top of page

Physical Distance


Social Proximity


And art in public places

Back at the beginning: the March 23, 2020, NYTimes had this as its lead story in the arts section: “What happens when we lose the art that brings us together?” The writer A.O. Scott described activities as different as the Cannes film festival and the Coachella music festival – activities that, in his words, “make visible and permeable the boundaries between our individual and communal selves.” Social and physical proximity worked in tandem. 


Since then, and up until now -- although with seeming modifications --  maintaining “social distance” has been an imperative. My own take is that “physical distance” and “social distance” are not interchangeable:  the former is literally critical while the latter should/can/needs to be overcome to restore the “permeability... between our individual and communal selves.”

I write thinking about BostonAPP/Lab’s mission --  to support, generate, and strengthen the presence and impact of art in Greater Boston’s public places by incubating new collaborations within the framework of civic engagement. 


And thinking about the following comment by Eric Sealine, a sculptor and, fortunately for the Lab, a friend: One of the functions of public art is to transform the way people respond to each other. It has less to do with the object itself than with the community created by its effect on the people who see it.  If it is successful, they look at the object and then turn toward each other. 


A work of art (whether performance or installation, temporary or permanent)...and the community created by people turning toward each other – by, in other words, a kind of civic engagement or collaboration: what kinds of prompts will work that both reflect the requirement of physical distance and the desire for social proximity – that will allow all of us to ask, and maybe find answers to, the question: “What can we do together that we can’t do separately?” 


The Lab consciously (maybe self-consciously) uses the term “art in public places” as a way of making sure that the “public” and the “place” have been identified and somehow reflect, and reflect on, the art in question. Is that formulation at all useful in the face of “’physical distance?” What could be/are responses to Robert Irwin’s challenge – “the question is how you can take art out into the world” – under the current conditions?  


I’d sure like to hear, and then share, readers’ responses to this. As we try to emphasize in the Lab’s workshops, there are no wrong answers.

Ron Mallis

Boston APP/Lab

bottom of page