Public Ensemble
© 2017 by Osman Akan & Meral Guneyman
"All Rights Reserved"

Public commission
Site specific installation


commissioning agency:
World Council of Peoples for the United Nations
Friends of Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza

Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza / New York City

Lilly Wei

The right to assemble, included in the First Amendment to the United States’ Constitution, is the theme of Osman Akan’s very timely project, Public Assembly, conceived for Dag Hammarskjold Plaza in New York. The plaza’s location, very near the East River and the United Nations (the venerable global organization that recently celebrated its 70th birthday and is the world’s premier instance of cooperative assembly) could not be more felicitous.

The ability to peaceably come together in public spaces to protest and present grievances, to petition governments to redress wrongs, and to mourn and celebrate events of public significance, should be a universal right. It is the “civilized way for people to register dissent,” Akan said, in acute contrast to indiscriminate violence and acts of terrorism. With harrowing, heartbreaking frequency of late, reflecting the tumultuous state of the world, peoples everywhere in large numbers have gathered to plea for reform, relief, and justice.

While the inspiration for this venture stemmed from protest movements in general, Akan was greatly troubled by the demonstrations in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013. Beginning as an environmentalist issue with sit-ins similar to those of the Occupy movement that swept the world two years earlier, participants denounced plans for the park’s development. It quickly escalated into a fierce, broader critique of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s authoritarian government after the protesters were brutally ejected. Demonstrations spread throughout the country, resulting in a number of deaths and thousands of injured, many critically.

A new media artist who works in a range of materials (such as glass, optical fiber, steel and other metals) and disciplines that include video, sculpture, light, and sound exhibiting internationally, Akan has made a name for himself as an expert in the construction of spectacular, extraordinarily durable, large-scale outdoor public art. These works can be seen across the country in places from Anchorage Alaska, Denver Colorado, Franconia Minnesota to Marcy New York, and elsewhere. Born in Turkey in 1970, he studied at Bilkent University in Ankara and the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia where he earned his MFA. He has been based in New York since 1995.

Public Assembly consists of approximately 30 slender steel rods reaching heights of 16 to 20 feet. Welded into thick metal plates as their base, the installation will traverse the length of the plaza. Rectangular panels of reflective, refractive dichroic glass are attached to them at a level above the viewers’ heads, similar in placement and dimensions to actual protest signs. The results are dazzling, the glass flashing a shifting spectrum of brilliant, iridescent colors, depending upon the illumination and the angle it is seen from, a high-impact, low-tech light show.

Akan uses a semi-abstract format because it is less fixed in meaning, permitting multiple interpretations. For instance, the series of poles plus panels might easily suggest a phalanx of flags or banners. In turn, these are emblematic of nations and their complex, contingent and often clashing relationships, entities that, in the 21st century, would be more progressive and effective if they would identify, however difficult that would be, as committed members of a global community, insularity no longer a viable option. The color-changing glass, Akan said, also refers to the constant stream of messages in the multiplicity of languages inscribed upon protest signs.

There is also an aural component composed by Meral Guneyman, a noted pianist who collaborates with Osman Akan in this project.  Talking about her concept for the music she created she said, “its largely harmonic progressions will change pitch and texture at random intervals similar to the panels’ changes of color. At times, a single moving abstract line or complete rests (silences) will replace the chordal structure of the composition.” This permits the ambient sounds of the urban environment to be absorbed into the composition, ensuring that the music will never be the same, just as the colors are never the same. “The idea,” she added, “was to evoke thought and emotion visually and audibly.” Perhaps a bit more information on who Meral is ?

Akan, greatly intrigued by sound, like many contemporary artists, frequently includes it in his work. After experimenting with several possibilities on how best to incorporate Guneyman’s composition, the resolution was to fit the glass panels with an audio driver. The sound, bouncing off the flat surface of the glass, essentially transforms the panel into a speaker. The music, broken down into its constituent parts in the driver, becomes more nuanced, textured, the individual notes distinct but reassembled by the ear, depending upon the location of the viewer vis-à-vis the panels, providing a sensation of surround sound. The entire installation incessantly shifts, depending on the flux of external conditions, including how viewers hear and see the work, which in turn depends upon where they are standing and how they move through it.

A striking tribute to the right of assembly and free expression of every kind, Akan and Guneyman’s light-catching Public Assembly underscores the universal need for such gatherings to correct the course of history, of Big Government. Even more important, it advocates for the need for governance that is enlightened, responsive to the needs of individuals, acknowledging that its duty is to serve the people, not the reverse—a situation for which there is another word. As an artist who is socially engaged, he cannot recuse himself from the struggles of humanity.

Among varying stories from culture to culture about the origins of language, it brings to mind the tale of the Tower of Babel recounted in Genesis. Then, there was only one form of speech before humans, attempting to build a tower to reach the heavens in flagrant disobedience to God’s wishes, were punished for their hubris. Stricken by the sudden inability to speak to each other, they realized that they were all chattering in a multitude of different languages. However, not only has the digital age provided us with ways to communicate across language barriers instantaneously, Osman Akan’s translucent panels of many colors and Meral Guneyman’s sound piece reminds us that pictorial images and music, color and sound, are another form of universal speech, one that is comprehensible to all.


This project received generous support of the following sponsors.