Art lovers up and down the East Coast of the US can celebrate Independence Day with Liberty Bell, a new public, augmented-reality artwork from Nancy Baker Cahill that debuts on July 4 in Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and Washington, DC, among other cities.
“I spent a lot of time in Philadelphia as a child, and one of my most powerful memories was going to see the Liberty Bell and noting, obviously, as everybody does, that it was cracked,” Cahill told Artnet News. “I want to engage the public and invite people to consider what liberty means to them.”
The piece, an animated coil of red, white, and blue brushstrokes roughly in the shape of that famed artifact that seems to float in the air, illustrates “how the very concept of liberty was flawed from the beginning. It was available to a select group of people and not others,” she added. “You can’t talk about liberty without actively and rigorously engaging the history of slavery.”
Two years in the making, Liberty Bell was commissioned by the Art Production Fund, and can be experienced in geolocated sites in the participating cities, using the artist’s 4th Wall app on a smartphone or tablet device.
Cahill, who draws in VR before working with a tech team to convert her images to AR, is committed to the nascent medium.
“It inherently has subversive potential. It is invisible to the naked eye, and yet it exists in that space,” she said. “I think it’s one of the most accessible ways of sharing and engaging in art, because you can experience it on phones and tablets.”
The work lasts a minute and a half and is accompanied by a soundscape designed by Anna Luisa Petrisko based on sounds of bells, both historic recordings and synthesized music.
“A tolling bell is a powerful thing. It can be spiritual, it can be a call to action, it can be a warning, it can be a celebration—it’s already nuanced and complex,” Cahill said.
As the animation unfolds, the gentle intonations of the bell gradually becomes more wild and discordant as the red, white, and blue stripes reach a fever pitch, seemingly poised to tear themselves apart.
“There’s this moment of real discomfort and struggle as the piece goes through its animation. It gets increasingly agitated and chaotic, and yet it remains intact,” she added.
The visual struggle is inspired by divisions in our country, and Cahill’s fear of a cultural civil war.
“It feels like there is this chasm,” she said, pointing to the widely disparate debates over liberty—on one side, the Black Lives Matter protests, on the other, those who refuse to wear face masks to help fight the global health crisis.
“The notion of liberty is a noble one. It’s a beautiful idea,” Cahill said. “[But] the very concept of liberty was flawed from the beginning… It’s cracked. It’s like the bell—it’s not working.”
But despite the civil unrest sweeping the US, Cahill says Liberty Bell is a hopeful piece, which is part of the reason it’s launching on July 4.
“The moment is ripe for reexamining what these founding ideals were, how have these succeeded or failed, and how can we move toward progress, work collectively and collaboratively toward progressive action and [become] a more truly just nation,” Cahill added. “We need to imagine new systems to survive and actively thrive.”
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