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Berkeley’s invisible monument to free speech

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Published by San Francisco Chronicle

In 1989, a group called the Berkeley Art Project decided to hold a national public art competition to create a monument that would commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, which began on the University of California, Berkeley campus in 1964. The winning design, created by Mark Brest van Kempen (who was then a graduate student at the San Francisco Art Institute), is an invisible sculpture that creates a small space completely free from laws or jurisdiction. The six-inch circle of soil, and the “free” column of airspace above it, is framed by a six-foot granite circle. The inscription on the granite reads, “This soil and the air space extending above it shall not be a part of any nation and shall not be subject to any entity’s jurisdiction.”

The six-inch free space acts as a beacon for speakers and political events. When you stand next to it today, 20 years after it was installed, you’d never suspect the contentious battle and the ironic compromise that finally led to its placement in Sproul Plaza. Roman Mars has this story.

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ROMAN MARS: In the middle of Sproul Plaza on the campus of UC Berkeley is a sculpture, 60,000 feet tall – but don’t feel bad if you’ve never noticed it before.

MARK BREST VAN KEMPEN: I’ve had people come and look for it specifically and not find it. That makes me think, “Maybe I should’ve made it a little bigger.

Or maybe that’s just the cost of making an invisible sculpture.

VAN KEMPEN: I’m kind of setting myself up, aren’t I?

That’s Mark Brest van Kempen. His invisible sculpture is known to most as the Free Speech Monument.

VAN KEMPEN: It’s actually called “Column of Earth and Air.”

It’s a six-inch circle of soil and the column of air above it, extending all the way to the limit of U.S.-controlled air space – hence the 60,000 feet.

The column is marked by a six-foot granite ring, embedded flush into the concrete of the plaza. The inscription of the outer edge reads:

“This soil and the air space extending above it shall not be part of any nation and shall not be part of any entity’s jurisdiction.”

It’s a sculpture that eschews the traditional materials of wood and clay or metal, and instead uses…

VAN KEMPEN: Jurisdiction laws and politics as kind of material to work with.

And when you stand next to it today, 20 years after it was installed, you’d never suspect the drama that went on to get this granite circle placed on university property.

VAN KEMPEN: I was kind of thrown into a little bit of a hornet’s nest that I wasn’t prepared for at all.

Here’s what happened. The Free Speech Monument was born out of an open design competition to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the start of the Free Speech Movement.

VAN KEMPEN: A bunch of professors, ex-professors…

They called themselves the Berkeley Art Project…

VAN KEMPEN: …put this competition together, separate from the university.

They did it as an autonomous group…

VAN KEMPEN: …because they knew if they tried to go through the university to commemorate the Free Speech Movement, it would go nowhere. Because at the time the university did not want to commemorate the Free Speech Movement in any way, shape, or form.

The Free Speech Movement started in the fall of 1964 when students set up a table on Sproul Plaza to recruit for an off-campus civil rights group – this was against school policy at the time. Everything escalated from there – the following months were marked by sit-ins and strikes and arrest. It was a pivotal moment that defined what we think of as the ’60s. So a monument seems appropriate.

So anyway, it’s 1989 and the call went out. Hundreds of designs were considered.

VAN KEMPEN: Close to 300 entries from all over the country. They weeded that down to five.

And there was this open period of public discussion and voting that included the public and art critics and all kind of people outside of the Berkeley Art Project, that eventually selected Mark Brest van Kempen’s Column of Earth and Air as the Free Speech Monument.

VAN KEMPEN: Democracy doesn’t always work with art, so I’m glad that it worked out this time. The people who had put the project together wanted to give the winning entry to the university as a gift, and then of course the university did not want to accept it as a gift and did everything they could not to.

And the reason for the reluctance is that a lot of the Berkeley Art Project group, the ones commissioning the monument, and the higher-ups at the university were the same people who were in the fight 25 years before.

VAN KEMPEN: And they were still very upset about it. They still had very hurt feelings.

So UC Berkeley did not want to memorialize the Free Speech Movement in general…

VAN KEMPEN: And they hated this piece in particular.

Yeah. So…

VAN KEMPEN: They did everything in their power to not accept this gift.

Which is kind of hard to do and still seem like a good guy. And after this big public selection process, they didn’t have too much of a choice. So the university decided to accept the sculpture under one condition.

VAN KEMPEN: They said, “Okay we’ll accept this commemoration to free speech as long as the press release that goes out does not contain any reference to the Free Speech Movement.”

That’s right. The Free Speech Monument was censored, and the unintended side effect is that it made a piece of conceptual art, conceptually better.

99% Invisible is produced by Roman Mars, with support from LUNAR. It’s a project of KALW, theAmerican Institute of Architects, San Francisco, and the Center for Architecture and Design. To hear more, click here.

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