Public Art as Public Authorship: Jochen Gerz’s Future Monumentand The Public Benchin Coventry City Centre.
The occasion for this essay is a Public Artcommission, the Future Monumentand the Public Bench– two related public artworks constructed by Jochen Gerz for the newly designated Millennium Place in Coventry City Centre. This Public Artcommission was directed by the Phoenix Initiative – Coventry City Council’s city centre regeneration project is due for completion in November 2003. The regenerated area will run from the locale of the two Cathedrals (the modern and the part-destroyed old cathedral to which it is connected) to the Museum of British Road Transport, towards the north of the city centre.
This essay concerns Gerz’s concept of ‘Public Authorship’, and was written after a series of discussions, seminars and lectures on Jochen Gerz’s work attended largely by my students and students of Coventry School of Art and Design [CSAD]. It is indebted to Jochen Gerz and deliberately reflects the ideas that emerged from the discussion during these events. For the past four years Gerz has been a visiting professor at CSAD, and has involved students extensively in his Public Artresearch.
Thereare many artists commissioned by the Phoenix Initiative:
Françoise Schein, David Ward, Alexander Beleschenko, David Morley, (an established poet based at the University of Warwick) Susanna Heron; Kate Whiteford, and Chris Browne. The reason Jochen Gerz’s project has become the focus of my attention is the way his Public Art projects involve a significant degree of reflection and analysis of the current cultural function and aesthetic meanings of Public Art. For four years Jochen Gerz has been involved in public negotiation, consultation and community-based research in Coventry. The Future Monumentand The Public Benchare not merely works of art, but products of extensive inquiry and debate concerning the nature of ‘the general public’ of Coventry, their specific history, identity and social ideals. The Future Monumentand the Public Benchthematise relationships and enmity. During the initial stages of the commission Jochen Gerz distributed an information leaflet for the people of Coventry asking them, ‘Who are the enemies of the past?, ‘Who are your modern friends?subject matter was potentially explosive, and caused some anxiety for many members of the City Council. However, Gerz diplomatically diffused the controversy and pressed ahead.
The Future Monument will be a 4.6m high obelisk made of a glass compound whose surface appears shattered; it will be lit up internally at night, and feature plaques engraved with the names of former enemies who are now, or will be, friends. The Public Benchruns along the north rim of the square, will be made of concrete and wood, 45m long, and feature plaques of names and dates of local people. The theme of the artworks has become more complex after September 11; Gerz, however, is no stranger to the social complexities of such a project, and moreover regards the objects as just one aspect of a larger process of social dialogue.
Jochen Gerz (Born Berlin 1940) is both author and subject of numerous articles and books. He began his professional life as a translator, poet and journalist, has worked in several European countries and now lives in Paris. In the 1960s he founded a co-operative publishing press, began making visual art involving photography and text, and in the 1970s was involved in many projects involving video, installation, performance, workshops and lecturing. He exhibited at the German pavilion with Joseph Beuys at the Venice Biennale in 1976. Since 1984 he has concentrated on installations and Public Artprojects being awarded the Roland Prize, Bremen (1990); German Art Critics’ Prize, Berlin (1996); National Order of Merit, Paris (1996); Peter Weiss Prize, Berlin (1996); National Grand Prize for the Plastic Arts, Paris (1998).
Gerz’s most famous project is probably the Monument Against Racismin Saarbrücken, Germany, 1993. It began as a kind of performance art where Gerz and collaborators lifted the cobbles in the Schlossplatz and inscribed their undersides with the names of Jewish cemeteries that existed in Germany before WWII; the stones were then replaced. The work was later officially sanctioned and the square renamed Square of the Invisible Monument. Gerz’Harburg Monument Against Fascism in Hamburg in 1986 (realised in collaboration with Esther Shalev-Gerz) involved a similar ‘anti-monument. A 39-foot high pillar coated in soft lead was erected in a shopping area and passers by were invited to sign their names (as a gesture against fascism) with a provided steel pen. As the names covered the accessible surface the pillar was gradually lowered into the ground and in 1993 finally disappeared. The top of the pillar only, level with the pavement, remains visible.
This essay is divided into two sections: Firstly, Authorities(both commissioning bodies or city councils responsible for public space, and ‘authoritative concepts’– the criteria that often regulates the concept of ‘artthe minds of the public). And secondly, Citizens (articulating some of the problems involved in consulting the public about Public Art). The objective of this essay is conceptual – simply to construct a working definition of Public Authorship. As Gerz’s work is still effectively in process, this research is still largely speculative. Moreover, there are many issues and questions that arise in the course of this essay that cannot be adequately answered; and when categorical statements are made on ‘the nature of Public Artare intended as a provocation to discussion, not dogmatic assertion.
