and histories that are under-recognized, so this fits into the tradition that she’s committed to for her Ph.D. thesis and dissertation.”
Greenwald sees her work as a blend of three areas. “One is public space and public memory, another is media arts, and the other is the culture of social movements,” Greenwald said. “So this project is using media art to create public memories about a kind of repressed history of social movements in that specific site and specific place of Troy, N.Y.”
The city’s link to Uncle Sam is regularly exploited, but Henry Highland Garnet, who is arguably as significant, does not get much play in the city’s sense of self. Garnet, along with Frederick Douglass, is a namesake for Rensselaer’s first African-American graduate, Garnet Douglass Baltimore. The city renamed part of Eighth Street for Baltimore in 2005. Rensselaer honors the memory of Baltimore, who designed Troy’s Prospect Park and who is a member of the Rensselaer Alumni Hall of Fame, with an annual lecture series.
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