The Provocations of Art in Public Space

Werner Fenz

To begin with, it would seem that the only way to counter the kind of fashionable tendencies that tend to dominate this repeatedly revived discourse is to point out that art in public space has little to do with stylistic criteria and much more to do provoking a culture of communication among those it confronts, triggered by the integration of artistic statements into the midst of everyday lives.

In larger and smaller conglomerations in the urban space that is occupied each year - both on an aesthetic level, on the space\\\\'s "outer skin", and on the political level, through rigorous systems and rules, including its own surveillance - an artistic language emerges that neither reproduces standards nor meets the yellow press\\\\'s demands for the "design of urban space". Though unjustly classified as timid, this language becomes a necessary tool for initiating a re-evaluation process that is at least partially successful. It is a language that is independent and committed against the backdrop of the revitalized, reconstructed and reconceived facades and the spatial bodies behind them, one that, amidst the private sphere\\\\'s ongoing infiltration of the public realm, takes part in constructing a reality beyond the deliberately created standards; that is vigorous and convinced of the need for action.
In the context of the contemporary tendency to speak of art more in terms of attitudes and artistic positions than, as was the case earlier, in terms of specific forms, art in public space, with its methodological approaches, is at the fore: Provided that, as national and international examples testify, sculpture, as an art form that can be put up everywhere, has disappeared pars pro toto from the repertoire. One can state without exaggeration that productions in public space are continuing to become more critical. This development should come as no surprise, given that such works involve placing signs with an informational character in front of a "screen" that is – very important – anything but neutral.

Revisiting Der Bevölkerung (To the Population), 1999/2000) by Hans Haacke - just one of several noteworthy examples - we see that the work would have made no sense whatsoever if it did not include people at their workplaces in the Bundestag in Berlin - that is, the elected holders of political mandates in Germany. For this project the words "Der Bevölkerung" were written in glowing letters in a tub in the northern atrium of the former Reichstag building. They allude to the dedication "Dem deutschen Volke" ("To the German People"), which was inscribed in the tympanum. Using this word over the building\\\\'s main entrance in 1916, Haacke wanted to correct the text since the parliamentarians are not responsible to some "mythical people", but to all residents of the Federal Republic of Germany, non-Germans included. Although a commission of respected art experts unanimously supported the project, long and heated debates were necessary before it was able to secure a majority by a narrow margin of two votes in the Bundestag. In order to formally implement the project and make it a firm fixture of the parliament, each of the 669 Bundestag members were asked to bring one centner (fifty kilograms) of earth, including seeds and roots, from their electoral districts and place this mixture in the twenty-one-meter tub. The appeal, which was not heeded by all (some even responded with sardonic remarks), remains in force for new Bundestag members elected since. From the outset, Hans Haacke, who is one of the most important "political artists" currently working, envisaged this concept - which some art critics regarded as too "earthy" - as a process. It is associated with additional connotations inherent to the main topic of visually illustrated responsibility.

Processes such as those addressed here have been developed for public space and only function across their full spectrum within this space. Their aim is not exclusively the strictly defined matrices that serve as departure points in media and computer art for the continuing interactive work of the audience.
But what accounts for the orientation toward process-based actions in public art?
Proceeding from the fact that only a small section of the political public takes note of people with an immigrant background or recognizes their services, Croatian artist Kristina Leko designed and carried out a project called Missing Monuments in 2007 at the invitation of the Institute for Art in Public Space Styria. Responding to the status quo in Graz, where parks have more than their share of monuments, particularly busts, honoring the great sons of the city (and only in exceptional cases its esteemed daughters), Leko broke with tradition and turned the spotlight on people who had immigrated to Graz and were still alive. In the city she sought out allies who could tell her about the concrete situation there. Her motive in this context went beyond the fact that she herself was a "foreigner". From the outset Leko wanted to have other people select the subjects and also create the bust portraits - people who possessed important knowledge about Graz. At a workshop with the five women and men who selected the subjects, David Smithson, an experienced sculptor, helped with the manual process of creating the five missing monuments. Furthermore, Leko gathered information at a biography workshop and inscribed it on the bases of these monuments. The concept was thus implemented using "allotted roles" over a period of several weeks. The choice of a traditional bust form as opposed to a modern "translated" symbol made it easier for the participants and the honored individuals to identify with the concept, the work and the outcome without being distracted by the struggle with a new artistic language. Furthermore, during the temporary installation in the courtyard of Landhaus (where the Styrian parliament is situated), politicians were offered the opportunity to make a comparison with the more familiar symbols of remembrance - a comparison that was the project\\\\'s deliberate goal.

