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Commentary & Opinion

Public Art Turns Into Public Protest At Troy's Barker Park

Barker Park volunteer helps to clean Troy neighborhood park.
Barker Park volunteer helps to clean Troy neighborhood park.

The idea of art is to change a person’s perception of the normal. There is currently an experiment going on in Barker Park, downtown Troy, that appears to be changing the perceptions of everyone.

Barker Park, at 64 3rd Street in downtown Troy, has been a congregating spot for many of the city’s disadvantaged population. It is a relatively small location that has the potential for drug abuse and is an attractive location for some homeless individuals to congregate.

According to the City of Troy, it is also a confined space that with the Covid-19 epidemic could be unsafe if too many people congregated in the area without proper social distancing. In an apparent attempt to make the park less appealing for such behavior, on July 31 the benches were removed. Without a place to sit congregating is less comfortable and unlikely to happen. A spokesperson for the City of Troy insists the removal of the chairs is temporary and they are studying how to best restore benches in a safe manner.

However, to the artist, a lovely park devoid of a place to sit seems counterproductive. Curious about the dynamics between chairs and park visitors, a small group of artists tried an experiment. Starting on August 10, they started placing a single household chair in the park to see if it changed anything. Members of the group would sit in the chair for 90-minutes, and then be replaced by another sitter, who brought another chair. The original chair remained in the park.

Over 60 chairs have been brought into the park. On a regular basis, as they accumulate, the Troy Department of Sanitation removes them.

The purpose of the sitters was, and is, to observe. They talked with anyone who felt like chatting and according to a spokesperson for the collective effort, most importantly - they listened to those in the park.

The first chair was given a name, Bobby Chair. Every new chair was also called Bobby Chair, which soon became the official name of the artistic experiment’s group– the Bobby Chair Barker Brigade.

However, what started as an artistic experiment soon turned into a social experiment as well. As word got out about dedicated groups sitting and assisting those in need inside Barker Park, the action started drawing attention from those outside the arts community. This resulted in getting donations from local businesses. Soon members of the Brigade were passing out bottles of water, snacks, hand sanitizers, masks, pieces of pizza and fresh vegetables to anyone who asked – no questions asked. Several Troy residents joined as sitters.

The movement also took on social responsibilities. Readily available are harm reduction services information such as the location and availability of homeless shelters and drug clinics, which may be helpful to some of those who populate Barker Park.

The members of Bobby’s Chair Brigade prefer to remain anonymous. They claim this is a grassroots action that is becoming bigger than first imagined. As it becomes tightly organized, goals have been defined. The goals start with wanting benches returned to Barker Park. Others have to do with helping with hygiene in the park in the form of more trash cans and cigarette disposal units.

There are also broad social and political demands. Members of the Brigade want more funds to be allocated to support harm reduction and mental health infrastructures. They also want more interventions in the park provided by trained mental health experts rather than by the police department. They believe free Narcan kits should be available.

Perhaps the most political demand concerns the Human Rights Commission, which is authorized in Chapter 51 in the Troy City Code. The group wants it to be activated and members appointed to serve on the Commission.

The Bobby’s Chair Barker Brigade is experiencing how the passions stirred by art can become political However, they feel that the art experiment also is having positive human effects. They report that several occupants of Barker Park requested rakes, cleaning tools and plastic bags. They voluntarily cleaned the park and the City of Troy removed the bags of litter. There has even been a request to have access to a lawnmower.

For the sitters, the Bobby Chairs have taken on their own personalities and identities. Indeed, some have said they actually feel pain when they see them removed and are found broken in nearby dumpsters.

More important, they are experiencing an act of public art morphing into an act of Civil Disobedience. The Bobby‘s Chair experiment seems to have done more than alter perceptions. It has, in many ways, affected the creators as well as those who use the park. In this case, public art is also peaceful protest.

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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