[about] [ruminations] [contact]

Personal Ruminations about
Textscapes, Public Art and Plato

by Jeff De Castro, public artist

Dangerous Ideas
Was it Plato who said poets should be cast outside the city walls never to engage in public debate as their ideas are too dangerous? Pure projection, Plato, I fear. Poor dear Plato. We, sophists all. Or latter day surrealists as the case may be. My work as a public artist has been to find new ways for a community to see itself through the arts. (Here is where Plato and I part company…stage left). By participating in creative collaborations people discover a language of shared symbols and shared expression. Through the creative process we learn about each other in innumerable and intriguing ways. My vision in these projects is to act as a catalyst, to conspire, and to cajole others into the act of co-creating and envisioning shared speech. Perhaps not to the ends Plato fears, but to see what magic there might be in our common humanity and to experience first hand the wonder and power behind the language of “the demos. ”

One of the most visible and public sites in Ithaca is the Tompkins County Public Library. One might think it is an obvious place to create a text-based public artwork. But is it? Perhaps it is the wrong place (if Plato had his druthers) to present poetic text as publicly visible as this. A question in a larger network of implications for the community to decide. It may be the crux of all public works of art. The public is its own crucible, ours, constantly reinventing itself. Opinion and dialogue, questions and answers, are at the fulcrum and balancing act that speech performs…a constant choice between order and chaos.

Rarely can one see large-scale text in a library. Perhaps with good reason. (Utilitarian signs…the name of a room here, directions to another room there, are the exception). Surprising perhaps, since a library houses some of the greatest works of literature. So, the act of situating a large text-based work in a library may not be as obvious as one might think. That the project invites members of the community to collaborate as well suggests some other nuances possible that are an additional anathema to the premises of the many publications archived in this place…issues such as fluidity in authorship emerge, mutable identities, and confluences of thought provoke…even share copyright. What fun to play with these notions!

Created by Community
I wanted to create a monumental work featuring the talents of professional poets and artists alongside community members of all ages: youth, teens, families, adults and seniors. This is by all means not representative of all possible groups in the city. I would repeat this fact, hoping to meet others as a result of this work…outreach being a process of repeated invitations and acceptances over time. But how to bring the folks I could reach, how to unite their efforts? How to keep the process open and evocative and avoid the pitfalls of dogmatic or programmatic speech? Textscapes is the result of a unique group process I developed with others: Kathryn Machan who offered keen insights into poetic expression, printmakers Christa Wolf and Craig Mains, the expert guidance and sensitivity of professional artists, the participants, too, many of them professional poets and artists themselves…a group process based on a surrealist game of chance called “definitions, questions and answers.” The surrealists loved chance events, and surprise elements. What a wonderful way to keep this sharing of language fresh.

Playing the Game
The beauty of the game is its simplicity. Anyone can play (even Plato). Write down an image. Ask a concrete question based on this initial image. Fold over your result. Hand it to a person, stage left. Someone else hands you a question or answer stage right. Complete the process around in a circle until all sheets are filled. Then read each possible couplet aloud ab.bc.cd.de etc. around the room. Question answer. Answer question. Question answer. Answer question. Perform each line thus, twice. The intonation of your performance is ab.ab.ab etc Question answer. Question answer. Question answer. Regardless of the true declarative or interrogative nature of each line. A simple but effective trick of voicing. New compelling couplets emerge from unknown sources and unexpected meanings.

Through-lines (the smaller lines of type that appear traversing the middle of the textscapes) were created with a slightly different process and intent. My idea was to have a repetitive linear thread that was “woven” throughout the entire work as whole. Same font, size, italicized and computer generated. To create these, Kathryn offered at each workshop a new two or three word phrase to initiate sentences such as: I wish…; (A color) is…; Walk where…; Tell me…; etc. The group then derived concrete images inspired by the exhibit at The Inkshop or a series of illustrated cards Kathryn brought. We then read the phrases as a kind of list of wishes or perhaps marvels. Each group created a different list.

Putting It to Press
While the group process of forming poetic lines undermined individual authorship, the act of printing reaffirmed it. Each participant was asked to select a couplet and through-line from their group’s newly created archive (each group generated as many as 80-100 questions and answers). Each individual then hand printed their selected text using the Peter Kahn Collection of wood type. The sole limitations on printmaking was the layout size (6”x 4.5’); and that the through-line was 3/4” Palatino (a computer typeface), and was to be placed near or on a line I drew lengthwise down the center of the blank paper. The couplet was arranged above and below this line to suit the content of the selected texts. The final decisions concerning the couplet’s typeface size, arrangement, and legibility were the individual’s and generally changed according to each person’s preference and persona. For example a particularly large font used with one or two words might command much of the available space and thereby have a conceptual weight not necessarily apparent.

Demos vs. Ethos
The caveat here is that these works share two qualities, the oracular language of the “demos” and the expressive intention of the individual “ethos.” At all times I have tried to acknowledge and communicate the difference between these two qualities even as we proceeded to act simultaneously in both realms. The result is that there is no poetic speech here that is entirely authored by one person including and especially myself. Whatever this experiment in language is, people arrived at their selections assisted and inspired by each others vision.

The situating and installation of the final collective work, Textscapes, is the point at which I reasserted my vision and experience as a public installation artist. At that stage it was my role to begin to present the work as a totality in an actual space, the Library, and place, Ithaca New York. My intent at this stage was to have the work “read” as a totality if possible… as voices within voices, speaking to each other. The linear nature of the format implies that individuals from the community might walk around the Library from room to room. To imply a common voice if it is there, I could only suggest a common ephemeral thread. My belief is that it is there, to be recognized by all, evident in every word, and framed by a unique collaborative process.


—Jeff De Castro


Personal Thanks
Special thanks also to Sally Grubb and the Tompkins County Public Library Administration who shepherded this project through its inception as an idea to a reality as a final work. To Miri Amihai, Pam, and the board of the Inkshop Printmaking Center Olive Branch Press for sponsoring and mentoring the project. I would like to thank Miri’s photographic memory for remembering the exact contents in detail of one long distance phone call that became the content of two grants.

I wish to thank Lee Ellen Marvin with the Saltonstall Foundation, and Robin Schwartz with Community Arts Partnership for their help shepherding The Inkshop through the process of grant writing and the peer panels that then selected the projects. Needless to say the Saltonstall Grant and DEC Grant from NYSCA made this all possible.

The final works were enlarged to full scale by Chris and company at Dataflow, who generously donated their time, materials and expertise to this community based project. Thanks also to Wickes Lumber for materials crucial to the project’s success. And thanks to Larry Clarkberg of elucid8design.com for the design of this website.

Specially I wish to thank my collaborators Kathryn Machan, poet Laureate of Tompkins County; Christa Wolf and Craig Mains, both inspired artists and printmakers, and all the many participants, many of them professionals in their own right willing to explore new territory for the community’s sake.

Finally, I would like to thank my wife, poet and muse Sandra Steingraber for giving her precious time between motherhood, innumerable speaking engagements, and writing, to give the love which we all require, but far too few experience, and is revealed in the eyes of my children, Elijah, and Faith. It is Sandra who reminded me, one rare and quiet evening, of a previous collaboration in which we used a wee book called “A Surrealist Book of Games.”

If Plato’s Republic ever falls, the responsibility for it rests on the shoulders of others, not these.