The first of a series of temporary public art installations throughout the city assembled by TEMPOart Portland, Ghost Fence has by now caught your attention. It's not likely the assemblage of flagging tape, wooden poles, and plastic sheeting in the grassy knoll along Franklin Arterial would be mistaken for a civic beautification project, but it's surely prompting questions.
The work of Portland-based artist and designer John Sundling, Ghost Fence is up for the month of June, and is meant to invoke a discussion (public or private) about a series of land-use decisions made by the City of Portland in the 1960s and '70s, which Sundling asserts razed and displaced old Maine communities for the purpose of becoming more modern, functional and commercially viable.
What sort of research did you do to prepare for Ghost Fence? Why did it move you to create this work?
My earliest research was regularly walking along and across Franklin Arterial, which is a few blocks from my house, and experiencing how it is used and how it feels to inhabit the space. I have been interested in this part of the city for years, both as a psychic dividing line on the peninsula and because its history exemplifies Portland's history. Following the TEMPOart call for submissions, I focused on Lincoln Park's pre-urban renewal fence line and used historic maps and photos to plot out the boundary, with a lot of inspiration from Scott Hanson's great "History of Franklin Street" video (found on YouTube). Ghost Fence itself manifested during late night walks this winter, and seemed the most direct way to boil all the history of change and conflict down to something digestible at a public scale.
In the TEMPOart statement, it says about the project that "(i)n the late 1960s, the City of Portland razed existing communities to create the Franklin Street Arterial and make the street more 'functional' and 'modern'" — what did you learn about the people in those communities?
What I've learned about the communities affected by urban renewal in Portland in the 1960s and '70s is that they were culturally varied and had deep historical ties to young Portland, which is rooted in the India Street neighborhood. Listening to WMPG's recent audio documentary on Franklin Street gave voices to people still alive who lived in these homes that were suddenly labeled as slums and torn down 50 years ago. The history is still alive and the emotions fresh, giving Franklin a symbolic importance beyond the infrastructural benefits.
Given the city's sometimes tumultuous history with public art projects (like the infamous "Tracing the Fore" sculpture in Boothby Square, which was removed earlier this decade), I'm curious what sort of response you've gotten from the average Portlander about Ghost Fence.
I am finding that people are curious, but that many people take a defensive position upon first inquiry. Gruff, perhaps. Upon learning that Ghost Fence is about the story of their city, and was installed with intent and local relevance, they usually soften up to it. Everyone who grew up here knows this history, and I think that helps people connect to my project. I've had a few haters, but anything put into the public is free to be criticized and I enjoy the feedback.
Have you noticed any creative alterations or interactions to the piece since its install?
The first night after the June 2 opening, two sections of the fence were torn apart very purposefully. I'd done outdoor material testing and I know that the wind does not do to the white plastic flagger tape what happened to that part of the fence that night. Also, one of the plastic upholstered piers has been stabbed. I keep an eye on it and replace parts as necessary.
You also work in floristry and set design, and have taken an interest to outdoor, environmental art. Are there other places or natural settings in Portland you've taken an interest in?
I have installed work all over the peninsula for years, though this is my first officially permitted public art project. I tend to focus on quiet corners of the town, often seemingly neglected, like the snow dump in Bayside, West Commercial Street before the clear cutting, the quay along the Eastern Promenade Trail. I'm interested in bringing attention to these spots, and making personal connections with the place as a way to reflect on time and change. I would love to play with the tides in Back Cove or create something that plays with the hills in town, with a series of installations meant to be seen from a distance.
Ghost Fence, sculptural installation by John Sundling | Through June 30 | Franklin Arterial and Congress St, Portland | https://tempoartmaine.org
An earlier version of this story cited Scott Hanson's YouTube video as the "History of Lincoln Street." It is actually the "History of Franklin Street."