This essay should provide an overview of art practices in the public domain in the twenty-first century. Using specific examples, it should include a discussion of changing paradigms of public art practice and issues in contemporary public art. The article should briefly discuss current theories that help to make sense of new public art practices. (Although this essay will be a standalone article, it will be added to Grove Art Online as part of a set of articles that coalesce around the broad theme of Visual Culture as a field of study and interdisciplinary paradigm for analyzing contemporary culture.)
Authors: Jeremy Hunt and Jonathan Vickery
At the turn of the Millennium, public art was an established global art genre with its own professional and critical discourse, as well as constituencies of interest and patronage independent of mainstream contemporary art. Art criticism has been prodigious regarding public art’s role in the ‘beautification’ of otherwise neglected social space or in influencing urban development. Diversity and differentiation are increasingly the hallmarks of public art worldwide, emerging from city branding strategies and destination marketing as well as from artist activism, and international art events and festivals. The first decade of the 21st Century demonstrated the vast opportunity for creative and critical ‘engagement’, activism, social dialogue and cultural co-creation and collective participation. New public art forms emerged, seen in digital and internet media, pop-up shops and temporary open-access studios, street performance, and urban activism, as well as architectural collaborations in landscape, environment or urban design.
1. Roots of 21st Century public art
Intellectually, the roots of contemporary public art can be found in the ludic and the architectonic: in the playful public interventions epitomized in the 1960s by the Fluxus movement and in the 1970s by the site-specific deconstructive architectural ‘building cuts’ of Gordon Matta-Clark; and in the humanist reaction to excessive urban development, which in turn sought to reintroduce art and artists into the public sphere as a catalyst for human interaction. Subsequently, public art has attracted disapprobation in the international art world as its initial frameworks of creative conception are conditioned by social, political or financial factors. As opposed to a traditional popular and museological role for the artist as enquiring independent observer or detached bohemian activist, public art is rarely ‘free’ creative inquiry. Regulatory frameworks for public space always entail restrictive planning procedures for the commissioned artist employed within an urban economy.
Single site-specific works of the 20th Century – Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, 1981, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Wrapped Reichstag, 1995, and Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North, 1998, set specific but limited models for the iconic landmark sculpture that became globally recognized. Public art subsequently developed a sophisticated large-scale and technically innovative practice, an example of which is Janet Echelman’s 145-feet tall work (44m) Her Secret is Patience, 2009, Civic Space Park in Phoenix, Arizona -- a hovering aerial sculpture composed of three-dimensional, multi-layered netting illuminated through a changing lighting sequence.
2. Public Art in civic Life
Public art in the 21st century continues to include commemorative civic sculpture, decorative abstract murals, modernist welded-metal or pop art icons, city landmark monuments and art-architecture or art-civil engineering collaborations. Public art is often devised as a ‘scheme’ for a multitude of locations – The Beijing Olympic Park of 2008 or the Taipei Metro [MRT] scheme, which has installed art in numerous mass transit stations. In the 1990s the global trend in ‘culture-led regeneration’ fostered the opinion that the functions of public art were to express civic identity and symbolism; articulate community and social participation; act as a visible generator for economic and building regeneration programs; provide low cost visitor ‘attractions’; or simply decorate a city’s grand buildings or public plazas.
Contexts for commissioning and production remain significant as cities vie with each other to be recognized for unique commercial and cultural traits. Civic events, festivals and cultural biennales are major commissioning frameworks for high visibility (if temporary) site-specific public art, now a vital stimulant to the global tourist economy. At the same time, art institutions initiate public art projects to broaden their audience through now common ‘off-site’ locations. In public art production, new variants are emerging with new global networks of ideas, projects and cultural exchange. New cultural think tanks – often associated with architecture schools such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – are merging art, urbanism and architecture theory. And there is a revival in small-scale local industry as seen in The International Village Shop developed by Grizedale Arts in northern England’s Lake District, part of a growing network of cultural producers, creating a ‘glocal’ art by merging the global and the local, who set up permanent and temporary trading places for goods that are rooted locally, often with quirky names such as ‘horsemilksoap’ and ‘Frogbutterspoons’.
3. New Variants
Following the inception of global economic recession late in 2007, the cultural energy of artists and curators generated less expensive and more ephemeral media. One example is the Pop-Up Art Shop where conventional retail space is used to provide affordable art and related merchandise. Abandoned or redundant industrial spaces were established as alternative cultural centers promoting social participation, placemaking and community identity. This can be witnessed in the reclaimed urban spaces of northern Portuguese town of Guimaraes, European Capital of Culture 2012, as well as in Singapore’s continual quest for a cultural identity, and a place on the world’s cultural stage as one of the ‘global cities of the arts’. For most countries, the preferred option is the smaller, genre-based event. For example, the Bienal del Chaco of Resistencia in Argentina, is a biennial sculpture festival with that invites international artists to collaborate on creating outdoor sculptures in a city of over 500 sculptures.
An emphasis on ‘placemaking’ and social community continued along with increasing fragmentation of national identities. British artists like Charles Quick and Michael Pinsky demonstrate the new role of artist as creative entrepreneur. Quick negotiates business contracts, manages complex public projects, co-designs bespoke technology, and acts as educator, public critic and cultural emissary while negotiating cultural commissions. Pinsky is a public curator and intellectual, crossing readily between art world gallery and public domains involving various discourses, practices, organizations and think tanks. His work in Torres Vedras, Portugal in 2007, involved a complex design of architectural tiles, mediated through 100 international participants each negotiating the construction of his or her floor arrangement. This public installation project became a model for socio-urban reconstruction.
