Whose Art? Public Space? by Lizzie Lloyd

Art Monthly, September 2020, Lizzie Lloyd

The global outbreak of Covid-19 has led to a re-calibration of our relationships with public space. It has become commonplace to preface every interaction with sharp intakes of breath, nods to ‘unprecedented’ times and remarks at ‘the new normal’. Through all of this, open access to public spaces has been proscribed: widespread travel bans have shrunk our geographical reach to the local, while queues have lengthened and the ‘bubble’ has become a measure of interpersonal proximity.

Despite lockdown easing in recent months, levels of freedom and the sense of unthinking ease we might once have felt in spaces outside our homes are yet to return to pre-Covid levels, and are subject to continuing risk assessment. ‘Public’ space has become subject to government permitted access, movement and socialisation; it has never felt less ‘ours’.

Not that this is new – it is just that we have been made more aware of it. Jürgen Habermas, Suzanne Lacy and Dave Beech (‘Inside Out’, AM329), among many others, have reminded us that, despite appearances, public space has never been either open or democratic. Recently, so-called public space has increasingly come under the purview of private interests or even outright private ownership, and general access to it and behaviour within it has become ever more circumscribed, surveilled and controlled.

Moreover, as the global protests and Black Lives Matter campaigns have brought into stark relief, public spaces have never felt either wholly safe, comfortable or shared. Recall writer Kimberly L Jones’s harrowing speech widely shared online, ‘When they say why do you burn down the community? Why do you burn down your own neighbourhood? It’s not ours! We don’t own anything!’ (Editorial AM438) or the popular BLM chant: ‘Whose Streets? Our Streets!’ Recent white experiences of public space – as codified and prescribed by external requirements or expectations – is something that people of colour have always had to negotiate, as artist and writer Aria Dean makes plain: ‘We, as black people, are no strangers to the alienation of a mediated selfhood. We have much experience with mass surveillance, a condition that the white avant-garde would have us believe is a recent development in state control.’

But how we share public spaces – whether physical or virtual – matters deeply because ‘the presence of others’, as Hannah Arendt put it in 1958, ‘who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves’. And art made for, from or in the public realm, including memorials, is often the most conspicuous manifestation of a multiplicity of communities’ relationship to their local and lived environments. But whether this relationship goes as far as nurturing a sense of belonging, as the term ‘placemaking’ – beloved by town planners and urban developers – would have us believe, I’m not so sure. I suspect that this kind of ‘placemaking’ amounts, at best, to a semblance of inclusivity, a sense of the possibility of claiming or reclaiming ownership of local environments. As sceptical as I am of the idea that a sense of place can be imposed, it can nonetheless encourage a reappraisal of people’s participation in the present, which Boris Groys describes as ‘a site of the permanent rewriting of both past and future’. Since the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol (Artnotes AM438) – a community act of improvised placemaking – various Labour councils have vowed to re-examine their constituencies’ public memorials, and in June Hackney 3 council commissioned two memorials to the Windrush generation to be made by Veronica Ryan and Thomas J Price. These are very small steps in the right direction but not enough to change the fact that public spaces are not open to all equally.

Art of and in public spaces can appear useful for this, though, as Rosalyn Deutsch discussed in 1992: ‘Like “the public”, “art” often connotes universality, openness, inclusion. “Public art”, combining the two terms, comes doubly burdened as a figure of universal accessibility.’ This accusation of semblance is still being levelled at art in and of the public realm. Chantal Mouffe in 2007 argued that our understanding of publics and public spaces as fields of multiple communities and discourses fails to register explicitly the antagonism that is inevitable when multiplicities meet (she cites Arendt’s ideas of the communality of human interactions in public discourse as being culpable in this). Further to this, in 2015 Hjørdis Brandrup Kortbek critiqued a public arts project in Denmark called Placemaking for attempting ‘to shape conduct and create micro-utopias that did not challenge the existing hegemonic structures’. Kortbek argued that, ‘the participatory agenda of Placemaking became only a symbol of the visions of cultural policy to democratise art and culture’. Meaningful cultural democratisation of the arts in general and public art in particular feels long overdue.

A recent programme of conversations, called Arts and Place NOW – backed by the Art Fund and devised by a consortium of 18 members working across arts organisations, consultants, developers, architectural firms, academic institutions, individual practitioners, curators and producers – feels particularly timely, then. Originally intended as a conference in anticipation of Coventry UK City of Culture 2021, the conversations were adapted to take the form of a weekly online slot hosted on YouTube and ran through June and July, open to all (internet access allowing). The conversations with invited artists – Rebecca Chesney, Sebastian Hicks, Mark Titchner, Diane Devner, Nils Norman, Carolyn Deby, Michael Pigott, Kateřina Šedá and Ibrahim Mahama – turned on particular examples of art projects that have taken place over the past 15 or so years that were developed through a relationship with a specific place or sense of place.

