A beloved egg statue in Palo Alto is at risk of being taken down by the city, raising questions about the city's policy towards public art.
The removal of multimedia artist Adriana Varella's "Digital DNA," a prominent fixture in the city’s Lytton Plaza, will be put to a vote by the Palo Alto Arts Commission in November. According to a report issued by the City of Palo Alto, the decision to deaccess the sculpture is driven by the statue's excessive maintenance costs and current state of disrepair.
"Digital DNA" has become somewhat of a fixture in Palo Alto since its installation in 2005, but it carries a fraught history.
"Digital DNA" is 7-feet-tall, and made of welded steel and circuit boards shaped to resemble an egg. Each board is sewn together with multilingual commentaries on modern technology.
"Computers (and the Internet) have the power to amplify communications to a scale never seen before. It can be used to educate, inform, but it can alienate, colonize, manipulate, make wars, surveil," Varella wrote in an e-mail to KQED. "This work proposes a reflection on all of that."
It was originally commissioned in 2000 by Palo Alto’s Public Arts Commission. But in 2001, a neighbor of Varella’s threw away a lot of circuit boards that she had embroidered, effectively throwing away months worth of work.
In 2004, the egg was completed and waiting to be installed. Stored in a warehouse in San Bruno, it burned up when the building caught fire that June. At the time, the sculpture’s installation was put on hold as Arts Commission members and other Palo Alto officials debated over new plans for a fountain in Lytton Plaza. After the fire, Varella built another version of the sculpture.
Nearly a decade after its original commissioning, the piece was completely refurbished by Varella with funding from the city in 2010 — an effort that took place alongside renovations at Lytton Plaza. Since then, maintenance efforts in 2013 and 2014 required a third-party conservator to install UV-protective sealants and other products to help "Digital DNA" withstand the elements.
And, now, with the implementation of a new statue removal policy by the City of Palo Alto, the saga continues.
"We are continuing to evaluate how the Arts Commission is handling my situation," Varella said. "There are problems with the policy, especially provisions that allow the City to destroy artwork."
Varella contends that the city's new deaccession procedure, which was implemented this February, falls in violation of the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) and the California Art Preservation Act (CAPA) -- federal and state legislation designed to protect the moral rights of artists, including preserving their artwork from destruction.
It might be worthwhile to note that VARA permits relocation of an artwork as long as it is not destroyed in the process.
Varella recently set up a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter to fund "Digital DNA"'s restoration, preservation and possible relocation, based on the outcome of the Arts Commission's vote. The funds will go toward a solution to preserve the piece, such as installing a weather-resistant acrylic box to serve a barrier. Some of the funds may go toward a lawsuit against the city and its deaccession policy.
“Despite all obstacles, I'm persistent," said Varella. "It is not about my work; it is about collective consciousness, it is about history, and it is about questioning our present as well."
Elise DeMarzo, the director of Palo Alto’s Public Art program, maintains that the vote for deaccession is only a matter of preserving the artwork itself.
“Once the plaza was rebuilt, 'Digital DNA' just immediately started deteriorating," said DeMarzo. “We’ve just had these ongoing dialogues trying to find a suitable solution that will preserve it. No matter how many types of sealants we’ve tried and Adriana’s tried, those materials [in the sculpture] are just really problematic. Circuit boards are not intended to be out in the sun. They’re brittle and they break.”
Repairs and maintenance for "Digital DNA" since its installation in 2005 have cost $20,752, according to the deaccessioning report issued by the city. The city of Palo Alto, DeMarzo notes, has searched for a suitable site for the sculpture's relocation to no avail.
If deaccession goes underway, DeMarzo says that the benefactors of Lytton Plaza hope to establish a series of rotating art exhibitions that will be held in place of "Digital DNA."
“We’ve done what we can to keep the piece alive, but it has been a real labor of love,” said DeMarzo.
The vote for "Digital DNA"’s deaccession will be held on Nov. 16.