How Artist Mary Ellen Carroll Is Fixing New Orleans’ Frequencies

Steven Thomson Steven Thomson

Can architecture fix some of the world’s most persistent problems? Several signs, including Zaha Hadid’s design donation to a Ronald McDonald House and MASS Design Group’s construction of the first comprehensive cancer care center in East Africa, suggest a turn towards a more altruistic practice of architecture.

The upcoming annual forum presented by the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation, and Planning Alumni Association aims to delve deeper into the notion of architect as a “fixer.” Featuring co-founder of Kickstarter Charles Adler, executive producer of Voice of America Saman Arbabi, Global Head of Visualization at Bloomberg Lisa Strausfeld, conceptual artist Mary Ellen Carroll, and moderated by Dean Mark Wigley, the event will offer a rare coming together of people in the practice of changing the way we think and live. If you can’t make it to NYC, follow the discussion live on Architizer’s Twitter feed, beginning at 6:30 pm on March 28th.

Image via Mary Ellen Carroll.

As a preview for Friday’s event, we spoke with panel member and conceptual artist Mary Ellen Carroll over the phone from her temporary base in New Orleans. Carroll is currently “fixing” by way of her new work, Public Utility 2.0, which will utilize ultra-high-frequency and very-high-frequency bandwidth to provide connectivity to under-resourced communities in New Orleans. The project was created for the city’s art biennial, Prospect.3.

Image via Kenny Trice.

Image via James Ewing.

Carroll’s practice blurs the line between art, architecture, urban design, and policy. Her monumental work Prototype 180 lifted and rotated a home in an inner ring suburb of Houston as a commentary on the city’s extreme lack of zoning and land use policy. The project was subsequently translated into a 2011 GSAPP exhibition, organized by Mark Waisuta and Adam Bandler.

The artist’s New Orleans intervention has similar urbanist goals: Public Utility 2.0 aims to create a sustainable model for providing wireless broadband access via Super WiFi. Super WiFi lives up to its action hero name (courtesy of the FCC) by utilizing the UHF/VHF television frequencies, which have become increasingly available as television transmission has digitalized. Compared to the typical consumer 2.4 gigahertz wifi, Super WiFi can travel further and penetrate walls, making it ideal for bathing swaths of underserved areas in new communication capabilities. For the first time, these communities in greater New Orleans will benefit from wireless internet access, bridging the disconnect between wells of cultural, educational, and economic development.

Circle Food Store beside I-10. Image via Mary Ellen Carroll.

Carroll is designing and working with existing towers to create visual markers of the innovative system. The stations will stand beside an elevated section of Interstate 10, a city thoroughfare that carries both vehicle traffic and a history of neighborhood disruption. Built in 1964 as part of the Robert Moses-inspired trend of inserting highways into city centers, I-10 split historically Créole and African American communities such as Tremé and the Seventh Ward, destroying local business districts and erasing family ties that dated back to the colonial period.

Image via Mary Ellen Carroll.

In Carroll’s quest for a more “considered urbanism,” I-10 will now act as a goal post for the Super WiFi, aided by the use of cutting-edge devices, developed through the Rice University Wireless Network Group, set in strategic hubs of creative production. Potential partners include the public radio station WWOZ, McDonogh 35 College Preparatory High School Marching Band, Sea Grant, and Louisiana State University.

Schematic depictions of potential Super WiFi nodes in New Orleans. Images via Mary Ellen Carroll.

The usurping of public space and forgotten utilities to create sustainable amenities for the public good—indeed, a form of “fixing”—has become a national phenomenon, manifested in sites such as New York City’s High Line, grassroots farming initiatives in Detroit, and the redevelopment of Buffalo Bayou beside downtown Houston.

High Line by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Public Utility 2.0 goes beyond being an artwork for a temporary biennial or permanent infrastructure planning. As Carroll explains, “it’s also to make the public aware that unused spectrum is a national resource. Offering Super WiFi as a model and program that’s highly visible is meant to affect public policy and to make it a part of a public dialogue of how our national resources are actually used. In an art context, it is analogous to a work of land art, but with the digital real estate of the 21st century—frequencies.”

An empty plot on Galvez Street in New Orleans as a potential Super WiFi node. Image via Mary Ellen Carroll.

In 2011, Google commissioned three economists—Paul Milgrom, Jonathan Levin, and Assaf Eilat—to write “The Case for Unlicensed Spectrum.” In the paper, they argue in favor of keeping the spectrum unlicensed, as opposed to auctioning off a national resource. Carroll points out that despite President Obama’s Internet savvy and interest in reaching constituents, there is still no national policy for retrofitting these frequencies for broadband connectivity. In that sense, she’s positioning herself as a “fixer” at both the neighborhood and national scale.

In the artist’s words, a fixer is someone who aims to resolve seemingly “impossible situations.” “It is a term that is determined, that you’re called rather than applying to oneself as a moniker,” she clarifies. “This sort of categorization is something that is done from the outside. My approach is one of addressing certain things that would be non-visible, or invisible, or could be problematized in some way: Do you end up coming out with an actual solution, or a catalyst? Plus, it implies that something is broken, when that may not be the case. It may just need to be changed to an enabling resource rather than a limiting one.”

To learn more about Carroll’s past work and the theme of architect-as-fixer, register here for Friday’s Columbia GSAPP Alumni Association forum, or follow the talk via @Architizer.

+