Julia Weist’s “Public Record” (2020) is well suited to the limitations of viewing art during a pandemic, even if it wasn’t made with these circumstances in mind. From the comfort of one’s own couch, or bed, or wherever one accesses the internet these days, viewers can call up “Public Record” as a series of eleven digital images, images of archival material layered with handwritten retrieval slips—Weist’s system of tracking the details she uncovered through her research in New York City’s municipal archives. These files, made public via an online portal to city records, aren’t presented merely via an online gallery. In Weist’s conception, the encounter with the work takes place in a digital public space, an online equivalent of the plaza, park, or city building one might ordinarily expect to host public art. Circuitously and cleverly, Weist has fashioned an artwork from the archive and for the archive, introducing viewers to the system by which a vast collection of city records becomes available to the public.
The immediate digital access to “Public Record” comes courtesy of the Department of Records and Information Services (DORIS) and the city’s Open Records portal, where material requested under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) exists for all to see. The swirl of acronyms around Weist’s project is the inevitable result of its operating within official city structures. “Public Record” was created during her tenure as a Public Artist in Residence (PAIR) at DORIS. The PAIR program, run by the Department of Cultural Affairs, is inspired by Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s longstanding residency with the city’s Department of Sanitation. The three other artists of the 2019 PAIR cohort were placed in the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Department of Aging, and the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability. Simply listing off the names of these different agencies hints at the scores of interlocking bureaucracies necessary to support a city of 8.3 million people. And DORIS manages the historically significant records of them all.
In the millions of physical files lining eight-foot-tall shelves, Weist sought out traces of artists. The search mimicked her own relationship to DORIS: As an outsider embedded within a government agency, Weist went looking for others of her kind, their histories buried in official paperwork. She found both proof of the city’s deep appreciation of the arts and evidence of its inability to aid them. In an essay about the project for n+1, Weist writes, “The collection is exhaustive in its documentation of art workers struggling to survive in the city. Artists are defunded, victimized, rejected, and evicted.”
Accordingly, Weist treats these traces of struggle with great care. In the image Definitions, pink carbonless copy paper isolates key sentences found in various departmental archives. Each sentence attempts to describe what art is and who exactly makes it. For the Department of Employment’s purposes, “the arts are a labor-intensive industry characterized by chronically high unemployment and underemployment.” According to the Department of Cultural Affairs, an artist is someone certified by them alone. Elsewhere: “Art, by definition, defies ‘consensus’ approval.”
Other pieces in “Public Record” document evaluation systems (Rubrics), complicated negotiations surrounding donated monuments (International), and what various departments seek—or don’t seek—in their public art (Shouldn’t). In the fine print, city representatives reveal personal opinions, unfair value judgments, and in some cases, self-awareness. Each excerpted sentence or chart hints at a larger, unseen drama; Weist has an eye for zingers. In International, a delicious moment comes from a 1956 document about a statue the city of Barcelona wants to gift to New York. An unnamed Parks and Recreation employee writes, “in the very near future, [Central Park] will have as many monuments as there are said to be good intentions on hell’s floor.” A similar crack in the official facade appears in Rubrics on an annotated list of artworks. “No! No!” someone writes about an oil painting. A few lines down, another work receives a relieved “Great! Great!”
While much of Weist’s material comes from unnamed sources and difficult-to-imagine bureaucratic channels, one photograph in the series is dedicated to a single government official, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani. In her n+1 essay, Weist details how she stumbled across a box from Giuliani’s press team in the DORIS offices, finding envelopes containing “blurry, over exposed [images] tilted at dramatic angles.” It turns out Giuliani fancied himself an artist; he even had a show at Leica Gallery in 1998 to benefit New Yorkers for Children. In Giuliani, Weist pairs the mayor’s unremarkable snapshots with material related to his attempt to defund and evict the Brooklyn Museum less than a year after his own show, all because the 1999 exhibition “Sensation” included Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary (1996), a painting with elephant dung among its materials. “It offends me,” reads Guiliani’s text, isolated by Weist. “The City should not have to pay for sick stuff.”
Giuliani’s artwork exists within the municipal archive, and now so does Weist’s. By making her photographs with the assistance of a city employee and with city-owned equipment, Weist ensured the images would become official city records, subject to FOIL requests and digital dispersal. To guarantee they were deemed historically significant and entered the municipal archive’s permanent holdings, Weist sent her prints to DORIS commissioner Pauline Toole. That correspondence will slowly, eventually enter Agency Head General Subject Files, and Weist’s “Public Record“ will join its source material in a DORIS warehouse.
“Public Record” extracts a narrative from the data of city records that was never intended to be pieced together in this way. Weist finds evaluation, rejection, and (sometimes) appreciation of artists literally in the margins of government paperwork. But by assembling those bits and pieces into formal, organized arrangements, she highlights the existence of artists within the minutiae of New York City’s interlocked bureaucracies. She guarantees that, from now on, they’ll take up even more space within the city’s history.