LISTEN | Engagement in Public Art

Posted on 03/04/2012


I’ve attended two events in the past week addressing different public art initiatives. The first was an introduction to data art in the built environment and the second was a curator and artists’ talk about public artworks in a recently completed revitalisation project. Both revealed some of the contestation that is occurring with public art, indicating that aspects of process do not meet some expectations, be those of artists or community. Those issues emerged during more informal exchanges within the events rather than as part of formal presentations.

At the seminar on data art, I was informed that a project in development was free from the usual constraints of public art commissioning such as constraints of site, materials and the like as this did not suit artists. Seemingly these projects can transcend the constraints of all urban and physical space. A scaleable tool is also in development that will mean data art can be introduced more readily into the built environment. Exactly who this tool is for and the design process used to create it is unclear, as I don’t have all the information about this, but it apparently solves a/the problem of public art commissioning. The project is also building up to a series of commissions in several capital cities that will see direct engagement of public artists by developers in the production of informational artworks, perhaps curatorless. In Brisbane, the site will be one of cultural, scientific and social significance, currently undergoing revitalisation, in a part of town that is earmarked for further intensive development.

While there’s always room for new approaches of commissioning public art as part of an urban ecology, is it fair to assume that we have a detailed picture of all of those processes? What are those public art commissioning processes really doing to and saying about public art and the urban environment? Innovation is essential for dynamic urban environments. However, the idea of a commissioning process as a critique of all other public art commissioning seemed overstated, especially if the issue is that an emerging artform is experiencing difficulty in gaining traction and curatorial recognition in urban development projects. Or perhaps it is the curatorial process that is under critical scrutiny. Zoom out and there’s a group of people around a table telling a public art curator that they are driven by bottom line, supply chain and risk. Some longitudal study, rather than case studies, might tell the project managers and accountants, who are bottom line aware and risk averse, that these works are enduring. There are enough comparable projects in the world now that indicate this is so.

Curators also formulate briefs, often through their own intense engagement with the historical, social and environmental dynamics of place, often through the lens of other consultations and collaborations with designers. Sometimes, they play their own word games in a curatorial or conceptual brief to imbue richness and texture. In the curator and artists’ talk, an exchange between curator, Council officer and community member highlighted a desire on the part of the local community to be involved in the selection process of major artworks. Citizen juries about public art are not usual practice, but they have happened. At times like this, we see public art as a civic matter, rather than a purely curatorial one. Curating, then, has a civic role to play.

Both incidents highlight perceptions that the processes of public art are not flexible or inclusive and that public art curators, in particular, are unaccountable in their process design. Maybe that’s a fair comment but let’s also put that in the context of other built environment activity and urban ecologies, including the information ecology of ubiquitous computing. Listening to the curator talk about her part in the revitalisation redevelopment, I felt the contagion of her enthusiasm and passion. I’ve never sat in room where, during a slide show of artworks, the audience gasped in seeming awe; the data art seminar, where incredibly complex and nuanced works were shown, elicited approving nods and tweets.

One of the artworks in the revitalisation project was intended as an enduring and iconic statement of place. However, it was particularly contentious and prompted a raft of complaints after installation; it’s too easy, though, to focus on the conflict rather than the overwhelming success of that entire revitalisation project. In the end the community member was simply asking for inclusion in the decision making process. “Couldn’t the community have voted on what we want as our landmark?” she asked. Reference groups aren’t always the answer, especially if they meet in closed rooms with little connection to the broader community, again a seeming absence of accountability. While the complaint wasn’t well handled by the Council officer, there is an opportunity to explore this further and to reach other kinds of understandings with communities. In my own work, I try not to miss opportunities to listen, even at the end of a process there’s something to be learned. This is participation design 101 – people need to have some influence in how they are to be engaged (process), as well as some influence in the final result or change sought (content).

Increasingly, communities are expecting deeper engagements in the processes that shape their places (and yes it is impossible to please everyone). This is a core principle of community wellbeing and sustainability. It seems like it’s not enough to undertake ethnographic studies, demographic profiling and cultural mapping in design and public realm projects anymore. People want more ownership than those processes can offer and there is a need to think about that end in the making of places. It’s not easy either as contemporary art is rarely a platform of consensus building, yet can be a site of diverse interaction. Engagement doesn’t need to be in the making of artworks – though in some instances it is essential – and perhaps it needs to be in the broad vision of making a place, not just in an inquiry by design process but the social and learning dimensions of decision making. The curator and artists’ talk served the purpose of drawing people into the story of that project and gave them insight into how they happened to be there. That is also vital communication and engagement. Interestingly, as we walked the trail of artworks, people always asked what the works were made of – the material of the objects assumed some significance – and brushed the works with welcoming strokes.

Obviously all kinds of conversations occur during a building process. It is also apparent that all kinds of conversations need to happen throughout a public art commissioning process as it is embedded in urban design, urban planning and architecture, especially if the objective is ‘to bring people with us’ through periods of change and innovation. Could those conversations happen at points along the way? Are curatorial methodologies sufficently flexible to accommodate multiple engagements? In curating artworks, is there a need to also curate experience? These two events highlight that the public is interested in the kinds of public conversations that are possible with public artworks, their process and their creators. The key word here is conversation – a polyvocal, learning and relational process – rather than a one way process that casts the public as audience or meshes them in implicit participation (i.e. source of data). And also conversation in the sense of synoikismos, the ancient process of city-making through agreeing to live together in dialogue.

What’s going on here, I hope, is a deeper investigation of public art and the opportunities that it can create for places and people, a realisation that the horizon is open to consider what public art and curatorial methodology can be or become. By example, Curating Cities shifts this inquiry into a research proposition where public art is foundational to new methodologies of city making and urban living. More needs to be done differently to engender radical disruption to seemingly normative approaches to design, art, place and community.

Posted in: public art