Imagineering Public Space

Henk Oosterling wrote an analyses of the possible relationships between art and public space, in which he proposes a shift in thinking about the practice of public art, moving away from ‘artwork and artist’ towards ‘artworking’ as an active verb.* ‘Public space as art’, ‘art in public ‘, ‘art of the public’ and ‘art as a public space’ are potential forms of exchange between artist, comissioner and citizens.
‘Artworking’ as an engaging activity could democratise the proces of artistic decisionmaking; the artwork itself and the process of artproduction, become topic of public negotiation, and as such a domain for discussion and imagination on how public space should function or can be used. Artworks should no longer be conceptionalised as invaders of public space, but offer opportunities to visualise the often invisible potenials of a neighbourhood. A short summary in fragments:

Artpractices: from artwork and artist to artworking
The nature of artworks in public space is still understood from a traditional critical and emancipatory perspective. Allthough the notion of art as a dynamic process has surfaced over the past years, the autonomy of the artist remains undisputed and public artworks are still being regarded as isolated objects. This needs to be questioned; speaking about ‘practicing art’, or ‘artworking’ as an activity is more appropriate; it means we speak about a dynamic process in which all infrastructural dimensions and actors play a role of importance. By regarding artworks as a final result and the culmination of publicness, the interaction which is most important for a metropolitan quality of life is often underrepresented. The visualision of interaction should play an important role in public art.

Public space as art
Publicness is no longer restricted to local, static and physical spaces in which objects can be inserted. It has become a globally oriented physical-virtual dynamic exemplified by transito spaces such as airports, trainstations, shopping centres, post offices, lunaparks, musea, and last but not least digital networks. Some of these spaces are ‘free’ and ‘open’, others semi protected.
Metropoilitan individuals are sensitive for estheticly designed publicness; a diversity in design of spaces which are publicly inhabited stimulates consumption of products, artworks present in these spaces are consumed in the process; often people are unaware of this and look at them while passing by. This diversity in design increases because modernist contradictory discplines merge and diffuse: landscape-architects design squares, artists build websaites and philosophers curate exhibitions.
But contemporary city planning and architecture are only partly allowing an esthetisation of urban space: Esthetisation, no matter how deconstructivist, is always submitted to social-economical and bio-political control: the imparitive of public order is omnipresent in public space.

Art in public space
A critical positioning could distinguish art from estheticised urban space. But can a materialised critical reflection withstand the penetrating transparancy and speed of publicness? Is critical art an option, or does art collect dynamic tensions which interfere with traditional oppsitions of body/soul, time/space, private/public, other/self, into an esthetic transformation?
Recent visual history produced many representations of past- or desired realities, resulting in proposals for alternative worlds, or realities of otherness, sonic and virtual images put forward as physically present. A diversity of works; political monuments, social statements, biographical documents, sculptural incidents and conceptual events embody many forms of publicness.

Art of the public space
‘In’ still supposes a static situation. Can public life itself be made into artworks? Can the purely esthetisised functions of urban space be reloaded from the inside with communal action by imposing collective occupations or usage; festivals, concerts, illegal houseparties? Are these places not meant for collective experiences of the artificiality? Or do we draw the conclusion that esthetic sensibility is allready an integral part of publicness and the border between art and live has disappeared, in which case the project of the avant garde has become superfluous?

Democratic art in public space
This evident equalisation questions the democratic level of artworks. How are politics and art tied together in ‘democratic art’? Are we still talking about art ‘of, for and by’ the people? The totalitarian experiments of the 20th century, fascism as an esthetisation of politics and stalinism as a politisation of art have proven that measuring art to fit the will of the people is an undesireable target. But also contemporary coorporations between art and politics are suspicious: in our postmodern times elections appear as tv-shows and filmstars become president.

Is ‘art of the people’ created by generating large quantities of publicness? Is the democratic content of this art being validated by the demand to be consumed by as many spectators and in as many ways possible? In that case a straight forward esthetisation of urban space will suffice.

Or is the qualification ‘democratic art’ perhaps only applicable to the productionprocess of the work? In this case the production of ‘democratic art’, namely art ‘by the pepole’ undermines the autonomous model of the artist as autonomous producer as proposed by the avant garde.

Allthough the critical avant-garde exists thanks to an unbridgeable gap between art and totalitarian power it does not mean she is democratic: she is not the result of a well argumented consensus. This new alliance of art and politics is also countering political-economic directives of corporate and governemental bodies.

But ‘democratic art’ addresses more than just the artistic decission-making process; it also deals with redistributing imagination. Next to the question whose concerns are important and who has decissive power – artists, commissioners, the imperative of time and place, the targeted users and public of the work – it also raises questions about the experience of publicness. But if we take ‘consumers’ serious and ask for a specific concretisation of contemporary democratic art in public space, the borders of a modernist approach to art and politics are emerging.

Art as public space
The democratic potential of art in public space might be its capability to transform into public space. The artworks themselves include an interactive process of all those elements of which democratic culture is compiled: art sets publlicness in motion. Not an allready existing identity will be point of departure but an esthetic sensibility regarding time-space situated differences. Creating a sense of community fueled by material and conceptual reflection is necessary in order to gain insight in these diverse matters.

When democratic art means that everybody involved is participating, artists can at most obtain an initiating autonomy. With their esthetic sensibility and artistic vision they take part in a communal process in which publicness is practised. This political-esthetic interactivity in which also commissioners and worksmen are taking part, aims inevidably at a communal time-space experience. She can result in a work that reflects the practised publicness in a material specific way, no matter whether the result is a physical object, a socio-economical facility, a procedural structure or a temporary experienced collective imagination. Dureability of the identity is no longer a preset. The work itself changes the quality of the public space in which it is situated.

More then seeking its place, the artwork creates delocation of the spectator. By its reflectivity the work creates new spaces within the already existing ones, and by it’s ability to transform, democratic art can simultanously show itself as public art, the art of publicness and art as a public space.

* Henk Oosterling, De verbeelding van de openbare ruimte, Interakta #5, Grootstedelijke reflecties, over kunst en openbare ruimte.
Faculteit der Wijsbegeerte Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam, 2002