Authorities & Ruling Concepts Jochen Gerz has attempted to develop a new conception of Public Art–Public Authorship. As a project Public Authorship attempts to find new ways of acknowledging Public Art’s cultural function is, its relation to ‘the public’. We are all familiar with the standard categories of Public Art: monuments, community art projects, corporate sculpture, landmark sculpture, and so on. Most Pubic art ventures revolve around the making of a single object, perhaps utilising the construction process as a form of education or social interaction.
In any major study of Public Artthe main issues tend to revolve around cultural policy, social policy and all the criteria that come with the overwhelming ethical mandate that Public Artmust acknowledge. This mandate is thatPublic Art must be in the public interest. Of course, defining ‘the public interestnot easy, and not usually something that preoccupies the mind of the artist so much as the commissioning body. That is, the problem of defining the public interest is more often than not wholly separate from the creative process involved in making a certain kind of Public Art object. The commissioning body will not often attempt to define the public interest conceptually, and then convey this to the artist. It will usually attempt to acknowledge the public interest through some form of consultation. But the relation between the kind of data consultation exercises produce, and the creative process, is usually an unproductive one. Quite often, consultation is only used to elicit a sense of acceptance or rejection, rather than contribute to the process by which a work of art is conceived, constructed and installed.
The problems of Public Artusually involve the disjunction or lack of continuity between the consultation process (or the PR that commissioning bodies like a city council conduct), the artistic tastes of the general public, and the artistic process of producing a certain kind of artwork. Quite often a commissioning body will simply dissolve the problem and hold that the unfettered creativity of the artist is by its nature IN the public interest (as a matter of principle; social provision for free creative expression is a political principle most people in theory would uphold). Or, they will opt for a safer solution, requesting familiar symbolism or established styles and materials that resonate directly with the work’s urban or civic context, that is, invoking acceptance through affirming an already extant consensus on some idea or principle.
Here, we will understand Public Authorship as another way of conceiving of the relationship between these three Groups: the public, the authorities and the artists three constituencies involved in the creation and reception of a public artwork. And in this report I will be referring to what I will call the ‘social symbolisma work of Public Art. Many innovative and challenging works of art in public places are rejected by the general public not because they do not achieve a level of artistic quality, but because art’s signifying function changes when art is situated in public space. Social symbolism is the way Public Artobjects can signify social values, ‘forces’ or aspirations that have little to do with the intrinsic artistic qualities or meaning of the object. Social symbolism is the non-artistic signifying function that objects can maintain in a particular context.
Our first question about Future Monumentsituates the work in the context of contemporary art: With unprecedented tolerance for diverse forms of creativity, why is Future Monument —a modest sized glass obelisk conservative in appearance?
Two primary responses emerge:
A more artistically distinguished object would be perceived as an exclusive act of creative expression on the part of an individual artist; the more ‘expressiveartwork, the more it signifies the personality of the artist and thus (even if subliminally) detracts from its ‘public.
The obelisk monument form is loaded with historical resonance relevant to the themes addressed: origins, conflict, identity, history. In an era when traditional monument forms are out of fashion, it brings us back to the reality of the subjects and aspirations that monuments once so effectively expressed: a version of history complementary to the image of a nation state as moral subject; and an aspiration for a sense of power afforded by a secure and coherent national identity.
Future Monumenttakes the social compulsion for the absolutes that feature in the usual meaning of monuments certain version of history and distinct national identity – as an ever present desire (and potential danger; if ignored they emerge in other ways, sometimes insidiously). Future Monumenton a symbolic level makes this desire the ground on which the social possibilities of the future have to be negotiated. We are never free of the desire for absolutes we desire a sense of history, and need identity we must make this need reflectiveand self-critical. Moreover, this process a Public Artproject – is not merely an academic exercise in critique, but a collective exercise in active memory: reactivating memory and reinterpreting memory through social dialogue.
The Future Monumentand Public Bench are categorically distinct in artistic terms: the one is an architectural addition to the outer rim of the open area of Millennium Place, the other a monument in the more recognisable sense of the term. They are both linked, however, by a common characteristic that defines the identity of both of them . These plaques feature the names of peoples Germans, the French – for the purposes of identifying past enemies who are now, or who can be, contemporary friends. That is, the plaques signify human relationships both personal and social. The latter social defined by identifying ‘peoples’, that is, identifying the way other peoples are represented by ‘officialnational conflicts and in terms of the actions of their governments, or a generalisation of their ‘national characteristics’.
