Spaces without stories – Managing the risk of public art

As promised, some notes on the public art conference in Paris… Did not manage to catch all of the sessions, but a fair chunk of them. Having witnessed quite a few discussions on public art, I found this one surprisingly refreshing. Despite the appearance of very familiar elements, which can hardly be avoided, such as the definitions of a ‘public’ and ‘public art’ (the bit where people quote Habermas etc) or references to the relationship between art and architecture (usually including jokes about architecture as ‘art with plumbing’ – this time, supplemented by the evocative imagery of Monica Bonvicini’s ‘Wall Fuck’), I felt that the presentations highlighted issues that normally end up resonating in the background rather than appearing at the centre.

The first day of the conference took place in the new town of Cergy-Pontoise. Discussions began with aforementioned  definition(s) of public art, which are naturally conflicting: public art as underlining the identity of a place, public art as reflecting democratic participation, public art as giving meaning to a place, public art as a vehicle for an artist to make a particular statement about the relations in a space – the result of which may be uncomfortable for particular publics – and, lastly, public art as a project for stirring the imagination, giving rise to new kinds of interactions and producing new visionaries from spectators.

Left to right: Jean-Louis Cohen, Elizabeth Auclair, Peter Eisenman, Antoine Grumbach, Rem Koolhaas.

Different architects, scholars, institutional officials and artists presented a spectrum of takes on public art. Architect Peter Eisenman, for instance, explained how he tries to highlight different times and their affiliated spatial organisations (historical, virtual, digital) in his work, such as medieval street patterns merging with contemporary forms and infrastructures. For Eisenman, such intersections but present opportunities to re-think urban space. It was not quite clear whether he meant opportunities for architects in the design phase (the architect/artist as ‘expert’ or visionary) or opportunities for anyone experiencing the finished result. Unfortunately, no questions from the audience were invited during this session. Other views were represented by Elizabeth Auclair (local institutional take, art as ‘for the locals’), Antoine Grumbach (architecture in the service of governing/economic forces, art as purely symbolic) and Rem Koolhaas (critic of public art/public art should challenge society).

There was frequent mentioning of the word ‘crisis’: the crisis of public art, the impact of economic, ecological and social crises on public art and/or how public art should respond to them – or whether people should bother with it at all given such (costly) challenges to society or general overbuilding (cultural sustainability versus ecological/economic sustainability). It was Rem Koolhaas who drew attention to what could be described as the crisis produced by the wish to avert crisis: the compulsory making-safe of public spaces. To Koolhaas, the urban past was full of adventure: one could encounter the unexpected, the ugly, the evil, the disgusting – but also the beautiful. Today, he argued, one only encounters manicured, sanitised spaces from which evil is increasingly ‘edited out’: no ‘hoodies’, no stretch of urbanity without CCTV, no challenging art or architecture. As a visual emphasis, Koolhaas used the safety net around London’s fourth plint – at the time of Antony Gormley’s ‘One & Other’ project. (There was some confusion at this point whether Koolhaas had built the CCTV headquarters or not, but it turned out to be China Central Television…).

Koolhaas proceeded by accusing artists of being complicit with such forces, of producing safe, smooth art, ‘without edges’ or confrontation: by claiming that public art is something for, about and by the public, art risks becoming the equivalent of a reality TV show. As an example, he showed the decorative ‘artwork’ which now replaces Richard Serra’s ‘Tilted Arc’ – the arc having been removed after a public petition. He further argued that public art is excluding – certain groups of people or certain kinds of experiences – the artist being in danger of becoming a tool for furthering this exclusion, contributing to a growing ‘Berlin Wall in public space’.

Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc (1981). Source: Culture Shock

New ‘humorous’ shapes occupying the same space. Source: Harvard University

Koolhaas concluded that ‘there is a lot of space to fill, but no stories to tell’. Thus, we are faced with a growing appearance of ‘narcissistic and megalomaniac’ monumental art, which even ends up being critically acclaimed. Here the example that triggered the most audible reaction was Anish Kapoor’s ‘Leviathan’ installation and the advertisement and other spectacle surrounding it (as an example for narcissism he mentioned Kapoor’s ‘Cloudgate’ in Chicago). Currently being exhibited in Paris at the Grand Palais, Koolhaas’ mentioning of the ‘Leviathan’ was not the only cynical comment on Parisian engagement with public art. Koolhaas called this phenomenon ‘consolation instead of confrontation’. His presentation ended on the question whether the link between the growing popularity of the virtual vs the declining vitality of ‘real’ public space may have something to do with application of a ‘security blanket’ to the urban.

Moderator Jean-Louis Cohen had the unenviable job (twice!) to bring the seemingly irreconcilable views of the above mentioned participants (with the later additions of Yona Friedman and Monica Bonvicini) into dialogue with one another. The first part of the discussion mainly focused on Koolhaas’ points: the ‘tyranny of programmatic restraints’ (Cohen), whether the current emphasis on the virtual could prompt a rethinking of the ‘real’ (Eisenman) or whether city official can engage in ‘risk-taking’ (Elizabeth Auclair). Later questions around art and democracy, and public art and functionality, culminated in Cohen’s ingenious term ‘espace poubellique’ (a merging of ‘espace public’ = public space and poubelle = rubbish or rubbish bin): public space as the space where ‘crap’ art is dumped. The lack of critical currency in the art world for most of public art (e.g. the much ridiculed French ‘roundabout art’) was also the basis for the question what motivates artists to produce it.

Yona Friedman and Monica Bonvicini

Another provocative presentation was made by artist Monica Bonvicini whose opener ‘I don’t like public art very much!’ resulted in a mixture of nervous giggles and disbelief on the part of the audience. Making further statements about the function of public art such as art being invited to embellish bad architecture, publics not being interested in public art (‘What do people think about public art? I don’t think they think very much!’) or public art being invited seemingly as an aesthetic addition to increase the value of public life (’Of course, everybody likes art, but what kind of art?) , she outwardly came across as someone who was making fun of the whole event, but, in a jester-like fashion, was able to make statements that hit a lot of the right nerves, especially around the connections between public art and politics (‘Politicians have very different idea of what art is and what art should do.’). Her own public art seemed to take further Koolhaas theme of narcissism: after struggling with all the different demands made upon her as an artist, she ended up displaying words ‘SATISFY ME’ in big letters – to be read out by all the different stakeholders.

Image Source: Wikipedia. User: Arnoldius

Against this cynical view, Yona Friedman offered his ‘socialist’ vision of ‘new urban spaces’, in which artists and architects become (re-)interpreters and mediators of existing public space and public art. Presenting his work in hand-illustrated slide-shows, Friedman invited thoughts around the value of public participation and improvisation in public space (‘Laissez les gens improviser!’). A quote that stuck with me was: ‘we like to imagine the improbable and are surprised when it becomes real’. Of course, this sentence could be interpreted in both positive and negative ways, but maybe that’s what I like about it – that there are not only extreme negative surprises, but potentially also positive results of ‘improbable imagination’. As I was told, Friedman was part of the reaction against the Modernist project alongside people such as ‘Team X’ who tried to disseminate alternative urban visions (e.g. see this book for more information on this).

Anish Kapoor and Jean Nouvel in conversation with Jean de Loisy (and each other)

On returning to Paris, the remainder of the day was spent at the Grand Palais, where a debate was staged between artist Anish Kapoor and architect Jean Nouvel, during which the theme of ‘art vs architecture’ continued. In the audience, I spotted a handful of museum assistants wearing T-shirts bearing the job title ‘médiateur culturel’. Could not help but think that Yona Friedman would appreciate their wider distribution!

Big thank you to Mireille Roddier for vital clarifications on debates in architecture & post-event discussions!


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