Being Public about Public Art
By Mark Amery
“Can you have a public art conference without a public?” briefly jostled the rambunctious Director of Artspace Adnan Yildiz, or words to that effect, as he introduced a panel discussion with three of the winners of this year’s 2015 International Award for Public Art at Auckland University on July 3.
It was day three of conference Cities in a Climate of Change: Public Art Environmental and Social Ecologies, co-hosted by Elam School of Fine Arts and China’s Shandong University of Art and Design, overseen by the Institute for Public Art. The panel subject: ‘what are the politics of audience for public art’.
It was a brief moment of criticism of this otherwise excellent conference’s exclusive membership. Many over its five days muttered to me “where are the…” about the absence of various sectors of interested parties from the (at best) half full lecture theatres. The irony wouldn’t have been lost on most: much discussion was about models for engaging more openly with community.
The politics of audience for a public art conference swing around the interests of the academic system. Fees to attend for even a few sessions were high, certainly outside the budget range of artists or curators not being funded by their place of employment. This was something acknowledged by the organisers in the process, receiving late in the day a Creative New Zealand grant to offer subsidies (allowing my attendance representing public art organisation Letting Space). It remained difficult - the conference was notable for the paucity of New Zealand artists, independent curators, architects, designers, and even students.
Why expect more from an academic conference? Why bother even writing about it?
Well, firstly this was an extraordinary programme, smartly curated and well organised, bringing to New Zealand from around the world artists and thinkers who are changing the way we think about art’s relationship to society and the environment. Below I briefly share some of that work.
Secondly: universities need to consider how they might better enable through funding and PR their vital public role with conferences like this. There could be no better advertisement for their value and to affirm the work of their teachers than filling seats for such events.
I must say that, around the edges of this structure the organisers really did work it. There was an exhibition of descriptions of the 32 semi-finalists in the Auckland Art Gallery foyer, and two brilliant public lectures. For the first the heart lifted to enter St James Theatre heaving for the Auckland Conversations series (e-cast here). As the rise of Writers Festivals has made clear, there’s an increasing appetite for the public conversation that parallels the rise of an art that demands more public participation.
The guest was American curator Mary Jane Jacob, an eloquent leading exponent of socially-engaged art, connecting wide-ranging projects across the globe. Answering the title ‘Public art - what is it good for?’ Jacob spoke to art as a catalyst for social change and its need to be open to have its effect. She introduced the vision of philosopher and education reformer John Dewey in Chicago 100 years ago, who saw art as having a restorative job to do in making meaning in the world, creating empathy through understanding experiences different than your own, helping build a democracy.
Mainly though she let a roll call of great projects answer the question. She had the same approach a day before in her keynote opening the conference. My favourite: Katie Paterson’s Future Library in Oslo. A forest of 1000 trees was planted in 2014 and, every year for the next 100 a writer is being commissioned (the first Margaret Atwood) to write a text. The texts won’t be published however until 100 years time (2114) when the trees are harvested to provide the paper for the book.
Friday night saw a presentation at Auckland Art Gallery by Japanese artist Jun Kitazawa, 2015 Elam International Artist in Residence who creates remarkable projects to enable communities to create their own collective creative happenings. For Unreal City Estate Kitazawa has been working with students and the public to create a faux real estate agency (established in George Fraser Gallery) dividing up and leasing parcels of Auckland’s Albert Park as part of an imaginary city, where people pay rental through their creative visions for exchange rather than money. On Sunday, the temporary tenants were due collectively to realise the city in the park.
The first day of the conference particularly would have benefited from being more open to the public – focusing on presentations by four of the 2015 finalists of the International Public Art Award and a previous winner. Our guests were visionaries from Venezuela, India, America, Hong Kong and Christchurch (our own Gapfiller for Pallet Pavilion). Previously on Radio New Zealand National Kathryn Ryan spoke to Dawn Weleski of finalists Conflict Kitchen (a Pittsburg eatery that features food from countries America is at war with).
You felt for the likes of the astonishing 78-year-old Spaniard Josep Pujiula Vila, who had come all the way from the tiny village of Argelaguer in Catalonia, Spain. Over the last 50 years in his spare time Josep has devoted himself to the construction of an environment on public land now known as the Cabins of Argelaguer, featuring enormous towers and labyrinths made out of willow saplings, and other artworks from recycled materials (this amazing story told here).
Winner of the award for ‘Talk to Me’, Jasmeen Patheja from Bangalore inspires for having since 2003 based her participatory work across diverse media around a singular important social concern– sexual violence and the treatment of women in public space. She founded Blank Noise a community of individuals or ‘action heroes’ performing smart actions in public where art meets activism. We heard for example about ‘Hahaha Sangha’, a women’s only public laughter space (enjoy watching here).
Talk to Me is a simple but beautiful and finely tuned performance in which the Action Heroes were asked to sit at tables for a full hour with a stranger and engage in conversation about anything other than sexual violence. The tables stretched along a short roadway with the nickname in Bangalore of ‘Rapists Lane’.
Stories on all the finalists feature at Forecast Public Art.
Significant keynotes were provided by Philip Tinari, Director of Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art Beijing (on the dramatic changes in Chinese art 1979 to 2015), and the quite brilliant Owen Hatherley, a British writer concerned with the politics of architecture, urban space and popular culture (British architectural modernism and social housing).
Amongst the many international guests: stating that artists are like earthworms, aerating and enriching the soil, American Helen Lessick is working with soil health through art and community in the America and Nigeria, and Melbournite Jen Rae the riparian margins along rivers vital to the restoration of our polluted waterways (The Riparian Project). Diane Dever is giving innovative space to the community through art in Folkestone, England a town prominently employing art in its revitalisation, and Amelia Brown’s Emergency Arts explores the agency of art projects in disaster relief, including New Orleans post-Katrina. With three parallel sessions happening at once we were spoilt for choice, and places to sit.
There was little talk of sculpture in the sessions I attended. What the award finalists, and the general tenor of the presentations reaffirmed was that the focus of contemporary art in public spaces is shifting quickly to ephemeral work that actively asks how it can empower communities, enable social change and contribute at a time of crises.
The final keynote was by the erudite New Zealand filmmaker and professor Bruce Sheridan now based in Chicago who has this year been a Creative Thinking fellow at the University of Auckland. Connecting advances in neuroscience and philosophy to art and education Sheridan made a case for doing away with binary thinking (like irrational/rational), to consider creativity as a whole brain function. He put forward that it's our embeddedness as a ‘we’ first, rather than as solitary genii that drives creativity - our collaborative and improvisational instincts, and constant movement experiencing our environment. Encouraging the fields of urban design, education and art to cross-pollinate, Sheridan notes that when children go into make-believe they don’t abandon the real world they apply it, extending its possibilities.