This year marks the 150th anniversary of New York’s Cooper Union, a free, highly competitive college with schools of Art, Architecture, and Engineering. The most conspicuous commemoration has been the opening of their new building at 41 Cooper Square in the East Village.
Designed by Thomas Mayne of the Los Angeles firm Morphosis, the building has gotten as much attention for its striking design as for being New York’s “first green building.” With LEED Platinum certification and features such as a cogeneration system and radiant heating and cooling, one would expect that the building belies a certain “green” ideology on the part of the administration. It is surprising then to find out that this year also marked the institution of a new policy at Cooper. Bicycles and bike wheels are no longer allowed inside of any of the school’s buildings.
Beyond appearing somewhat hypocritical, this policy is very bad news for cyclists. The school is located in one of the country’s worst zip codes for bike theft. In reaction to this, the year’s first student art show, which opened on Tuesday, focussed solely on this issue. “This Bicycle is a Sculpture,” an interactive installation conceived and organized by seniors Katya Tepper and Ben Seltzer, is the culmination of a heated dialogue between students and administrators, touching on art, safety, and politics.
At the beginning of the school year, when students found that their attempts to address the new policy with the administration were ineffective, they formed a group to fight it. After several meetings and a petition, the initiative very quickly turned into an art project. “It became evident that we needed a way to communicate to the student body,” said Seltzer, “We’re art students and we felt that this was the most effective way to create the dialogue that needed to happen and wasn’t happening.” The group did not anticipate that their show itself would become the center of the debate.
The initial proposal for the show involved installing a functioning bike rack in the school’s gallery space. It was rejected. This began a series of trenchant negotiations with Buildings and Grounds and the Vice President of the school. Tepper and Seltzer both felt that the issue wasn’t the safety of their show, but concern that students were challenging the institution. “It became clear that the show should be shaped to bring to light the fact that there’s so much distrust of the students and so many problems with communication,” Seltzer said. “We saw that we had to find a way to demonstrate these failings.”
The approved show features a bike rack which may hold up to 20 bicycles at a time. Students who register with the exhibit organizers receive “This Bicycle is a Sculpture” stickers to put on their bikes. When they present their labeled bikes to the security desk, they are handed a large wooden paddle inscribed with one of three slogans: “Outdoor parking is insufficient,” “Stop me before I kill again,” and “Buildings and Grounds censors art.”
Students must then take their bicycles up to the second floor on a designated elevator, where they may lock them. Behind the rack, Seltzer and Tepper hung a large number of the documents relevant to the policy and process of getting the show approved. They included several theft reports and the document outlining the seventeen guidelines the administration presented to the organizers — an almost unheard-of level of restrictions for an exhibiton.
Students and faculty at the show’s opening lauded both the aesthetic presentation and the message. Saskia Bos, Dean of the School of Art, had lobbied with other administrators on the show’s behalf and was impressed. “The statement is made on an aesthetic level, which opens it up for discursive discussion,” she said. Bos cited the work of Hans Haacke, who was one of the pioneers of institutional critique and taught at Cooper Union for 35 years.
“It’s sculptural, it’s visually communicative, and it’s interactive; all of these components are artistic elements,” said Seltzer, “At the same time, we’re using those elements to communicate a critique.”
According to Tepper, the school’s Safety Advisor expressed that the administration was most concerned with the effect of the show on the student body. “He told us their biggest concern was that if our show was successful for a five day period, then what would students think next week?”she said.
Many are hoping that the show will indeed expedite the process of the school going truly green: not only in structure, but also in function.
While they were appealing the rejection of their initial proposal,
students organized daily demonstrations. For a week, at 1 PM every
day, they gathered to ride through the school on imaginary bicycles.
Senior Joe Kay, who helped organize the event and build the handlebars
for the imaginary bikes, made a video of one of their rides.