Editorial - Burning Public Art
For this issue, Gordon Dalton and Gavin Wade have devised a format through which to explore the problems, issues and current debates which surround contemporary public art models. They open this series of discussion with their own dialogue. This draws upon the questions raised at the editorial meetings and puts forward further questions about the responsibilities of the artist, the audience, commissioning agents and the role of the government.
Gordon Dalton and Gavin Wade
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Waste Man, 2006
Courtesy the artist and Jay Jopling / White Cube
The Margate Exodus
A film by Penny Woolcock
Commissioned and produced by Artangel, 2006
Gavin Wade: By asking a group of art producers for burning questions around positive and negative problematics of art and the artist's roles in what could be designated public space, or even on the phrase 'art in the public realm'; I'm hoping we can quickly, albeit incompletely, map out a set of current concerns, beliefs and paranoia's.
Dialogue was invited to respond to issues relating and arising from 'artists working in the public realm' by the organisers of the Situation Leeds1 festival taking place in Leeds in May. In the larger group situation of the Dialogue editorial meeting, when discussing ideas of art in a public realm it was impossible to pin down a specific component, problem or issue within a notion of 'public art'. Each time we started to examine a specific issue we quickly moved outside of the original parameters. The system of art is a big one.
If we focussed on the artwork this would include the context and the relationship of the artist to site and other interested parties which brings in all manner of producers from curators to Councils; each producer carrying along their own remit and agenda. It becomes difficult to simply separate out any single part or person. I think what we have come up with is a system that potentially covers a lot of ground and acknowledges the differences and overlaps between the individuals that we have invited to ask questions and answer them. I hope these form something that becomes a genuine set of dialogues including our own.
What was interesting for me was when you brought up the notions of an artist or curator working in a dictatorial way as opposed to a democratic one and this inevitably led to me asking questions about the responsibility of the artist in a prescribed public situation; where they are obliged to be responsible or not and how the reason and context for the artist being there becomes absolutely instrumental in terms of deciphering the meaning and impact of a given artwork. For me it brought up an idea of a cooperative art and non-cooperative art. An art which is perhaps obviously of benefit to the situation (it wears its benefit on its sleeve!) or an art that seems absurd, impenetrable or even antagonistic (not sure what it's wearing on its sleeve?).
I want to know more about the Kendall Geers2 artwork you mentioned in the meeting, the wrapped brick, and your desire to include a remaking of that work in a project. It actually echoes an artwork I was trying to get to be part of ArtSheffield 05: Spectator T3, which involved gold bricks!
Gordon Dalton: Certainly a lot to digest there Gavin, but it does give an idea of the murky waters surrounding 'public art' which, seemed to get left behind in a time warp (mainly due to the art market I suspect), before being swallowed up in relational this and relational that. I must admit my forays into working in the public realm as a curator were mainly by accident, and navigating these murky waters has caused even more questions than answers.
I often just try and approach it quite naively, which led to the questions of a dictatorial or democratic approach. For a time I worked 'for the other side' for a large Council authority which hoped to implement public art. I found it continually frustrating being in meetings with focus groups, advisors and consultants; when basically you just wanted to speak to an artist, ask them what their idea was and try and implement it - BANG! - there it is. For CBAT4 we have tried this approach a couple of times now under the Urban Legacies banner and it has been very successful (albeit on a temporary basis).
Whilst a dictatorial approach can be frowned at (for many valid reasons), I'm quite fond of it in terms of the artists questioning their responsibility and even to a degree having no responsibility. This puts a certain onus back on the audience - the 'public' part of 'public art'. To paraphrase you, they should in some way become instrumental in deciphering the meaning and impact of a given artwork. I'm not sure that they are aware of this responsibility and it's just easier to shirk it off.
I admire a more absurd approach as I think that actually engenders a better dialogue. In its most simple form this usually boils down to - you can't put THAT, THERE! This is fine but I do feel audiences are some way behind in their appreciation of public art, mainly because they are wrapped in cotton wool by commissions from local government. Maybe that's harsh, or naive again, but it's where all these questions stem from.
GW: On that point, one of the misunderstandings of the public is that they should have a say in where and what public art is. The members of the public who are doing that are the artists and curators and other types of commissioners. They are the public. But in a simplistic way people then think that artists aren't part of the public and are at best just providing a service for them and at worse just trying to take the piss, grab some cash and run, which is a crazy idea when the artist has more often than not decided to invest their entire life into producing art.
