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Plaza of the First Reader, 1988

Plaza of the First Reader, 1988
painted and welded steel, wood, aluminum, steel cables and rigging, hardware
30’ diameter x 38’ tall.

Public Art Fund of New York Commission

Cadman Plaza
Brooklyn Heights, NY

PLAZA OF THE FIRST READER

David Schafer’s “Plaza of the First Reader”, located at Cadman Plaza, explores the connection between language and identity in the arena of public art. Multiple genres of exterior life resonate throughout Schafer’s work, which commingles commemoration with entertainment, evoking the carnival, boardwalk and circus in the center of the Brooklyn plaza, traditional locus of public gatherings. 

By the addition of a painted circular platform supporting a towering central pole supported by cables and topped with the letter “B”, the smaller signs along the perimeter of the plaza, and the smaller telescopic apparatus near the fence, which provides a view of the sky through a small “A”–shaped aperture, “Plaza of the First Reader” transforms the small grassy park, dotted with trees, into an ambivalent space. Employing several varying physical scales, Schafer links each to different genres of public space and types of public address. 

The imposing physicality of the tent-like superstructure recall both the circus big-top and the heroic scale of the nineteenth century monument, the letters “B-e” firmly addressing and advising the viewer. Still, even this measure of the ironic didacticism is disrupted two ways: by the interjection of the alternated reading of the monument as entertainment and by placement of the lettering, meaningful only through the conflation of the two distinct views – the distant sight of the “B” elevated above the branches, and the closer look at the “e” mapped out on the platform. 

Similarly, the signage that spells out “S-E-E” as well as the telescope-like structure that can be read as “S-A-Y” also engages the viewer. Like the advertising sign and the telescopes found in public places, these apparatus organize the act of looking, instructing the viewer as to what is significant in the field of vision. Therefore, while reading the message necessitates the ordering of individual letters by an active participant, Schafer’s work also addresses the viewer as consumer – through written language one is instructed to participate in prescribed activities: see, say, be. Nonetheless these activities remain undefined, lacking the essential component of consumerism, an object.

The role of language in the articulation of the self is also critical in the “Plaza of the First Reader” as in previous works by Schafer. Even the title “First Reader”, along with the structure of the installation is reminiscent of early childhood books, in which simple words are spelt out in single letters. Like the child’s first reader, language here is primarily visual: “say” as well as “see” precede the written, but is coeval with it. Indeed, with the “BE” as the central term of Schafer’s “Plaza”, the individual’s very existence or being is predicated upon actual entry into the symbolic, the field of written/spoken language. 

Consequently, Schafer’s installation offers us a verbally and visually ambiguous message (“Be, “See” or “Say” what?), coupled with the multiplicity of allusions to the public spaces of entertainment, high art and social interactions. In this way “Plaza of the First Reader” both alludes to and elides the traditional didactic and morally elevating functions of the monument. 

Deborah Bershad
Brooklyn, New York
1988