The function of The Public Benchis more direct are sites of social congregation, places of spectatorship. The Future Monumentcreates a site of movement and dialogue; the Public Benchis a place of stillness and reflection. The Benchis where a member of the public is invited to stop, rest, and survey the scene before them. This is appropriately chosen as the site for plaques of the names of individual local persons, their friends or family, both living and recently deceased.
Here we will concentrate on the Future Monument, which will bear plaques of both peoples and social groups resident in Coventry. The multiple references to people and places are important. The Future Monumentacknowledges the latent internationalism of national identity way national identity is constructed out of an experience of what is other to it, other peoples or nations; its identity maintains a consciousness of that ‘otherness’ within its very sense of self. One of the most powerful themes that emerged during the Future Monument project was that our historical understanding of other peoples does not have to be structured in terms of past historic conflicts between nation states, or abstract political ideals of national traditions. It points to another route to trans-social solidarity, something to do with the exchange and interpretation of memories.
Second: the obelisk-form is significant: (i)it is a trans-cultural art form, as Eastern as it is Western; in fact, it was imported and re-imported to the West by conquest, from the Romans to Napoleon, and hence its internationalism is embedded with the politics of colonialism and issues of neo-colonialism, meanings which extend to the way Coventry’s waves of immigrants were brought in by these two historic forces; (ii)the object exhibits no individual artistic expression, promoting a signature style. And it is not a ‘land-mark; it is part of a matrix of visual forms that make up the architectural complex of Millennium Place. Suitably, the obelisk monument in ancient times was, of course, a vehicle for collectivemeanings not individual expression; Future Monumentthus promotes a sense of collective ownership.
Thirdly, obelisks traditionally have been used as war memorials: they have a certain kind of visual logic: they have what you might call a representative authority (they signify State power or national military prowess) and they express a certain(or incontestable) knowledge of history(that is, a moral sanction of one version of historical events undertaken by the nation or State). The visual function of the traditional monument utilised visual signs of authority, power and strength; it also functioned as a memorial whose meaning was activated by inscriptions to the heroic dead. However, after WWII, and then the fall of Eastern European communism in the 1990s, the classical types of monument form have largely been rejected by democratic Governments and the art world in general, and this rejection has itself been a socially symbolic rejection of demagogy and totalitarianism as routes to political transformation.
So why use the monument form?
Future Monument‘re-encodestraditional monument’s visual function. There are four ways in which it does this:
War is a linchpin in Coventry’s own history and thus identity. Future Monumentby its very title provokes a rethinking of the way our understanding of the past determines our present thinking and thus future social possibilities.
The inscriptions on the Future Monument feature other nations, and community groups that do not usually fit into the traditional civic iconography of a city centre monument; it throws into relief the heterogeneity of ‘the pastopposed to the homogeneity of ‘official history’.
It is slender, just over human proportions, and thus rejects the imposing monumentalityof monument form; and because it is made of glass, the traditional stone monument is dematerialised– there is a visual emphasis on light not mass: time as transience not time as endurance. Moreover, because the monument is ‘shattered’, it becomes a ‘ruined monument’, a symbol of a tragic past of lost opportunity whose redemption is still yet to come.
The visual appearance of the Future Monument is less a solid aesthetically unified art object than a site or visual fulcrum for words: it is a linguistic entity questions, and sharing partial meanings. It is not a ‘monument of the future’, but anticipates a future where the very need for, and function of, monuments can be superseded by certain kinds of dialogue.
The Future Monumentis not ostentatious nor a spectacular object; it does not meet the enduring modernist desire for extreme innovation.
In his book, Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia(Routledge, 1995), Andreas Huyssen observes the way contemporary consumer culture, a culture primarily structured according to the satiation of present desire, is nonetheless obsessed with history. Yet the form this obsession takes becomes a way of suppressing the past, or suppressing the way the past becomes present in historical knowledge. The collective labour of active memory is forsaken in favour of a ‘rationalisednarrative official history many of the voices of the past are quashed.
In the Future Monument, the past is not given as ‘history’easy consumption; and it does not provoke nostalgia for lost values. The past here is something that has to be discovered through dialogue – through connecting the morass of unconnected memories evoked by the names and places written on the plaques. And this dialogue is not regulated by great abstract political ideals concepts of civil rights – but is figured as a more direct contact between local people in the public sphere. The Monument works as part of a socio-cultural project, whose central characteristics are (i) individualisation (the past is recovered by listening to individual voices); and (ii) internationalisation (these voices are located within the context of social groupings with their own distinct story).
