Public art commission on five utility boxes, Pasadena, California

Commissioned by Playhouse District Association, 2010 (updated 2016)


Utility was unveiled in 2011 on five utility boxes along Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, California; enthusiasm for the work led to a subsequent commission to update the work following its initial five-year duration. Informed by the historic graphics of agitprop—the strategy of using agitation and propaganda to influence public opinion—Silton wrapped each utility box with a brightly colored typographic treatment made of vinyl, incorporating classic quotes pertaining to freedom of speech by American leaders. In its first iteration, the artist utilized quotes by Benjamin Franklin, Eleanor Roosevelt, Justice Potter Stewart, Frederick Douglass, and George Washington. Updated in 2016, the utility boxes bear new quotes by Cesar Chavez, Benjamin Franklin, Martin Luther King, Jr., Justice Benjamin Cardozo, as well as one repeated quote by Eleanor Roosevelt. The artist felt strongly in 2016 about incorporating quotes that also speak to the responsibility inherent in the right to free speech, e.g. this quote by Cesar Chavez: “We must understand that the highest form of freedom carries with it the greatest measure of discipline.” These selected quotes are juxtaposed with a seminal photographic image taken in 1964 by photographer Chris Kjobech for the Oakland Tribune, now included in a collection of news negatives and photographs in the holdings of the Oakland Museum of California. The image is of Mario Savio, a key member in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, leading thousands of students in protest of the university’s ban of on-campus political activities. His oft quoted memorable speech made on this occasion, with its climactic words about the “operation of the machine”, emphatically makes the still relevant point “that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”

Utility as a title for this work is not only an acknowledgment of its placement on city utility boxes but underscores the historic doctrine of classical utilitarianism, one of the most powerful sources of the tradition of free speech: that virtue is based on utility and that society should maximize the utility of the individual to create  "the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.” This principle of utility as the standard of right action on the part of governments and individuals includes freedom of expression—freedom of speech, of the press, of association, of assembly and petition—all protected by the First Amendment. However, this constitutional right does not go unchallenged or coopted with more nefarious intentions, as we have experienced to a huge extent in recent times.

Silton selected the image and texts for the community of Pasadena as a way of highlighting the Playhouse District as a centerpiece for culture, and the role that freedom of speech plays within culture. Free speech in the form of image and text is a direct and emblematic way to link the mission of the Playhouse theaters to the importance of our national right to provide a voice to everyone. Utility is a call to action to recognize and utilize this right in all communities, but also a call to reflect on and be mindful of its inherent responsibilities.

Silton was also commissioned to produce a set of postcards to accompany both installations; each postcard corresponds to one of the project’s utilized quotes.