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‘Yes In My Front Yard,’ West Philadelphia’s stimulus check-funded public installation

Ilana Napoli speaks with Daniel Tucker, Emily Bunker, Li Sumpter and Lucia Thomé to pen a thoughtful feature about the public art installation "Yes in My Front Yard," which features digital works by nine local artists printed and displayed on lawn signs in West Philadelphia.

Artblog YIMFY Installation view photo courtesy of Daniel Tucker and Emily Bunker
Installation view, YIMFY 2020, West Philadelphia, Courtesy Daniel Tucker and Emily Bunker.

(Adapted from an interview with Daniel Tucker, Emily Bunker, Li Sumpter, and Lucia Thomé)

As we’ve been forced to rethink our relationships to community, to strangers, and to spaces outside our homes, members of the Philadelphia arts community have also begun to consider how they might modify their practice to function within the parameters of social distancing. In response to this issue, Daniel Tucker, Moore’s Socially Engaged Art program director, and Emily Bunker, artist, fabricator, and educator, devised the DIY group show YIMFY 2020 in front of their West Philly home.

For this project, Emily and Daniel commissioned digital work from nine Philly artists: Leigh Gallagher & Tyler Games (in collaboration), Malav Kanuga, Jenson Leonard, Heidi Ratanavanich, Li Sumpter, Kirwyn Sutherland, Lucia Thomé, and Shira Walinsky. These pieces were printed on campaign-style yard signs and arranged on the Tucker-Bunker front lawn. Funding the project with their stimulus checks, Daniel and Emily were able to give the participating artists a small honorarium for their participation. “It’s exciting to think about doing work that is low budget but is still meaningful to people on some level,” Daniel says.

Yes In My Front Yard

Daniel and Emily cite the ongoing election season as inspiration for YIMFY 2020’s yard sign format, but found the signs to have a great appeal in the context of social distancing as well. YIMFY, which stands for “Yes In My Front Yard,” is a play on the acronym NIMBY (Not In My Backyard), a derisive colloquialism referring to individuals who oppose a development in their neighborhood.

The title Yes In My Front Yard alludes to the shift in our relationships with local activity that we are currently experiencing; being confined at home for a long period of time has heightened our reliance on the people and resources nearby. Using their lawn, the semi-public space available to them in quarantine, presented an opportunity to create different kinds of interactions with their neighbors.

Emily is excited to catch unsuspecting spectators off guard with the show: “There is a trolley that goes by our house, and I like to fantasize that people are looking out the window and catch a glimpse of this insane yard that looks really eccentric. That’s my ideal viewer, sort of blindsided.” Likewise, Daniel affirms that being able to “choreograph the encounter of the work” in this way is a refreshing change from the much more controlled gallery and event situations that we tend to favor in the arts.

Recycled aesthetics

Lucia Thomé, artist and Director of Special Projects for RAIR, references two very nostalgically Philly elements in her sign- the city’s ubiquitous Lew Blum towing signs, and Thomas Devaney’s Blue Stoop poem, which is in turn inspired by Philly photographer Zoe Strauss’s “4th of July BBQ, 2011” photo. Lucia considers the transition towards the hyper-local in quarantine to be a significant influence in her choice of reference materials.

Lucia borrows the towing sign’s distinct aesthetic with red and blue text on white background, while the usual font has been replaced by a seemingly hand drawn combination of block letters and cursive. The background has been made to resemble a brick wall, further indicating the sign within a sign.

Because Lucia gravitates towards “recycling aesthetics” in much of her work, “it felt appropriate to use this sign that litters the street and is always hiding in plain sight. You don’t really realize it’s there because you see it so often.” She was interested in modifying the familiar sight with a new selection of words that mirror Philly’s atmosphere during this experience: “ I spent a long time looking for the right collection of words to use, and Thomas Devaney’s poem is such an iconic poem for Philly; it felt appropriate. It’s sad how it relates to now, it’s like some kind of innuendo.”

The art of survival

For her work, artist, curator, and Moore professor Li Sumpter drew upon many layers of inspiration; She lists the War of the Worlds broadcast and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower as major influences. Deeply interested in Afrofuturism, science fiction, survival, and apocalypse, she wanted to create a speculative artifact relating to offworld migration, another concept that frequently comes up in her work.

The phrase “survival is a right, not a privilege,” headlines the sign in a dreamy pink, blue, and purple color scheme and a retro Microsoft WordArt style font. At first glance, it brings to mind Bernie Sanders’ “healthcare is a right, not a privilege” platform. This is followed by a call to action, “offworld exodus for all humans,” where the viewer abruptly realizes the sign is based in fiction – hopefully.

Li Sumpter and student collaborator Josh Archer’s artwork for YIMFY 2020. Courtesy Daniel Tucker and Emily Bunker.

Black and brown folx are disproportionately affected and failed by the system in crisis situations, as we are witnessing once again in America’s virus response efforts, and Li points out that we see a corresponding pattern in science fiction: those same groups are most likely to get left behind during emergencies and rescue missions. She imagines that in a real-world crisis of survival, “it would be a struggle and a fight to make sure that everyone gets to survive.”

Conveying intensity

YIMFY 2020 is a compelling mix of text and image based work. The vibrant colors of Shira Walinsky’s sign match the intensity of the sign’s urgent proclamation, “you gotta vote vote vote vote vote please please please stay home stay safe.” The words are accompanied by a map of Philadelphia with feet along with the URL for Pennsylvania’s voter registration website.

Visually, this is in stark contract with the work by Kirwyn Sutherland, an all-text excerpt from his poem Ars Poetica II. The White text, solid black background, and tight margins conjure up a feeling that the passage is bursting out with another kind of distraught intensity. “I look for fire in the eyes of hurt and pray it becomes a superpower,” the sign excerpts, in another example of art that poignantly draws from the collective trauma of black Americans and presents it in the context of the pandemic.

Simple but impactful

Daniel reflects that the artists may have been more reluctant to commit to the project if they felt like it was asking too much of them, but the digital submission format took the burden of shipping and mailing off the artists and kept the project’s parameters simple. In fact, Emily adds, several prints of the signs have already been purchased and sent around the country.

Li found appeal in the project’s simplicity: “I was looking for something to have a little fun with, an escape of sorts, a project to work on that I knew I could complete because the scope of it was very clear, I wouldn’t get lost in it, it had a quick turn around.“

Daniel echoes, “A strong motivation for doing this project was to do something simple, straightforward, and could happen quickly that was not about the internet. Obviously it was facilitated by the internet, but it wasn’t centering virtual community as some kind of replacement for gathering.”

Yard art never sleeps

YIMFY 2020 will remain up at Emily and Daniel’s front yard through July 5th. Signs by Petra Floyd, Erik Ruin, Gerard Silva, and Mariam Williams will join the show in June. Stop by 433 N 41st St, Philadelphia, PA, 19104 to view it from the street!

Four of the lawn signs from YIMFY 2020 in Tucker and Bunker's lawn.
Installation view, YIMFY 2020. Courtesy Daniel Tucker and Emily Bunker.