But is this sufficient as a strategy? Individualisation and internationalisation are the twin characteristics of global consumer capitalism. In a world economically structured by multi-national corporations, the values of nation state, traditional political ideals and local identities can be a bulwark against the erosion of indigenous culture and values. Consumerism re-defines society as a collection of individual consumers desiring a market ever expanding beyond the regulated borders of their nation state. For Public Authorship, this is precisely where the battle must be fought: the Phoenix Initiative is an inevitable a part of the Culture Industry regeneration of the City in which the interests of entertainment, corporate investment, and tourism all merge.How then is the Future Monument, among the dozen other art projects of which it is a part, not just a detail of a larger consumerisation of historical identity and knowledge? This is not a question that can be answered easily.
Our initial problematic was the mandate that Public Artmust engage with, reflect or emerge from the public interest. Failing to do so means, among other things, that the art work can all too easily function on a level of social symbolism as a source of authority that is in ‘opposition’ to the Public. The artwork will seem imposedon public space and thus be a cipher for the decision making power of (i) the State; (ii) the local authorities; (iii) the artist or art world institutions (on the level of social symbolism the artist often appears as a mere cipher for trendy ‘artworld).
Ruling conceptions of Public Artare not just a matter of understanding but of aesthetic expectations: these expectations are the cognitive horizon within which Public Artis experienced by the general public. The ruling conceptions of Public Art include the following: significance, representation, and stimulation. Embedded in these three ruling concepts are three aesthetic expectations demands that Public Art must fulfil certain functions:
Mark an event of historic or cultural significance.
Involve the public and create a sense of community.
Express or harmonise (aesthetically or thematically) with the character of the location.
Conventional Public Art(if we can use this term) usually does this by:
Containing recognisable imagery, iconography, or unusual abstraction with some visible connection to an event or person.
Standing as a ‘land-mark; or involving the community in its creation, like a mural projects.
Involving shapes, materials or iconography that resonate with the environment or local industry.
Future Monumentand the Public Benchmeet these three categories of expectation:
As an obelisk-shaped monument it resonates with the war memorial and Coventry’s identity as a post-war phoenix rising from the ashes (revived in the Phoenix Initiative, the most expansive regeneration of the city centre since WWII).
It involved the public in the artist’s creative activity in Coventry.
The Bench harmonises both aesthetically and functionally with the architectural complex of the site; and the Future Monument will, from a distance of about 10metres, look classically elegant and unobtrusive.
However, as a product of Public Authorship, the Public Benchand Future Monument take a critical stance toward the standard responses to the three demands:
As Historic Event: the cultural event here marked is the Phoenix Initiative regeneration, and yet rather than the Future Monumentbeing a self-contained work of art (whose source of significance is its visual appearance), it stands as a symbolic question mark. The past enemies who are now friends: Why did they become enemies? Are they true friends? Could they become enemies again? There are past enemies and current friends of which we are perhaps unaware. The work, rather than marking the culmination of an event, acts as a marker for absent dialogues, repressed or imprisoned by official histories. Its questions are quiet but provocative and makes potentially difficult references to unresolved historical tensions, or even traumatic memories. WWII is still a powerful component in British national identity, and still a source of historical trauma and morbid fascination for the British public. Future Monumentproblematises this memory by admixing names of former colonies, and references to the present ethnic heterogeneity of ‘the British’.
As Public Involvement: it involves the Public, but not as a ‘general public’. It reveals ‘the general publicbe an abstract concept, concealing all kinds of people and groups who have little or no access to the modes of social life through which they become ‘public’– public institutions and their decision-making powers, media recognition, or means of public expression. The social complexity of Coventry is figured in symbolic form. It suggests that the abstract concept of ‘the public’ is derived from social statistics, or ‘officialnarratives, and not an acknowledgement of the present social condition of actual people.
As aesthetic object harmonising with the environment: the obelisk is a ‘universal’ sculpture form, but not large enough to be monumental; it refuses to impose on the place and it is not a dominant focal point on Millennium Place. The shattered glass disrupts the harmony of its appearance; and as the area is punctuated by specific names, text becomes more significant than imagery. It features names that are inseparable in official historical narratives from specific conflicts and even atrocities; but here they do not stand for one historical event or story, but anticipate the possibility of many conflicting events and stories.