Whereas Missing Monuments made an important contribution at the social level and, in terms of its artistic contribution, had little to do with the dependence on a formal set of rules or foregrounded system-immanent inventions, another project provides us with the opportunity to examine another form of artistic process – a process in a long term. In 2008, the Styrian government and parliament decided to publicly recall the National Socialist abuse of power embodied by Sigfried Uiberreither, the one-time provincial governor and Gauleiter of Styria. Jochen Gerz dedicated himself to this task in response loan invitation from the Institute for Art in Public Space Styria. In the first part of his work he had questions inscribed into the arch of medieval Burgtor (castle gate), and the effect is as if Uiberreither himself is addressing passers-by. The questions confront us with the responsibility to intervene in the "course of things" and draw on the courage that has been all but lost.
In the following art step 63 Jahre danach (63 Years After), Gerz began a work process with the public that evolved over the course of several months. Using the word "interactivity" to describe his method would not only be imprecise but wrong - wrong because so-called interactivity has become a tired term that has lost all its expressive power due to its use in all possible contexts. Rather, what Gerz did was screen the public and integrate key groups and institutions -academics, politicians and readers - into a multistage process. Their collaboration took place on the (print) media level. He won over the Kleine Zeitung, one of the two large newspapers in Graz, for an extensive, engaged media partnership. This was the only way in which he could put his concept into action. Everyday photographs from the Nazi period were selected by academics from different academic disciplines and published in several installments. Readers were then asked to select the ones they considered the best. All the regional parliamentarians were persuaded to compose texts for the photos. Finally, twenty-four text/image combinations were selected, of which twelve were to be displayed in Styria and twelve in Graz at locations chosen by readers. This type of approach makes the artist into a kind of director who ensures that the course of the process is followed and his plans are carried out. The art form was reconcilable with the form of communication, and the participants saw themselves confirmed in their roles as actors who did more than provide a foundation for a complex aesthetic creation. Nevertheless, the art revealed itself as nothing less than art, even if, in this visually stripped-down form, it reached the limits of what many view as art.

