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This AR Artwork Reimagines Historical Spaces Across the U.S.

Nancy Baker Cahill’s red, white and blue “Liberty Bell” rings over sites in six major cities

Nancy Baker Cahill's Liberty Bell, as seen over the National Mall (Art Production Fund )
smithsonianmag.com

To experience Nancy Baker Cahill’s latest project, art lovers must travel to some of the United States’ most prominent historical sites. Upon arriving at such locales as the National Mall and the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, smartphone-wielding visitors need simply point their cameras at the sky to see Cahill’s augmented reality (AR) artwork—a swirling, bell-shaped mass of red, white and blue ribbons that moves to the beat of chaotic, discordant bells—float above the scene.

The new public work, titled Liberty Bell, debuted on July 4 and will remain freely accessible in six cities—Boston; Charleston; Philadelphia; Rockaway; Selma; and Washington, D.C.—through 2021. Per a statement, Baker Cahill created the work in collaboration with the Art Production Fund, 7G Foundation and the Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy. To see and hear Liberty Bell, viewers must download the artist’s free app, 4th Wall.

Baker Cahill’s ambitious AR venture took more than a year to plan and execute, she tells David Colman of the New York Times. It debuts at a unique point in American history, when communities are reckoning with the racist legacies of historical monuments across the country and, in many cases, taking them down.

“It’s time for new models and new monuments,” the artist writes on Twitter.

In the statement, Casey Fremont, executive director of the Art Production Fund, emphasizes Liberty Bell’s adherence to social-distancing guidelines.

“[I]t feels crucial to bring this important artwork safely to the public,” she says. “Through a visual and sonic AR experience, Baker Cahill gives viewers the opportunity to reflect upon their personal experiences of liberty, freedom, injustice and inequality.”

The six sites chosen for the artwork were selected based on their historical significance. In Boston, the bell swings over the harbor where the Boston Tea Party—an event Baker Cahill describes on Twitter as “one of the most complex and formative moments in US history”—took place in December 1773.

Other Liberty Bell locations include Fort Tilden, a former Army base in Rockaway, New York, and the “Rocky Steps” leading up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The work also appears over the ocean near Charleston, where 40 percent of enslaved Africans entered the U.S., according to Baker Cahill’s website, and the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma—the site of a 1965 civil rights march nicknamed “Bloody Sunday.”

Baker Cahill partnered with the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to bring the work to the National Mall, where it is geo-located over the reflecting pool between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.

“As Liberty Bell sways above the pool, AR shadows will be cast over the water,” the Hirshhorn writes in a statement. “The image will create a literal and metaphorical reflective experience for viewers as they are invited to question the very concept of liberty.”

Expanding on this idea in the statement, Baker Cahill adds, “From its origins in American history, ‘liberty’ was only available to a certain demographic and came at great expense to others. You can’t have a conversation about freedom and not talk about the history of slavery and inequality in the United States.”

As viewers peer at their phone screens, the shifting web of ribbons twists and rocks to the beat of a soundscape of bells and synthesizers designed by artist Anna Luisa Petrisko, reports Sarah Cascone for artnet News. The looped video is about a minute and a half long.

Baker Cahill originally drew inspiration from the Liberty Bell and its famous crack; as a child, she regularly visited the city of Philadelphia, according to Becky Batcha and Ellen Gray of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“A bell can be a warning or a celebration; something spiritual or a wordless means of communication,” says Baker Cahill in the statement. “In an age of pandemic, surveillance, injustice and disinformation, who is actually free? That’s the conversation we need to have.”

About Nora McGreevy

Nora McGreevy is a freelance journalist based in South Bend, Indiana. Her work has appeared in Wired, Washingtonian, the Boston Globe, South Bend Tribune, the New York Times and more. She can be reached through her website, noramcgreevy.com.

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