Social-citizen activism emerged along with the consciousness of changing demographics and social culture. German artist Jochen Gerz has worked internationally on ‘Public Authorship’ projects involving complex communities. In 2-3 Strassen project, part of the RUHR.2010, European Capital of Culture, 2010, 78 creative participants were chosen to occupy empty apartments in three cities. Each was given a mandate to make the streets an ‘open exhibition’ as well as collaborate on writing of a ‘publicly authored’ book.
At the other end of the spectrum, commercial funding through areas of corporate brand strategy involved public art in the semi-private interests of global corporations, such as banking, automotive design and fashion retailing. The Centro de Arte Contemporânea Inhotim de Brumadinho in Brazil a public gallery and outdoor art park, with more than 500 artworks, created by Bernardo Paz, is an outstanding example of private philanthropy.
4. Expanded forms and ideas
In the 21st century, users of the internet are creating and dispersing a new morphology of electronic media and arts technology. An increasing use of web documentation, visualization, internet symposia and blogging offers artists a democratic and non-institutionalised space open to more radical ideas: Switzerland’s Book of Urbanism is a model in this regard. Emerging multiple approaches combine ephemeral and studio based installations, for example where light and video façade projections become effective public art media distributed through the internet. The STRP festival in Eindhoven, Holland, integrates previously segregated interests in film art with digital technology and robotics, installations and interactive art in animation, alongside music, cinema and performance.
Frameworks for the production of public art are invariably dominated by the commissioning procedures of a public authority. Commissioning as a process is both legal-contractual, political-ideological and to some extent creative, as artists find themselves working within a civic art strategy and developing urban design frameworks. Nevertheless, so called ‘Street artists’ – England’s Banksy or legendary New York graffiti artists — continue to make their mark on a city by operating outside official procedure. With a stalling in global social mobility, the politics of social disruption could animate more public space, generating new counter cultures of urban intervention, inversion and subversion, with new citizen art and graffiti to question the experience of the city.
A rise in ethical consciousness is also increasing, generated by political, ecological and even religious activism. The Harrison Studio in California’s Santa Cruz, operated by Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, is an ethically and ecologically concerned partnership, developing strategies on cultural diversity, and geophysical and biodiversity patterns to enable a questioning of environmental issues. Their project Peninsula Europe II (ongoing since 2007) is working to transform Europe’s riverways. Association Inscrire, initiated by Françoise Schein and based in Paris, has used ceramic murals as a collaborative medium to create works of art related to Human Rights with partners all over the world. The British organization, Art and Sacred Spaces, along with thousands of faith communities around the world, are commissioning artists for religious sites to create reinvigorated spaces of inspiration and expression, redefining worship and congregation.
Public art theory has tended to emerge from architectural theory and urbanism, public or cultural policy studies, or contemporary art theory. Integrating these three, along with a new revival of interest in public sphere theory and democracy theory, is the Rotterdam published journal Open. Research is increasingly intrinsic to public art practice. For artist collectives like London-based Public Works Group, founded in 1999, research is integral to the process of finding lines of communication with a ‘public’. A central complexity continues for academic visual culture research in that with a radically changing globalised environment the relation between signification (the art) and interpretation (the public) is becoming problematic. Mass immigration, cultural diversity, and an increasingly globalised art world, are making the nature and parameters of visual language problematic for artists. Defining a ‘public’ concerns new theorists such as Simon Sheikh or Miwon Kwon. For artists, two options are opening up – one is an explicitly ‘global’ public art, the other a deeper engagement with specific urban environments. The former can be seen in the work of Francis Alÿs, a Belgian resident in Mexico City, working around the world; the second in Michael Pinsky, working internationally but specifically concerned with embedded and engaged urban transformation.
Timon Beyes, Sophie-Thérése Krempl and Amelie Deuflhard, Art and Urban Space, Zurich, Verlag Niggli, 2009.
Cameron Cartiere and Shelly Willis, eds., The Practice of Public Art, London, Routledge, 2010
Cher Krause Knight, Public Art: Theory, Practice and Populism, Oxford, Blackwell, 2008.
Miwon Kwon, One Place after Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity, MIT Press, 2004.
Malcolm Miles, Urban Avant-Gardes: Art, Architecture and Change, London, Routledge, 2004.
Jorinde Seijdel, Art as a Public Issue, Open No 14., Rotterdam, NIA publishers, 2008.
Simon Sheikh, ed., In the Place of the Public Sphere? Berlin: b_books
Jeremy Hunt is editor of the Art & Architecture Journal
Dr Jonathan Vickery is Programme Director for the MA in International Design and Communication Management and the new MA Global Media and Communication at the University of Warwick. He researches broadly in contemporary art, culture and policy, is an editor and a critic, but has also worked as a designer and art director (he was designer and a founding editor of Aesthesis: International Journal of Art and Aesthetics in Management and Organizational Life). He has worked with artists creating intellectual dialogue and his own understanding of the conditions of contemporary art. In particular, with Jochen Gerz during his Coventry project 'Public Authorship'; with Colin Halliday discussing work that articulated both nature in the urban and urban in the natural, and our contemporary experience of space and environment; and with Charles Quick, as editor of the publication, FLASH@Hebburn by Charles Quick, Urban Art in the New Century. His essay, Infrastructures: Creating Flash@Hebburn, places the work not only in its context of site and its relation to the audience but also in the development of an art world discourse on new urban arts. He is the reviews editor for the Art & Architecture Journal and contributed articles: 'Richard Woods: New Build': 'Vong Phaophanit and Claire Oboussier's Outhouse'; and 'Interview with Robert Wilson: Robert Wilson at the Gunpowder Park'.
Recent publications include: