Palo Alto residents, artist protest removal of ‘Digital DNA’ sculpture

A seven-foot tall, egg-shaped sculpture named “Digital DNA,” sits in the heart of Palo Alto, within walking distance of the offices of tech companies like Palantir Technologies and SalesforceIQ. Its shell, weathered but not cracked, is covered with old circuit boards, bearing circuit-related slogans: “globalizing circuits,” “circuits of power,” “isolating circuits,” “hacking circuits” and “borderless circuits.”

“I think ‘Digital DNA’ is a story of the city,” said Adriana Varella, one of the egg’s co-creators.

But if the city’s Public Art Commission has its way, “Digital DNA,” which was erected in Lytton Plaza 12 years ago, won’t be there much longer.

At their Nov. 16 meeting, the commission voted for the deaccession, or removal, of “Digital DNA,” citing “excessive” maintenance costs. The commission has paid $24,099 for the sculpture’s maintenance since 2005. The sculpture cost $20,491 to construct.

Commissioners said that their decision was also motivated by safety concerns over the materials in the circuit boards.

“Some of the material that goes into the making of some of these boards are actually rare earth material, and so they’re not necessarily designed to be touched by human skin,” said commissioner Hsinya Shen at the meeting.

“Digital DNA” is one of the first pieces that the commission has voted to remove under a new deaccession policy approved in August. The commission first recommended deaccessioning “Digital DNA” at the same meeting, ultimately voting to do so in November after reviewing the artwork’s condition. The policy gives deaccessioned artworks 90 days to find a new home or new owner, or they will be destroyed.

Varella disputes commission’s reasons for deaccessioning

Varella was infuriated by the commission’s decision, going so far as to call the potential destruction of her artwork “a crime.”

“The idea of destroying art, for me, is really monstrous,” Varella said.

In October, before the commission’s decision was finalized, Varella created a Kickstarter to help finance a complete restoration of the piece, so that the commission would not have to. The campaign raised only $508 of its $15,000 goal.

While Varella has reached out to Menlo College and the Computer History Museum about taking ownership of “Digital DNA,” she also said that the sculpture would “lose [its] meaning” if it was moved from Lytton Plaza.

Jim Migdal, the commission’s chairman, wrote in an email to the Peninsula Press that “Digital DNA” was not “suitable for an outdoor environment,” and that it “made more sense to deaccession than invest in further maintenance.”

“It’s one thing to paint a sculpture every 4-5 years, and very much another to deal with circuitboards [sic] that get vandalized, fall off, fall apart,” Migdal wrote.

The commission’s staff liaison, Elise DeMarzo, wrote that the commission receives $30,000 per year to conduct regular preventative maintenance on the nearly 300 public artworks in its collection. In the case of “Digital DNA,” this includes the replacement of screws and circuit boards. But the sculpture has only been extensively repaired four times since its installation, at a total cost of $11,100. The commission’s deaccession report shows that the remaining $12,999 paid for maintenance was used to move the sculpture for off-site restoration.

The commission also claimed that certain metals in the circuit boards may be hazardous if touched. The deaccession report only makes one reference to any “hazardous materials” that may be exposed on the sculpture. DeMarzo confirmed that tests for lead all determined that the sculpture was lead-free.

But Varella is convinced that the reasons for the commission’s decision are political, and likened it to censorship.

“I think ‘Digital DNA’ is a political art piece, and they want a decorative art piece,” Varella said.

Migdal denied Varella’s accusations of censorship, writing that they “felt pretty off-base.”

Rallying for “Digital DNA,” net neutrality

Palo Alto residents have come out in support of “Digital DNA.”

“People do come from all over the world to have their photograph taken with it,” said Michael Joseph, 72.

Migdal wrote that the commission’s decision “was not a subjective one about whether anyone liked or disliked the sculptures,” but added that the community’s response was “a good sign that people are engaged and talking/thinking about the art in their community.”

A public group on Facebook, appropriately named Friends of Digital DNA in Palo Alto, was created the day of the committee’s decision. At the time of publication, the group had 77 members, most of whom do not appear to be from Palo Alto.

One local activist, Ruth Robertson, 65, has emerged as one of the most vocal supporters of “Digital DNA.” Robertson is a member of the Raging Grannies, an international social justice activist organization, and she has brought other Palo Alto residents into the fold.

“I’ve been down to the plaza, and people are studying [the sculpture]—people do look, and people think,” Robertson said. “And a piece of public art that makes people think is a wonderful thing.”

Friends of Digital DNA and the Raging Grannies teamed up to organize a protest on Dec. 7 in Lytton Plaza. Roughly 60 people attended the protest, including Varella herself.

Addressing the protestors, Varella reaffirmed her belief that “Digital DNA” was being censored, and compared the treatment of her sculpture to the Federal Communications Commission’s plan to scale back net neutrality protections. The FCC ultimately voted 3-2 along party lines to repeal net neutrality on Dec. 14.

“If the Internet becomes [censored] … we all lose our voice,” Varella said.

Not everyone understood the connection between the commission’s deaccessioning of “Digital DNA” and the FCC’s vote. Peter Howell, 57, understands both causes, but he disagreed with the conflating of the two in the protest.

“They’re calling it censorship, and net neutrality’s censorship, but I don’t think this is censorship on the part of the city of Palo Alto,” Howell said.

Nevertheless, Howell has helped with efforts to relocate the sculpture, and expressed his hope that the sculpture will find a new home in Silicon Valley.

“I think it does have a place here,” Howell said. “I think it should live on somewhere else.”


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