The term ‘Future Monumenta paradox of meaning. Only the past, not the future, can be monumentalised. Here, the ‘future’, in the form of dialogue, dissolves the monumentalising function of the monument. It suggests that our acknowledgement of the past has not been faithful to the complexity of the past, yet at the same time it suggests that memorialisation is an important social function, and that we need to redeem this practice. It suggests that traditional acts of memorialisation repressed the past past was rationalised into ‘history’, and its many voices were lost; future memorialisation will take the form of a dialogue that somehow acknowledges the lost voices, and this will become the dynamic through which a ‘publicwill emerge.
Citizens, Consultation and Representation. The relation between the public and art in public space is a question we have only begun to explore. The following points are relevant:
Defining the public, and then defining what the public need, is impossible for an artist without responding to general conceptions that are already a part of political discourse of class, economics, ethnic identity and cultural education. Public Authorship, however, appeals to no pre-conception of the ‘public’; any conception of what the public is, emerges through dialogue and conversation over a significant period of time.
Public Authorship is about creating dialogue beginning with people talking, telling their story – it is about stories or narratives, the self-presentation of people through acts of memory. Public Authorship does not (like ‘avant-garde) attempt to construct a site of symbolic oppositions –‘confrontational aesthetics’(interrupting public space; upsetting public expectations, and hoping in time this upset will re-educate the viewing public). This strategy, arguably, only to works (or works effectively) within institutional contexts designated for that task. Public Authorship does not work within designated spaces of art institutions, but through them and around them. It creates discursive spaces within which conceptions and expectations are talked through in everyday language, not institution-specific aesthetic terminology.
Hence Public Authorship is where ‘the publicthrough dialogue; and thus where the artist creates through dialogue. The ‘artistic contentthe works is not their source of significance; the aesthetics of the work, however, are affective, and are affective because form is integrated with text and text symbolically inserts itself into a future dialogue. Future Monumentis not an object whose meaning issues from a single ‘authorspeaks in one unified voice. The artist has a different function. If the public is the author, the artist becomes more of a transcriber, translator or orchestrator of a site of meaning. He does not have controlof the meanings that cross and emerge from the work, but he does have to secure their continuity.The creativity is as much in the process of developing dialogue as it is in the reading of the work after it has been placed in situ. For four years Gerz has located and interacted with all possible sectors, groups, societies, associations and clubs that make up Coventry’s ‘public’. Meetings, both official and non-official, have been held, whereby Gerz explains his project and invites response. Gerz has used student groups to liase with each group and with individuals, recording their responses, often in the form of their own conceptions of art, articulating their own cultural history and even personal life-story.
Public consultationhas become an important part of conventional Public Artprojects; it is carried out usually by representation, i.e. a committee is set up who consults all interested parties like local associations and councillors, and who avail the commissioning body of their expertise. A consensus or part-consensus decision is then made. Often, extensive public consultation is avoided as (a) it is high cost, involving advertisements and public information mechanisms like surveys or questionnaires, and even then it is difficult to get a representative set of figures; and (b) paradoxically, the very process of consultation itself provokes unnecessary or irrational opposition. A high visibility consultation process can lend the work as a vehicle for a socially symbolic protest against local authorities, or the artworld, and thus the work’s powers of aesthetic signification will be overridden by social signification, producing meanings that might have little to do with the actual work in question.
‘Consultationa communication strategy is usually differentiated from PR (public relations strategy). In a high profile Public Art project, however, the two can become one: as the commissioning body is usually a public body, like the City Council, the consultation process becomes an act of public relations. For bodies like a City Council usually understand more than most the way art becomes socially symbolic; a high profile Public Art project will become inseparable from their perpetual need to maintain their own corporate profile (a convincing self-presentation of themselves as ‘in the public interest’).
Most commissioning bodies, like Coventry City Council’s Phoenix Initiative, promoted its commissioned Public Artas (a) celebration of local cultural life; (b) raising the cultural and thus economic profile of the area; (c) the work of famous or respected artists; and (d) involving local residents. Public Authorship does not subvert these functions. But it is not public consultation or PR as normally conceived by a Public Artproject as it does not involve the usualstrategies of communication, or their claims of validation. It does not mediate ‘opinionresponse (which is always abstract) but requiresparticipation. There is no official sociological survey, polling of public opinion in the usual ways. It is done largely through information in public places and the artist and assistants working directly with the recipients of that information.
Public Authorship does not attempt to represent the interests of a coherent public, but consciously invests itself in the social symbolic function of Public Art, the realm of public response. Public is not about art so much as the public capacity for response to art; it uses the response facility art maintains in public spaces in order to register the presence of ‘the publicpublic space. And in doing this, it does not ‘representpublic but symbolically mediates the difference between (a) What the public is (as a sociologically defined mass); and (b) Who the public are(as interrelated individuals each with their own history and identity).
