E is for Public Art

| March 31, 2014

In Chapter two of “Education for Socially Engaged Art,” Helguerra speaks of multi-layered participatory structures, stating “Arguably, all art is participatory because it requires the presence of a spectator; the basic act of being there in front of an artwork is a form of participation.” He goes on to establish a taxonomy, which unfolds like a spectrum with nominal audience participation on one pole (rigid binary between artist and audience), and more collaborative participation (blurred lines between artist and audience) on the other. Helguerra also cites Habermas’ work on “communicative action,” and he parses what art concerned with social action can do to effect the public sphere. I rehash these points merely to establish a jumping-off point for a little thought exercise I wanted to conduct.

I’ve been thinking on these dual spectra of participation and  “public-ness” as they pertain to “art”, and where they intersect/disconnect. To explore this relationship, I thought of mapping these spectra against each other as intersecting axes. So I created a grid and started populating it with different kinds of traditional/unconventional aesthetic events/experiences, just to move this forward.

Here’s where it took me. I’ll elaborate upon several of the more interesting examples.

Thinking first of the most public but least participatory art, I thought of the most common art in public space, those  commissioned works of ‘proper’ art which fill our urban spaces, in a way that’s inviting, but not-too-inviting. They are carefully-selected and scrutinized by committee (be that private/corporate or by a bureaucratic public entity) to “enrich” public space, by imposing an object of high culture upon the unwashed masses.  They maintain the authoritative aesthetic distance of a curated museum, but they occupy (dominate?) public space.  I think mostly of obtuse, modernist or neo-classical public sculptures that seem to ‘become’ the landscape, seldom consciously affecting the public. This would occupy the extreme of the passive + public quadrant.

Boring fountain sculpture on 6th Ave. Nobody even really notices it, other than for its utility as a bench.

Still occupying the extreme end of the public spectrum, but slightly further towards the ‘participatory,’ would be graffiti. It occupies public space, but seems to engage the audience on a populist level, both in technique and content. Graffiti often says “this is the word of the people” with an aesthetic technique  that says “you can do this, too! Grab some paint!” Graffiti is often political, or at the least, anti-authoritative. A newer school of graffiti, in the age of Banksy and Co., tends to take on subversive meta-aesthetic questions in public spaces.  While I was in Québec for Spring Break, I saw this stenciled onto a museum, of all places:

N'est-ce pas?

Following Magritte, our guerilla artiste prods us to question what exactly constitutes “graffiti”, and what is ‘authorized’ public art.

Pushing further right towards the participatory would be public art installations that encourage “play”. There is still a divide in the artist/audience binary, but its considerably blurred. If we look at the “Play Me, I’m Yours” series, where the city installs playable pianos in public parks around NYC, who is the “artist”, and who is the “audience”? Furthermore, what is the “art”? Is the art the installation itself, or the music from the players? Looking to the artist’s statement, we see his position:

Play Me, I'm Yours!

Touring internationally since 2008, Play Me, I’m Yours is an artwork by British artist Luke Jerram. Reaching over six million people worldwide – more than 1,300 pianos have already been installed in 43 cities across the globe, from New York to London, bearing the simple instruction ‘Play Me, I’m Yours’.

Located in public parks, bus shelters and train stations, markets and even ferries the pianos are available for any member of the public to play and enjoy. Who plays them and how long they remain on the streets is up to each community. Many pianos are personalised and decorated by artists or the local community. By creating a place of exchange Play Me, I’m Yours invites the public to engage with, activate and take ownership of their urban environment.

I was thinking about what lies even further to the right, and I remembered my experiences with Improv Everywhere, a group that creates scenarios in public space that cause the unsuspecting public to question the very premises of public propriety. Their interventions can read as ‘stunts’ at worst, and good-natured aesthetic provocations at best. Although sophomoric and juvenile on paper, the No Pants Subway Ride,” now in its 14th iteration, can induce a very surreal and uncanny effect on an unknowing public.  With most of the pieces (‘operations’) executed by IE, the ‘art’ itself is not the premise/conception by the ringleaders, nor is it the execution of the operation by the ‘agents’, but it is the interplay that ensues between the agents and the public. An unwitting co-creation ensues, often to comic effect, that leads us to question our mutual expectations of performance in public space.

And at the furthest extreme of participatory, we can put Burning Man, although the notion of what constitutes “public” becomes problematized.  Burning Man is a counter-public, with an entry fee (as are rock festivals). Highly participatory, and highly public, but with a significant caveat.

As for the rest of the grid, I’ve put some examples of art-for-public-consumption that takes place in mediated spaces. I’m thinking of museums, theater, and other restricted performance venues, where the binary between artist and audience is rigidly maintained.

In the lower right quadrant (private, participatory), I placed “classes” — that is, those classes one pays for to learn how to move from audience/spectator to artist/performer. This seems to me to be the quadrant where “arts education” is most likely to be situated. This is where we have participatory education, like band classes, art classes, dance classes, etc. (Art History and Music Appreciation still take place on the other side, though.) I tried to imagine counterexamples in other quadrants, but it led me to the classic hermeneutic wormhole of what exactly constitutes “education”. If everything can be education, then does it mean anything?

This exercise was merely a response to a very simple impulse, and I may be barking up the wrong analytic tree. I’d love to further poke at this dynamic, so feel free to suggest other ways of looking at the relationship between participation and social/public engagement if you’re so inclined.