‘Liberty Bell’ Rings Around Rockaway


 A new art project by an award-winning artist was planned way before coronavirus even hit the U.S. but with its augmented reality essence, Nancy Baker Cahill’s "Liberty Bell" project was inadvertently made for the times with its virtual viewing capabilities, and its timely message that will have some asking—what does liberty mean? On July 4, "Liberty Bell" made its debut in some of the east coast’s most historic cities, as well as in our own backyard.

"Liberty Bell," a public art project utilizing augmented reality (AR), launched last Saturday across Boston, MA, Charleston, SC, Philadelphia, PA, Selma, AL, Washington, DC and—Rockaway. When the Art Production Fund was looking for their next project, they turned to Nancy Baker Cahill, a multidisciplinary artist and the Founder and Creative Director of 4th Wall, a free AR public art platform. As the winner of the “Impact Maker to Watch” award at LA City Hall for her AR projects such as the ongoing Coordinates project and DesertX at popular music festival, Coachella, Cahill was on the Art Production Fund’s radar. Last year, they asked her to create a proposal for a project meant for Philadelphia, and Cahill drew inspiration from Philly’s infamous cracked Liberty Bell. In a polarized election year, Cahill’s work speaks to concerns around the founding principles of American freedom and democracy and topics like inequality, structural racism, injustice and the ability to vote. Loving her idea, the Art Production Fund decided to go bigger, and the project became Cahill’s first multicity installation of an AR public artwork.

"Liberty Bell" depicts interwoven, yet constantly moving red, white and blue strands, in some locations forming a vortex-like image of a bell. The piece is accompanied by a soundtrack of bells tolling, starting out rhythmic and harmonious and gradually erupting into a more chaotic tune. In the age of coronavirus and recent protests, "Liberty Bell" took on an even deeper meaning and Cahill hopes the artwork sparks conversations. "From its origins in American history, ‘liberty’ was only available to a certain demographic and came at great expense to others. You can’t have a conversation about freedom and not talk about the history of slavery and inequality in the United States. A bell can be a warning or a celebration; something spiritual or a wordless means of communication. In an age of pandemic, surveillance, injustice and disinformation, who is actually free? That’s the conversation we need to have,” she said.

The piece cannot be seen with the naked eye, leaving no environmental footprint. But rather, its impact can be viewed with Cahill’s 4th Wall app at designated locations. Once in one of the geolocated areas, using the app, a user can view Liberty Bell floating above places like the historic Boston Harbor, the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool and others, with the bell casting a shadow above the scene, as if it were actually there.

However, those in Rockaway don’t have to travel far. From above the ocean on Beach 108th Street, or the bay at the Rockaway ferry landing, to Fort Tilden’s Battery Harris East, "Liberty Bell" is ringing around the peninsula.

The local access is made possible by partnerships with organizations that share a goal of drawing attention to Rockaway’s beautiful landscapes and unique challenges, while promoting art. Local partners include the 7G Foundation, Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy (JBRPC), The Rockaway Hotel, National Parks Service, NYC Parks, New York State Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation and the Rockaway Artists Alliance (RAA).

Since its founding in 2013, JBRPC has been an active partner, along with the RAA, in bringing prominent art displays to a Hurricane Sandy-stricken peninsula. This began in 2014 with the first installation of Rockaway! In collaboration with MoMA PS1, this widescale exhibit, including work by famed singer Patti Smith, thrilled locals and visitors alike. This continued in 2016 with Katarina Grosse’s red and white painted building in Fort Tilden and in 2018, with renowned artist Yayoi Kusama’s Narcissus Garden. When looking for the next big thing for 2020, JBRPC turned to the highly anticipated Rockaway Hotel, whose partners, the 7G Foundation, were working with the Art Production Fund. With funding from JBRPC, a decision was made to let Rockaway have a taste of “Liberty.”

JBRPC helped identify geolocations surrounding The Rockaway Hotel, including the beach and ferry landing, as well as Rockaway’s own bit of history, Battery Harris East in Fort Tilden. “We wanted a location by the beach to highlight Rockaway’s resilience with its new boardwalk, dunes and restoration efforts after Sandy; over Jamaica Bay to highlight climate change and the issues surrounding marsh restoration; and in Fort Tilden to show how nature has started to reclaim this abandoned military installation,” JBRPC’s Alex Zablocki explained. Shirley Chisolm State Park in Brooklyn serves as a fourth local location.

Adding Rockaway provided Cahill with an opportunity to create another drawing, something that would speak more closely to the area—a wave. The wave image can be found at the Beach 108th and Battery Harris locations. “The Rockaways are interesting. As part of this, we wanted to talk about another aspect of liberty, which is climate change, and engage in questions of how climate change related to a location and through the Rockaways, which were hit hard by Sandy, you start to think about gentrification and resilience, economic disparities and inequalities,” Cahill said.

The virtual essence of the Liberty Bell project makes it ideal in a time of social distancing. With its outdoor geolocations that can be viewed on personal smartphones and tablets during any time of the day, "Liberty Bell" gives people the chance to get out, explore outdoor locations and engage in a unique experience that they can share with others through social media. While museums and art galleries remain closed, including the RAA, the project keeps art alive.

“JBRPC has always been a great partner and has been generous with including us and helping to continue our mission of bringing internationally and nationally-recognized artists and their work to the Rockaways. We were thrilled to be asked to be a part of this project because it’s virtual and couldn’t have come at a better time with the Covid-19 pandemic,” RAA’s Christine Mullally said. She added that having "Liberty Bell" in Fort Tilden helps to keep focus on the area where the RAA’s studios will hopefully be able to open back up in the fall.

With "Liberty Bell" remaining active through July 2021, it could draw lasting attention and spark local conversations about liberty. More community engagement is expected to come into play, including at The Rockaway Hotel, where people will be able to use free WiFi to download the 4th Wall app, or potentially borrow smart devices if they don’t have any, and view "Liberty Bell" from the hotel rooftop.

In the meantime, people can explore on their own by downloading the free 4th Wall app, which doesn’t collect data. Head to one of the local locations, break out your smartphone, turn on the sound and use the app to find the artwork. Videos and photos can be shared on social media.

For more information on Cahill or the project, follow NancyBakerCahill or 4thWallApp.

 By Katie McFadden