Most Public Artprojects will first undertake some research in order to gauge the appropriateness of a particular artwork in a particular location. The research strategies and information gathering strategies employed are commonly public polls, street polls, interviews and questionnaires. Warwick students attempted the latter with arts professionals and community workers within the West Midlands area. Below is a brief summary of their comments:
All art professionals and community workers consulted were positive and were convinced that Jochen Gerz’s Future Monumentproject contributed to the welfare of the community.
Interviewees were split as to whether a local artist would have been more suitable working in close contact with the community.
Interviewees were split as to whether the public needed be directly involved in determining the shape of the outcome (the work of art).
There was no suspicion on their part that Gerz was costing the community money that would better be spent elsewhere (the most common motive for public suspicion of Public Art).
On the second of these points it occurred to many of us that Jochen as an ‘outsider’foreign national – had an advantage. Artists as well as art works can function on the level of the social symbolic. An outsider does not easily function this way mediators of the interests or values of the State, the local authorities, the national or local art world. Perhaps Public Authorship is by its nature internationalist, where the mediator of public response is itself strategically indefinable: the ‘international’ is still unrepresentable in terms of public experience (as opposed to political ideology).
Another question emerged: all the individuals consulted used the concept of ‘communityas the validation for the project. On this subject it occurred to us that Public Authorship research through dialogue: actively searching for micro-communities and their members an interrogation of the concept of ‘communitythe way the concept is used to validate all kinds of public decision making:
In society there are often only disparate local ‘groupsassociations rather than unified communities or a seamless agglomeration of communities.
There is no simple ‘white’ versus ethnic minority divide: social make up and social dynamics are more complex than the simple categories used by politicians or media.
Community projects, while invigorating for their locale, often remain tied to that locale, and on the level of social symbolism can become entrenched in the already established minority identity of that community. Public Authorship creates a dialogue where social differences do not become social boundaries,or socially defining factors in one’s identity, but points of viewor perspectives from which to speak (or ‘positionsa dialogue process). Rather than ‘securing’s identity, identity can be re-created through the dialogic projection of memory in public space.
Public Authorship, in making ART the site of social dialogue, and not politics or social issues, defuses potential social aggression and further disunity. The main concern of the City Council was that in identifying contemporary racial groups in the context of historical conflicts and enmity, racial tension would be inflamed. No such tension has materialised.
One art worker interviewed made the observation that in her experience the quality of a Public Art project is not the objective values of artistic creativity embodied in the object, but the process and development of the project itself. Public Authorship redefines Public Art as development and process, and not the production of super valuable objects. At the same time, it is lead by an internationally recognised artist, and therefore maintains a general appeal to the kinds of cultural significancecultivated in the artworld. This significance is strategically useful for Public Authorship in maintaining political leverage over the institutions that govern public space. For most process-oriented art or developmental art projects, on the level of social symbolism, can be confined to a role of social therapy.
When questioned, The Director of the Phoenix Initiative, Chris Beck, stated that the public was not directly involved in commissioning the artists and planning the Public Art scheme. He offered four reasons why this was:
Some artists assume the right to produce work without public advice, ideas or opinions, and work best that way.
Artists generally don’t like to think they are directly responding to ‘the publichave to accommodate public reaction in their work.
Public Artshould risk bad reaction: provocative art is better than bland art.
Art needs controversy and diversity, and these only come when an artist has the freedom from public contributions.
These comments display a refreshingly progressive attitude towards Public Art projects. They can be placed within the following rationale: the artist is a member of the general public and on the level of social symbolism embodies the freedom of expression accorded to every citizen; in so expressing a socially unrestrained freedom the artist creates a vision of creative originality. Art is validated by its ability to stimulate, and original stimulating work if provocative –is itself symbolic of the diversity of culture and of hope for the human capacity for vision and thus cultural or social transformation.
This is a traditional liberal humanist position, and has indeed allowed many artists be free from the dictates of the authorities or public opinion, which can water down their creative vision for the work of art. Does it, however, embody a conception of an artist that is now questionable? Does it conceive of the artist as the individual autonomous creative figure, accountable to no one but his or her own unique vision. Isn’t there a model of an artistthat responds directly to the public in some way and maintains their artistic individuality? The Future Monumentproject, while not consciously opposing other models of artistic creativity, is a critique of the ‘unique voluntarist artist:
It suggests that artists are ultimately accountable in some way to the public when they exhibit in public spaces.
It suggests that an art object should not just be ‘art gallery art outdoors’, but should embody something of public experience.