Involving the Neighbors in a Process Projects in public space also function as initiatives that explore the immediate environment and the possibilities it offers to a defined target group. Some are highly successful, others enjoy moderate success. This is a legitimate interest on the part of art, and the approach makes sense and is acceptable to the groups involved if the information flow exists and their willingness is clarified. The work done by artists in youth centers in Styria - including the ongoing series of Freizeichen (Free Signals) projects that have been carried out by the < rotor > association since 2008 – pre-supposes the support of important players in society. The work with this young segment of the public, which has proved to be anything but homogenous despite its seeming homogeneity, requires, most of all, the willingness to hold out for the long run, to respond to young people\\\\'s interests and requests and to motivate activity after the "warm-up phase". The association is currently involved in a project in Graz called Annenviertel! Die Kunst des urbanen Handelns (Annen Quarter! The Art of Urban Action), and it is enjoying support from the resident population. In a special way, this project reflects the paradigm shift in art in public space. "What is the Annen Quarter?" the organizers asked. "Actually, it\\\\'s an invention, a fiction! Until recently there was no district with this name in Graz. The Annen Quarter essentially has no precisely defined borders. It is an open field in which current urban issues and ideas can be negotiated." Even these briefly outlined thoughts on the project clearly express the communication process.
A more or less comparable offensive was launched by the project Schönes Wohnen, in which six artists/artist groups visit five housing developments (small, medium-sized and large) in Graz in fall 2010. As might be expected, the project Schönes Wohnen (Good Living) , which involved six artists and artist duos working in five Graz housing estates with different structural profiles, produced divergent approaches. I will show you two examples in the Grünangersiedlung, This housing estate in the south of the city attracted particular interest, possibly because even when merely passing through the area a pronounced social gradient is clearly in evidence. The inhabitants live in simple, standard dwellings, and most of them make an effort to shape the small area available to them according to their own tastes. The artist Sonja Gangl assembled a kind of “regulars’ table” consisting of two concrete benches, a concrete table and a conventional hardware store roof construction. Her idea was to create a meeting point for those who had no or little room to get together socially in their front gardens. A group of young people “from outside” very quickly claimed the site for themselves with all the usual consequences – excessive alcohol consumption, noise and litter. The second project took a very hands-on yet also symbolic approach. Ines Doujak planted ruderals inside an outline representing the Apple Man fractal developed by chaos theory, creating a bed that rather than being attributed a practical use was in most cases categorized as foreign and adversarial. With her Wild Seeds and their “descriptive” names the artist addresses the general, problematic reputation of the Grünangersiedlung often conveyed by the media, describing it as it really is but also questioning it. Who judges other people and divides them into “good and bad”? And who has the right to do so? Even if some people refuse to believe it, art is an effective tool to add that something extra to a basic configuration. There will and cannot be convenient upgrades, but it is certainly within the realm of possibility to initiate thought processes and create communication among residents. Project of this kind carry the risk of failure – which, even if unuttered, is anchored in every reflective consciouness.

The Train Compartment as a Process-"Subject" Christoph Perl set in motion a communication process that was not directly based on concrete personal encounters and was structured in layers. He called it Nahverkehr (Public Transportation), which perfectly captures its subject matter. For one week, writers, photographers, academics and visual artists mixed with passengers in railway stations and commuter trains. Their journeys amidst this more or less anonymous group resulted in the production of texts and images that originated in the spaces of mutual travel "with the other" and of movement to a destination. The physical proximity lends the person sitting in the opposite seat an importance that is just as great as the landscape, the starts and stops of the train, and the embarkations and disembarkations of other passengers. All of these experiences are striking to the "beginner" but not to an old hand of the daily commute. Withdrawn positions - reading, sleeping, learning - contrast with communicative ones that are well suited to initiating a talk. During the times when the artists were present observing, researching and carefully posing their questions, routines, mostly monotonous during this stage of the day, were linked to art and culture. The substance of the project was subsequently deepened when the traces of the artistic process were interpreted in a publication that contained all the contributions and was smuggled back into the spaces of public transit. In a cautious and communicative manner, the book set out to arouse the curiosity of everyday travelers after the interest of "art travelers" had been stirred. What unknown book is the person next to me reading? He or she suddenly offers it to me. Or: Now that he or she) has gotten off the train and left the book behind, let me take a peek. Using this subtle method of creating encounters, Christoph Perl (together with his relate network) began a model process in which the boundaries of art and its reception are meaningfully and necessarily dissolved.

One must also keep in mind that art does not establish a presence in public space on the basis of its monumentality, provocation only or a form that is immediately revealed as artistically grand. Recognition of this point would silence many false arguments -for example, that art has been presented in a space of the wrong category or that there is actually no reason to install art in this strange space in the first place. After all: art is not presented in the space under discussion; it is produced especially for it. Furthermore, it would be rash, precipitant and irresponsible to surrender this public space, without a fight, to the advertising agencies and event managers, to the inventors of ever-new proclamatory media and objects (such as illuminated two-storey advertising pillars).

By initiating a process of debate, communication and joint work on what are perhaps unusual or surprising concepts, art has recently managed to re-conquer an important sociopolitical sphere – public space – which no other visual or audio media can claim for themselves today, even if there are fears that the art work is not „true art“ or nothing visible will remain of many projects over a long term.

 
 



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