Democracy is a space that allows for things to happen without consensus at every conceivable point but, that would be ridiculous and unmanageable. Trust is implicit to democracy and that works its way across the hierarchies of government, the public and into public space. I guess what we might have to do here is explain why throwing a brick through a window might be something worth trusting?! We might have reached one of the paranoia's of public art here; that the art is just a brick to be thrown at something!
GD: I can't quite remember how I came across Kendall Geers' work, it was most likely by accident, which seems pertinent. I was researching some show or another and his images just jumped out. The brick incident seems to have disappeared online, which does make me question its validity, but I'm pretty sure he was invited to appear in a group show of South African art and he objected to the selection process, so his contribution was to throw a brick through the window. That this has almost become myth (although it did happen), is one of the powers of a public artwork.
I only mention the brick as it is an action that uses an object, an action which blurs the boundaries between 'public' and 'institution' and raises further questions not just about its location but also its intention and puts the artist's practice under scrutiny. That would be a good definition of good public art for me. Something that is awkward and exposed for both artist and audience, which is actively cynical and full of scepticism for 'them' and 'us'.
Saying that, I think the Richard Deacon and Mark McGowan dialogue in this issue brings up a way of working that can be generous to both sides. Deacon talks about coherence and confluence between two parties, this is not a bad thing; that the power is with the artist and it can be used when appropriate. The problem occurs when people try and replicate the end result. McGowan obviously plays with that problem.
GW: What's fascinating about McGowan's work is that he encourages interpretation by the media, not only as a way to evaluate his practice as an artist but as his practice. He works very hard to set up performances which have many qualities as artworks but, the 'publicness' of the works, the ways in which they draw out a public response is to provide the news media with something which they can easily convert into a story. When they take the bait, they immediately implicate themselves in the process of producing art. McGowan has found a very simple method of toying with all of the cliches; a very publicly visible art practice which offers direct and often very instant critical positions verging on cathartic, topical and sensitive issues. He is in the streets doing his thing and then he is in everyone's front room on the box. The scope of his art in terms of public debate and accessibility is huge.
His Dead Soldier (2006) work or the car keying work are very close in my mind to your description of the brick work. They are cutting responses to a given situation that step outside of the options that seemed possible before the artist found themselves doing it. To me the brick is a wonderful symbol for a public art as it is also a formed, sculpted object that regrettably has become the aesthetic of Britain's habitat and construction industry. It's something we all know and live with, something that shelters us; used en masse and yet as an individual element we know that a brick is a little moment of violence or opposition waiting to happen. With all of the potential of the brick, it is an interesting form for public debate on art (for example Carl Andre's work 'Equivalent VIII' (1966) in the Tate Collection). Richard Deacon has currently denuded the brick of any sense of danger, questioning or potential by simply displaying the decorative and cosmetic qualities of its form in a public art work in Birmingham. He has produced special transparent, pretty bricks and had them inserted into the brick flooring of Brindley Place around the Ikon Gallery. I would question this approach; to represent heterogeneity within public space as merely a state of decoration. I'm pretty sure you would find it hard to find anyone who would accuse McGowan of decorating New Street in Birmingham by performing as a dead soldier.
The brick work that popped into my head that I wanted to mention is actually a work by Michael Stevenson5 which recreates the aftermath of a public action upon a gallery in Iran in the late 1980s during the revolution. During riots the crowd broke into the gallery and found a large number of gold plated bricks stacked neatly in a geometric progression amongst the pristine white surfaces. Being rioters they of course saw the opportunity to throw the bricks to enact damage on the surrounding neighbourhood. Stevenson has obviously mined this moment's wonderful sense cultural collision, playing on the idea of a cultural moment transforming the value of the art object into a weapon of destruction. Stevenson captures this moment of public violence and returns it back to the value zone of art. Stevenson's work is made to be placed back into a gallery but, I imagine that the gallery where it is to be shown should always be in a location most likely to be caught in a riot.
This might sound like a convoluted way to describe a position of art within a public situation and I think that can only be a good thing. On my way to the Dialogue editorial meeting today I was thinking about the overall structure of this issue and the idea of having these different practitioners in discussion, where we don't really know what the content is going to be at all. I decided that this was definitely the point of the issue, to display some of the messy overlappings and problemmatics of working in the public realm.
I find it fascinating then that you would want to take the idea of Geers' artwork as a way of opening up a space for reconsidering a public space. I guess this is why I was keen to involve Stevenson's gold bricks in ArtSheffield05. I saw it as carrying meaning outside of the gallery space, transposing a distant oppositional moment into the locality of a project, reflecting an opposition to publicly funded art. Maybe there's not so much difference between throwing a gold plated brick around in public and throwing Arts Council England money around in public!