It suggests that the artist should be in contact with the public. Artistic production in a post-bourgeois era is still centred upon the socially reticent creative individual. The Director echoed a common problem with Public Artartists: they can be unaware of the nature of the public in that locale, and can be reluctant to face them in public meetings or consultations.
It demonstrates that creativity can involve collective activity: public dialogue is a form of collective expression, and Public Authorship can introduce many waysin which groups of people can be active during the changes in the aesthetic shape of their urban environment.
We have considered the way Public Artcan signify meaning on the level of social symbolism; there is a sense in which it also signifies on the level of cultural symbolism, with regard to that sector of the ‘publicas the ‘artworld’. Public Authorship as outlined above, configures a series of alternative criteria for the construction of Public Art; these criteria , responsibility, social involvement, etc. convincing. However, they create a paradigm that is neither possible, practical nor desirable in many Public Artsituations. Gerz himself does not consider Public Authorship functioning as ‘artworld, or claim that Public Authorship is a paradigm to which all Public Artprojects must conform. Yet, Public Authorship does operate on the level of cultural symbolism and stand as paradigmatic more genuine relation between the process of Public Artmaking and the public interest. In doing this it does stand as critique of existing models of Public Art, and unwittingly becomesa mediator of socially symbolic antagonism against ‘art world.
The Director of the Phoenix Initiative stated that out of 50,000pre-paid postcards sent out asking the people of Coventry for their ideas and perspectives only 480 people replied; and only a small fraction of the public turned out to the first two major public meetings held. Public Authorship suggests that public events and PR exercises like these, while certainly important in themselves, hardly touch the general public. The Director of the project also noted that people are usually only interested in a Public Artor regeneration project after the fact – after it is already constructed. It is only then response is forthcoming, and often this is in the form of complaints. Public Authorship would obviate this initial knee-jerk reaction by (a) long periods of community work and (b) not representing the work of one artist whose life bears no relation to the lives of the people whose city it is.
In a Phoenix Initiative survey ascertaining what the public desire most from a regeneration project (such as better parks, better buildings, squares, fountains, etc.) only 4% of responses stated that Public Artwas a significant component of this change in their urban environment (the lowest of thirteen categories of desired outcomes).
Public Authorship addresses this to some degree:
In dealing with topics and issues that cannot be denied as to their public importance and social issues, ethical issues and issues of identity resists public apathy. Gerz’s ongoing work has maintained a consistent profile in Coventry’s Press.
It takes art outside the orbit (both physically and discursively) of the art gallery institution, obviating the usual cultural barriers between art and the public.
It shows how the concept of art can be expanded into areas that do not require specialist language or expertise, but without descending into populist rhetoric or art historical clichés.
Warwick students conducted their own survey of 100 Coventry people on the subject of Public Art. The process of conducting a small consultation project was instructive: there are major caveats every step of the way in collating information about public ‘views’, opinion and reaction (not least the way ‘informed viewpoint’, ‘opinion‘reaction’ offer very different categories of data). And then there are factors affecting the responses of the public, which range from the time of year the consultation takes place, the place, the method by which a person is solicited, and purely ‘chancelike an averse reaction to the appearance of the interviewer!
The 100 people interviewed were solicited randomly, but selected so as to achieve a numerical balance of age and gender. Over 73% of people consulted claimed to be ‘awarePublic Artin the city centre. Despite substantial media attention, and attempts by the Phoenix Initiative and City Council to promote awareness of the impending urban changes, only a third of interviewees were aware of the current Public Artcommissions as part of the regeneration. 80% considered statues the most appropriate form of Public Art; and about the same percentage considered ‘increasing the attractiveness of the environmentmost important function of Public Art. 33% agreed that Public Artwas not awarded enough public funding; 43% said funding was adequate; 23% stated it was too generous. Interestingly, the responses were very similar in all age groups.
Reproducing the full empirical data of the student research consultation would be of little use here. According to strict sociological data collation methods, the survey (like many used in the process of public consultation) do not supply an objective and comprehensive view; they supply an ‘informed impression’. The survey was an important exercise in experiencing the difficulty of standard methods of consultation, and the challenge all public organisations face when in need of some objective gauge of the public mind.
A conventional consultation process in a Public Artproject would put a high priority on single votes and consent of individuals through polling. And of course, a petition is a way of gaining credibility when complaining about Public Art. Public Authorship may seek the acknowledgement of the public through the return of a questionnaire, but the validity of the project does not rest upon getting votes or a proportion of the population’s support. For the general Public, individual votes are seen as the mark of democracy process of political representation truly functioning. However, votes themselves are part of a complex political process of communication, and can also be the vehicle of prejudice and the worse kinds of populism, which does not work in the public interest. Public Authorship promotes political dialogue without political factions or parties, and promotes public interaction without populism.