Conversations such as this about public art and memorials and their role in place and history-making rumble on, usually in the background – the preserve of specialists. Often, they are anchored in utopian principles, couched in terms of manifestos or rules, that espouse collaboration, engagement, participation, education, interactivity, dialogue and exchange. They champion art that encourages self-reflection among communities, that supposedly leads in turn to our betterment and that of our environments. Proponents of public art therefore pride themselves on its cultural accessibility and outreach, but a lack of interrogation of these terms, and their broader implications, risks losing sight of the age-old issue of what public art is for. Who benefits, and how? Generic terms like co-creation and self-reflection risk valorising the status quo in terms of who gets to make, produce and fund public art. A recent article by The White Pube includes a portion of a tweet thread by Janine Francois which reads: ‘Outreach & engagement models in the cultural sector is so rooted in colonial missionary politics, i.e. “we need to save the poor”.’ The recent controversy over the act of Marc Quinn, a wealthy, white artist, installing A Surge of Power (Jen Reid), 2020, a figurative sculpture of Jen Reid, a black woman activist, in the place of the recently toppled Colston statue is a case in point. This intervention attracted widespread criticism, the artist Thomas J Price, for example, seeing it as capitalising ‘on the experiences of Black pain’ and ‘a clear example of a saviour complex’.

Bearing all this in mind, the overwhelmingly white panel of artists and speakers during the Arts and Place NOW series does not, at first sight, bode well. Of the nine projects that are discussed in depth, only one is by a black artist, Ibrahim Mahama. Discussions during the series, and during another talk that took place in July run by the Contemporary Art Society called ‘Public Space and Culture After the Virus’, skirted around this lack of diversity, both in terms of the artists making work in the public realm and also in considerations about what public spaces mean and how they feel to people beyond more privileged white experiences. There were moments, however, where this necessary conversation rose to the surface: Chesney discussed the lack of working-class representation in the arts; Titchner questioned his own agency to continue to make art in the public realm in the future; Dever pointed, rather nervously, to discourses on race in Folkestone around which she identified ‘issues’. But more open, detailed and explicit discussions on racial equality in the arts in general and public art in particular are long overdue.

Though the Arts and Place NOW programme of talks lacks cultural range, it does present works developed and presented in a series of different (albeit mainly urban) sites: from the ruins of Coventry Cathedral to the passageways and alleyways of the city of Coventry and the modernist silos of Ghana. A common theme across the talks is the artwork’s relationship to site. Chesney’s I’m blue, you’re yellow, 2012, serves as a dialectical example of the importance of site and site-specificity. It was developed, during an artist residency, through specific study of the bee population of Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Her two square fields of wildflower meadows – one blue, one yellow – were later made not at the site of her original research, due to unspecified reasons of logistics or funding, but at Everton park in Liverpool. This shift in site is notable as it upends the value of site-specificity, which is so often upheld, uncritically, as the marker of quality in art in the public realm. Does this transference of location amount to a disregard for the unspoken rules of public art in the 21st century, where the site-responsive is aligned to the authentic?

I am not at all suggesting that we should ignore the particularities of site, but to consider site-specificity as incontrovertibly good and of value is surely limiting. What if the shift in site actually allows the idea of the work, as well as the work itself, to evolve? Titchner’s project, Please Believe these Days Will Pass, 2020, appeared shortly after the UK’s lockdown in March. ‘Please Believe these Days Will Pass’ appeared, in capital letters, against hallucinogenic, hot-coloured backgrounds on posters, billboards and digital screens across ten UK cities. Its geographical dispersal marks it out, compared with other projects in the Arts and Place NOW series, in that it is not tied to a particular place or even moment (this is the third time that Titchner has made works using these words). Its poetic ambivalence, its openness and non-specificity, however, ends up tying it to places and times regardless, through the individual associations that every experience of the work sets off. The spirit of such an approach recalls eminent geographer Doreen Massey’s critique of ‘exclusivist localisms’ where, she argues, places are constructed by ‘interactions with the beyond’. Again, that is not to say that the specificities of site should be disregarded but only that sites are constantly subject to change, negotiation and reinterpretation by insiders and outsiders (Massey’s ‘beyond’) alike. People, ideas and places are not static or hermetically sealed but porous, migratory, subject to exchanges, interactions and evolutions. As Hank Willis Thomas put it in another recent webinar organised by Pace gallery, ‘the best public art feels infinite, it’s not located in a specific place and time’.

In 2002, Miwon Kwon critiqued the way in which the term ‘site-specificity’ ‘is embraced as an automatic signifier of “criticality” or “progressivity”’. Yet, nearly 20 years later, the term continues to be too easily used by artists, arts institutions and arts funding applications (not just in relation to public art), and co-opted for commercial or economic gain, as a means of shorthand validation of a given project. But, as some of the Arts and Place NOW projects demonstrate, the matter is not so simple. ‘In advanced art practices of the past 30 years,’ Kwon says, ‘the operative definition of the site has been transformed from a physical location – grounded, fixed, actual – to a discursive vector – ungrounded, fluid, virtual.’ It seems right, therefore, that the ‘discursive vector’ set up in Arts and Place NOW is in fact via YouTube, rather than a physical conference accessible to few, our experience of it mediated by jittery audio and pixelated imagery (Hito Steyerl’s 2009 essay ‘Defence of the Poor Image’ comes to mind).

In some artworks discussed through the talks, however, the specific location, and locality to the artist, is crucial. Both Mahama and Šedá’s projects see the artists’ home environment – Tamale in Ghana and Brno-Nová Líšeň in the Czech Republic respectively – taking centre stage. In Šedá’s For Every Dog a Different Master, 2007, an estate of 1970s high-rise housing blocks in her hometown is the stage on which she acts as an anonymous catalyst for social interactions between what she perceives as its increasingly estranged inhabitants. Through an incredibly complicated process – illustrated by simple line drawings – she chooses pairs of households, sending each household a specially designed shirt, as if it were sent from its respective pair, in a bid to encourage community relations. Mahama, through his artist-run project space, The Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art (SCCA), has bought a series of abandoned silos across Ghana that were built in the 1960s under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah, the country’s first president. Mahama sees these huge buildings, designed to store food, as ‘symbols of the new Ghana’s self-determination’ post-independence. But they are also conflicted objects, monuments of ‘great potential and failure’ – they were never fully operational and remained abandoned throughout the Ghanaian famine of the 1980s, but their basements have also acted as reservoirs giving local people access to water in times of shortage, and inhabited by local flora and fauna. Though the location of the silos is important, and inextricably tied to the evolving social, political and economic context of Ghana, Mahama sees their significance as beyond their immediate locality: ‘they are like portals’ he says, functioning ‘almost like time travel’. Due to the symbolic nature of the silos – bound to the history of Ghanaian independence, food production, storage, labour and capitalism – close interrogation of these specific architectural sites, and their histories and modernist forms, allows you to look at other places differently too. So place, rather than being site-specific or spatial, for Mahama ‘comes down to the idea of memory’.

The impermanence inherent in such a notion of place conforms to another factor often repeated in conversations about good public art practice: the importance of temporariness. Somehow, like site-specificity, the temporary has become akin to a demonstration of public art’s sensitivity to the changing nature of place. Lisa Le Feuvre has said that public sculpture ‘should be temporary and refuse to compromise’ (‘Public? Sculpture?’, AM409); Situations, a Bristol-based arts organisation that until its closure in 2017 specialised in commissioning public art, listed ‘It’s not forever!’ as second on its 2014 list of ‘New Rules for Public Art’; and art historian James E Young praises monuments – or rather ‘countermonuments’, a term he prefers – that aim ‘not to remain fixed but to change; not to be everlasting but to disappear’. But even such blanket championing of considerations of the temporal feel over simplified, born out of the desperation of those involved to cut ties with public art’s associations with the ‘turd in the plaza’. Or is it just a fear of getting it wrong? In his talk, Titchner rightly points out that ‘permanent doesn’t equal hubris, you can still make permanent works which are humble and open’, while Lewis Biggs, director of Folkstone Triennial, reminds us that everything is temporary, with public art it’s just a matter of degree.

Temporariness, like site-specificity, though not inherently good, does serve two important purposes: one, it gives space to a roster of artists to reflect a range of relationships to places and human experiences, and, two, it ensures that our perceptions of our environments don’t stagnate. Of course, impermanence also ensures that we create platforms to support artists and the arts industry at large, but this only works meaningfully if we also ensure that a broader range of people get to share the job of making art of or in the public realm. As Edward Casey puts it, ‘place is part of public memory in the making’, but public memory is multitudinous, so art in, for and of public places should function as a manifestation of this, sometimes inharmoniously. Though Mouffe’s 2007 calls for artists to occupy, disrupt and intervene in social spaces to help subvert, not just critique, the dominant social, political and art world hegemonies might (still) feel impossibly utopian, that is exactly what this moment, and our shared futures, desperately need.

Lizzie Lloyd is a writer and lecturer based in Bristol.