The Invisible Monument to Free Speech

RM: In the middle of Sproul Plaza, on the campus of UC Berkeley, is a sculpture 60,000 feet tall. But don’t feel bad if you’ve never noticed it before.

Mark Brest van Kempen (MB): I’ve had people, you know, come and look for it specifically and not find it. That makes me think “maybe I should have made it a little bigger.”

RM: Or maybe that’s just the cost of making and invisible sculpture.

MB: Kind of setting myself up, aren’t I?

RM: Thats Mark Brest van Kempen. His invisible sculpture is known to most as the free speech monument.

MB: It’s actually called Column of Earth and Air.

RM: It’s a 6 inch circle of soil and a column of air above it, extending all the way to the limit of US-controlled airspace. Hence the 60,000 feet. The column is marked by a 6 foot granite ring imedded flush into the concrete of the plaza. The inscription on the outer edge reads:

This soil and the air space extending above it, shall not be part of any nation and shall no be subject to any entity’s jurisdiction.

RM: It’s a sculpture that eschews the traditional materials of wood, clay, or metal, and instead uses

MB: Jurisdiction, laws, and politics as kind of material to work with.

RM: The free speech monument has both subtletyand grandeur, and it’s also just fun and thought-provoking, and a new way to consider jurisdictional space.

MB: Usually, spaces of jurisdiction you enter into. You cross into a country, you cross into a state, you move into somebody’s private property, and I thought it would be interesting to kind of invert that and have a space that kind of moves through your body.

RM: And when you stand next to it today, twenty years after it was installed, you’d never suspect the drama that went on to get this granite circle placed in the ground on university property.

MB: I was kind of thrown into a little bit of a hornet’s nest that I wasn’t prepared for at all.

RM: Here’s what happened. The Free Speech Monument was born out of open design competiton to comemorate the 25th anniversary of the start of the Free Speech Movement.

MB: A bunch of professors, ex-professors.

RM: They called themselves the Berkeley Art Project.

MB: Put this competition together. Separate from the university.

RM: They did it as an autonomous group.

MB: Because they knew if they tried to go through the university to comemorate the Free Speech Movement, it would go nowhere. Because at the time, the university did not want to commemorate the Free Speech Movement in any way, shape, or form.

RM: The Free Speech Movement started in the fall of 1964, when students set up a table in Sproul Plaza to recruit for an off-campus civil rights group. This was against school policy at the time. And everything escalated from there. The following months were marked by sit-ins and strikes and arrests. It was a pivotal moment that defined what we think of as the 60s. So a monument seems appropriate.

RM: So anyway, it’s 1989. The call went out. Hundreds of designs were considered.

MB: Close to 300 entries from all over the country. They weeded that down to five.

RM: And there was this open period of public discussion and voting that included the public and art critics and all kinds of people outside of the Berkley art project, that eventually selected Mark Brest van Kempen’s Column of Earth and Air as the Free Speech monument.

MB: Democracy doesn’t always work with art though. So I’m glad that it worked out this time. The people who had put the project together wanted to give the winning entry to the university as a gift. And then, of course, the university did not want to accept it as a gift and did everything they could not to.

RM: The reason for the reluctance was that a lot of the Berkeley Art Project Group, the ones commisioning the monument, and the higher-ups at the university were the same people who were in the fight 25 years before.

MB: And they were still very upset about it. They still had very hurt feelings.

RM: So UC Berkeley did not want to memorialize the Free Speech Movement in general.

MB: And they hated this piece in particular.

RM: Yeah. So.

MB: They did everything in their power to not accept this gift.

RM: Which is kind of hard to do and still seem like a good guy. And after this big public selection process, they didn’t have too much of a choice, so the university decided to accept the sculpture under one condition.

MB: They said, okay, we’ll accept this commemoration to free speech, as long as the press release that goes out does not contain any reference to the Free Speech Movement.

RM: That’s right. The free speech monument was censored. And the unintended side effect is that is made a piece of conceptual art conceptually better.

RM: Ironically it wasn’t just the university administration that had a problem with the Column of Earth and Air. A couple of the early Free Speech Movement leaders expressed their misgivings about the monument as well.

Mario Savio (MS): …and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it…

MB: I remember having a conversation with Mario Savio

MS: …that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!

MB: He didn’t like the piece at all. And not to put words in his mouth but I did kind of get the impression that he wanted something that was little more specific to the Free Speech Movement in the 60s. And I specifically didn’t want to do that. It seemed more relevant to me to use a real person, speaking freely, about something that they felt strongly about at that moment as a monument to free speech rather than a statue or something like that.

RM: The piece its self remains unfinished. The goal was to completely liberate this six-inch circle of soil at the center from any jurisdiction. And to do that.

MB: It would have to go through all the jurisdictions, you know, the private property owners, the board of regents, the City of Berkeley, the County of Alameda, the state. There would have to be an act of congress. You’d also have to get international treaties because you don’t want France coming in and taking that little piece of land. So, you know, it will probably never be completely finished.

RM: After several attempts, he only made it to the city jurisdictional level before getting thwarted. And now, twenty years after it was installed, I’m standing in a noisy Sproul Plaza, with Mark Brest van Kempen, and we run our hands through the column of air. And even though the jurisdiction-free zone was never formalized, I asked him if he feels something when he passes through the invisible colum.

MB: Yeah I do. Yeah, I feel like I can feel the space, you know. I grew up in Utah and I would go to southern Utah a lot, in the four corners area.

RM: That’s the only place in the United States where four states come together at one point.

MB: I remember specifically jumping from state to state from Arizona to Colorado to Utah

RM: To New Mexico. It’s also fun to lie down spread-eagle, in all four states at once.

MB: And really having a visceral feeling about that invisible line. Obviously it’s just psycological, but those spaces are very real. You commit certain acts in one space and you can do it. You can commit certain acts in another space and you might be killed. Even though they’re imaginary to a certain extent, they’re very real.

RM: 99% Invisible was produced by me, Roman Mars, with support from Lunar, making a difference with creativity. It’s a project of KALW, 91.7 in San Francisco. The American Institute of Archtiects San Francisco, and the Center for Architecture and Design. You can find the show and like the show on Facebook. I tweet @Romanmars, because that’s my name. But you can always just find the show online at 99percentinvisible.org

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  1. Daniel

    Fascinating episode. It seems to me that the discouragement or outright censorship of radical ideas is a trend in educational institutions – schools, of all places. Deeply disturbing.

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