I came away from the Should Art be Democratic? (a discussion at the ICA, 30 January 2007) with some interesting notes and perhaps a clearer sense of a governments role in supporting the art of its country. This was mainly down to things said by Jamie Stapleton (a lecturer at the School of Law, Birkbeck College, University of London). John Carey author of What Good Are The Arts?6 argued that public art could only exist within a democracy if the majority of people agreed that it was art. Whilst I quite liked the idea of that, the reality of such a process is completely unworkable and also unnecessary in my opinion. From Jamie Stapleton's talk I gleaned that public space should in fact allow and reveal distinctions in the way that society allows and reveals distinctions. This promotion of distinction seems to me to be an absolute necessity for democracy. Distinction allows the noise of 'publicness' to evolve, encompassing the philistine, the literati and footballers wives. The widening of participation can in this light be seen as detrimental to society and to 'publicness' as it demands a shift towards homogenisation, agreement and consensus. I don't believe that democracy or public space require less distinctions. Public space should have the capacity to allow people to feel like who they are and as they move through public space you will inevitably find yourself at home and then as an outsider, as the distinctiveness of the place changes. Public space currently exists as a brand that is sold to 'the people' in order for them to use it according to sanctioned formats of behaviour. Being a brand ultimately empties out meaning and makes public space contentless. I don't believe that public space or public art should be contentless or decorative unless, of course, that is exactly the position that irritates the most within the given context, which in UK public space it does not.
Stapleton mentioned the idea of art offering a symbolic exchange in public space rather than an economic transaction which, whilst making a distinction, does also present its weakness in some eyes I am sure. Somehow this linked to the idea of dumbing down public art and that of course a dumb public art would reflect a dumb public. So who wants to be a dumb fucking public? - not me. Stapleton mapped out the simple but compelling idea of how the market, any market, fails to produce diversity, tending towards a monopoly and that the governments roll is to intervene in the market to ensure and maintain diversity. I would suggest this should also extend to public space and public art and then we have an interesting roll for the government to maintain; the diversity and distinctions of public space in order to reflect a complex and intelligent public. In the branding of public space the government is then surely failing in this mission. The dematerialisation of public space and of public art should not end up contentless and empty but instead part of rich, noisy and complicated overlapping of spheres of influence and thought. How Antony Gormley's 'Angel of the North'7 figures into this is another question?
GD: Well, I think we need to wrap this up unless we'll be here all year. But one of the things that has been interesting during this prolonged email conversation, where there have been many gaps and interludes between replies, is that my opinion has changed back and forth to the point where it's a floating idea, something quite elastic.
I would like to take issue with your comments about Deacon's brickwork though; when you described it to me, I did agree to a point, then completely coincidentally I was walking through Birmingham one evening and came across these works just by chance. People were visibly shocked that these scruffy little bricks were in the way of their predetermined Sunday evening walk through a blandly regenerated canal area. I thought they were quite subversive in their decoration, their conservatism. I know you disagree with this.
Finally, if we can ever get to a finally, I don't ever think we will get to 'diversity' in public art, we will never have a distinction of public space and yes, the government have failed. It will never be noisy and messy with overlapping conflicts and thrown bricks and mistakes and failures.
I'm feeling particularly spiteful because I've just seen the phase one designs for a major UK public art project, one which promised so much, but has delivered probably the most mind numbingly dumb series of proposals for five sites in Wales. They are now trying to appear transparent and democratic by pretending to consult. They have even gone so far as to put the proposals up for a public vote. This is where the democratic/dictator argument falls on its shiny chrome arse. All the interesting work we have discussed at least had the artist in the dictator role, but mostly it is the government who does this and then pretends to be democratic.
These projects are intended as gateways under the Landmark Wales banner8. They look like proposals that have been in the bottom draw since 1984. The effects will be disastrous, but the 'public' have already been brainwashed about their worth. It is worse and much less interesting than a brick through your window.
1. See situationleeds.org.uk
2. For more information on Kendall Geers see stephenfriedman.com
3. Gavin Wade was commissioned by Sheffield Contemporary Art Forum (SCAF) to curate ArtSheffield 05: Spectator T (Sheffield, 28 October - 27 November 2005). For further information see artsheffield.org.uk
4. See cbat.co.uk
5. For more information see vilmagold.com
6. John Carey, 2006, What Good Are The Arts?, Faber and Faber, London.
7. See antonygormley.com
8. See landmarkwales.org