Conclusion If Public Authorship involves the public as well as citizens – then it is involved in a whole network of physical and material constraints on what it can and cannot do. Unlike most Public Art projects, in Public Authorship the object is a mere by-product, or vehicle of dialogue: its visual physical nature is subordinate to its discursive function.
It involves relationships between the sections and members of the public, but also institutions, representatives of local boroughs, and individuals with political or media power. Public Authorship is a kind of public diplomacy, working by conversation, persuasion, and negotiation, being able to reconcile the conflicting expectations of those in authority with the lack of expectation and often indifference of the Public. This is made more complex as Jochen Gerz’s project in Coventry has taken place within a larger Public Artproject, and that larger Public Art project within a larger regeneration project.
At the outset, both Coventry City Council and the Master Planners/Architects (Architects MacCormac, Jamieson Pritchard) wanted Public Art to be an integral part of the regeneration project from the outset. Sir Richard MacCormac is a unique figure in the architecture profession for his level of understanding of, and enthusiasm for, the potential collaboration between Public Artand architecture. Insisting that art is a priority within a regeneration project is not common, and quite often not regarded as sensibly practical. Public Art is usually inserted into the spaces left by the architects.
The Future Monumentwas just one of many different commissions, and this can bring a different series of pressures:
A Public Authorship project will inevitably be compared to or measured by the more conventional Public Artprojects, both artistically and financially.
As part of a regeneration project, Public Authorship had to negotiate an artwork that could visually integratewith the overall architectural plan, and harmonisewith other works of art it would share a site with.
The Public Authorship project had to negotiate a work that could integratethematicallywith the overall concept of the project: as it happens that concept was ‘history and the future’, and Coventry’s role as a city of Peace and Reconciliation, something which strongly resonates with Jochen Gerz’s previous work (as noted initially by Vivien Lovell and the then Public Art Commissions Agency, who facilitated the initial commissions).
Public Authorship may involve art world ideas and art ‘movements, but its work is involved in negotiating all areas of public life, areas that artists usually keep well away from, or if they do get involved it is usually via their agent or dealer. It involves constant dialogue with a lot of people, and, an ability to understand the political logicunderlying any organisational network; an ability to understand the political dynamicsat work within that network, with all kinds of individual players and their conflicting interests
As Public Authorship involves much more than producing an object, it must be able to communicate the meaning and significance of the creative process of dialogue; but this is difficult, as where money is involved, something concrete for that money is expected. And a Public Authorship project lasting years is not intended to produce any great work of art. Its art is the art of social dialogue; but dialogue can take on a life of its own. Negotiation with the local media is also a crucial skill. As Public Authorship is all about communication rather than art objects as such, it cannot allow a distorted representation of itself to prevail in local newspapers or television. Gerz employs a PA, Olivia Morel-Bransbourg, who is skilled in maintaining a consistent and balanced media coverage.Moreover, over a number of years, Public Authorship needs to maintain a momentum of activity, without setting in place a program of expectations, or looking like some kind of predictable and repetitive social relations exercise. This is not easy.
Short Bibliography on Jochen Gerz
Jochen Gerz Publica: The Public Works 1968-1999, Hatje Cantz Verlag, Museion Bozen/Bolzano, 1999.
Simon Baker, ‘Interview with Jochen Gerz’, Oxford Art Journal, 24.2, 2001, 25-40.
Jochen Gerz, In Case We Meet[for exhibition ‘Temps Détournés éo et Internet Dans L’oeuvre, 1969-2002’, Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, 24.04.2002], Éditions du Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2002.
Jochen Gerz, L’Anti-Monument, Les Mots de Paris, Paris Musée/Actes Sud, Paris 2002.
Department of History of Art
University of Warwick
Author’s Note: I wish to thank all who have been involved in the discussions and research concerning Jochen Gerz's Future Monument project, including Jochen Gerz, Olivia Morel-Bransbourg, Professor Clive Richards, John Devane, Jill Journeaux, Christopher Beck, Colin Dale, Jenny Burns, Aileen Bennett, Agathi Tsoroni, Elizabeth Green, Emma Neville, Fiona Lewis, Helen Cropper, Nila Panchal, Tim Smith, Llinos Griffiths, Felicity Williams, Kathryn Johnson, Sarah Mate, Stuart McFadyen, Katherine Murray, Katherine Uys, and Tamara Wood.