Like many shared green spaces at the heart of old New England towns, Harvard Square’s Cambridge Common has long been home to a particular kind of public art—a trio of cannons, a Civil War memorial, a plaque marking the spot where, legend has it, George Washington first assumed command of the Continental Army. “There are about 17 separate monuments and memorials in the park, all made of stone and bronze and heavy materials,” says local curator Dina Deitsch. But now she’s bringing a very different brand of art to the park, one as contemporary and ephemeral as those statues are stolid and solid. “The idea is, how can we take this space that feels very formal and a little bit removed and give people a bit of ownership of it?” she explains. “How can we bring the kind of artists who’d show at the ICA to the street?”

Her answer is Common Exchange, an ambitious four-month public art series funded largely by grants from sources like the NEA. Co-organized by Cambridge Arts director of public art Lillian Hsu, it features six performances and three installations that respond to the park’s history and its recently completed renovations. “Most of the renovations had to do with reconnecting the Common to the city, redoing the pathways and making it more accessible,” Deitsch says. “Thinking about this notion of pathways, connectivity and access, I was immediately thinking of some of the artists I know who work in the public sphere and are interested in that sort of engagement.” Take Vancouver’s Carmen Papalia, a visually impaired artist whose performance Blind Field Shuttle has him leading an eyes-closed conga line through the Common with his cane, giving participants a fresh perspective on the space (and testing their trust in the stranger a step ahead of them). Another performance, Cambridge artist Andy Graydon’s Gathering Note, has scattered singers performing an arrangement of Puritan-era hymns. Then there are installations like New York artist Julianne Swartz’s We Complete, a park bench that starts whispering verse and commentary when two visitors sit, join hands and complete an electrical circuit. And Cambridge resident and former Foster Prize winner Kelly Sherman’s We Were Here – Memories of Cambridge Common memorializes locals’ recollections of the park in banners emblazoned with poetry. “People contributed things that were anything from being drunk at a protest in the ’60s to one woman’s really beautiful story about losing her daughter and going to the park and remembering her,” Deitsch says. “She’s framing these personal narratives as [being as] important as these great historical narratives.”

Complemented by concurrent exhibitions at Gallery 344 and a free newspaper produced by Lesley University’s Community Design Studio, the series kicked off on May 13 and continues through September, with live performances on weekends and first and third Thursday evenings—though one performance, Jon Rubin and Lee Walton’s When the World’s on Fire, will have a drum and fife duo playing protest songs each day at noon through mid-June. It’s the sort of happening that could take passers-by by surprise. “Maybe you don’t know about the project at all, and you’re walking through the Common and you encounter a performance,” Hsu says. “That speaks to the nature of civic space and what’s wonderful about it: It’s not completely programmed. You meet somebody you maybe don’t know at all… you encounter something you maybe haven’t seen before. The artists are responding to this idea that public space becomes public when we the public use it.”

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