How public art asks for the potential of public space to be recognised by the public at large.
Earlier this year I attended a Figure Ground event organized by a trio of artists whose mutual interest lies in working in the public realm. The event brought together artists from across the South East to discuss the value of public art, why we felt the need to place art in the public realm and different ways to approach the problems associated with working in a public space. All the participants launched an investigation into a given section of Brighton center as part of a randomly selected group. The groups then began working in a way they felt was appropriate to them. The end products consisted of playful works responding to spaces we found exciting. One group whose work I particularly liked produced hidden pieces that were offered like gifts to those curious enough to follow the clues left behind to each mini exhibition.
All the groups were working on the time scale of an event and produced work that used ‘the present’ as an important factor in their presentation and over all concept. Even if the work carried on after the event, the work produced depended on the situation at hand and the instant and often playful decisions made by the artists. Working in the public realm means ‘being public’. By this, I mean that the artists worked through their ideas spontaneously and, as they were working, they were always in the public eye, as were the eventual products left behind. The remnants of the event invited viewers to react with a similar curiosity to the space, often repeating the idea that had created the work in the first place. The way the audience would find the work was by a chance encounter and, particularly in the case of the gift pieces, would require them to investigate the space in a similar way that the artists had.
This way of working attributes public spaces with an openness, making it available for chance meetings and conversations, or to simply pause in and enjoy. In and of itself, public space implies an ability to act publicly. In practice it is a thoroughfare for private individuals with no inclination or invitation to involve themselves. How ‘public’ public spaces really are, is highly questionable. They are full of private itineraries, to-do lists and self-monologues. In general there is a lack of ‘presentness’. This observable trend in our relationship to space reflects the social phenomena of the ascendancy of the private realm over the public.
For many reasons we do not see public spaces as truly open and accessible. We do not feel as comfortable in them as private spaces and find it hard to act as if we have any kind of ownership of them or responsibility for them. This can be put down to a culture of surveillance where our behavior in public space is constantly monitored and judged. It is also related to the over design of public spaces which does not allow them to be ‘loose’ or malleable in the way they are used. People do not approach them as spaces that they collectively own or belong to. In general the development of a more crowded, densely structured, chaotic urban existence has quickly changed the way we conceive of our relationship to space.
Yet if we were able to approach public spaces in a more open fashion they could be extremely interesting, dynamic places. If the ideal of public space is that it ‘belongs to all and yet to none’, there must be a certain level of chaos; if everyone is going to be ‘individuals’ together, absolute cohesion will may well not be the result. A space like this would be prime for chance encounters, difference and change. Our failure act publicly reflects our contemporary attitude to the public realm at large. To be able to truly ‘inhabit’ public spaces and approach spaces in a loose fashion depends not only on our attitude to creating new spaces or changing old ones, but also our conception of our individual relationship to public space and the others that share it.
Our attitude to public space is related to our perception of ourselves as individuals within a society and is illustrated how public or not we are or feel we can be. Being public is to be able to be physically,mentally and demonstratively present within a space. It is part of a certain kind of mind set or attitude to ‘being’; individual consciousness meeting external reality. To be more curious about space and to inhabit it playfully is to allow a certain amount of permeability between us as individuals and the external reality we live in. The private space of the individual has not only encroached upon public space – we carry it around with us like a shield from the external complexity of the urban environment – but it has also taken over our sense of time. We do not ‘inhabit’ these spaces, we simply move through them. Time, particularly in an urban setting, is divided up between getting to and from places we must be. The time in which we relax and are able to just ‘be’ in a present sense is done in private. We are not so involved with or comfortable within public space as we are in private space. This is in opposition to a mode of living that allows us to ‘play’ in public space the way the artists did at figure ground.
The pieces created at the Figure Ground event were small, fragile and temporary and yet had the ability to make an overlooked space ‘strange’, as Tadashi Kawmata has commented in reference to his own public works. These pieces distract the consciousness to focus on something external, to investigate and to concentrate on that present moment. This asks the viewer to experience space in a way that is overly conscious of the self and the details of their surroundings. This form of viewing is associated with looking at art, but not at everyday spaces. Making such unassuming, subtle pieces of work inspire a particular way of experiencing space that is not usually associated with everyday movement through public space. Advertisements placed in the street to grab our attention are purposefully intrusive and present us with bold statements. In contrast, the artwork produced in Brighton that day asked for heightened consciousness about the world we live in.
Experiencing the everyday world in this way is usually linked to artists, writers and philosophers. The amalgamation of such a character is personified in Colin Wilson’s ‘The Outsider’. This overly self-conscious persona is compiled from the life stories of many artists, poets, writers and thinkers. They are fanatical lovers of life conversely disillusioned by its tendency towards the everyday, tedium and pointless cruelty. A preoccupation with the condition of self-consciousness and the nature of being in oneself leads them to a constant search for purpose and clarity; for something worth doing. Joyous moments where the senses expand the consciousness into the vast limitlessness of being are fettered by self-doubt, indecisiveness and alienation.
These insights are ones that we can all relate to and are not only restricted to artists. An extreme and overt consciousness of one’s own individual being and the following existential angst can accompany any contemplation into the ultimate strangeness of the human condition. These self possessed characters have an overriding desire to live more and follow the mechanized tedium of everyday life less. Often the undoing of these characters is their inability to find a mode of self-expression they find acceptable to their own aspirations and therefore continue to be Outsiders despite their fervent wish to be understood and to connect positively with others. Trapped within a solipsistic prison, the most successful of the Outsider characters that Wilson presents are those that come closest to bridging this gap.
What each of the Outsiders strive for is a ‘continuous form of intensity’. This is when the external world’s becomes ‘all too real’; a positive reincarnation of Sartre’s nausea. This is described by Wilson as a ‘blazing of the senses’ in which the concentration of the consciousness is focused primarily on being in the present space and a simple experience becomes momentous. But the Outsider cannot maintain this mode of being. Those who came the closest went insane believing themselves to be God; they were living completely in the present where their will was mixed up with the outside world, but they were still inactive and alone.
Such moments of existence could be cultivated into everyday life through an art of living which is more experimental and in which the will and the imagination can be applied to the world. William Blake is presented by Wilson as a more successful Outsider due to his ability to find self-expression for his thoughts and ideas in a way that merged into his everyday life, beliefs and religion. Blake espoused the idea that ‘all men should posses the visionary faculty’ but fail to do so because they ‘live wrongly’. The cure is an ability to live more in the present; to pay more attention to it. Developed curiosity and desire for self-knowledge is an escape from non-fulfillment and boredom. Indeed to focus less on ‘getting and spending’ and more on living results in one being more connected with oneself and one’s surroundings. This encourages the ability to apply a more active will to that world in order to ‘praise in spite of’; to act publicly and become involved.
‘A horrible inside-outside’
How we envision the relationship between private and public spheres – and therefore the way in which we act in spaces designated to either camp – is related to the way in which we conceive of the barriers between our internal world of the mind and the external realm. It is not just how permeable those barriers really are in terms of thought and action, but with what attitude we regard them.
In his book, The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard wrote of the ‘intimate immensity’ created by our own self conscious relationship to the external world; ‘the sense of existence is immensely increased’. This is another way of expressing Sartre’s idea that ‘nothing expands inside being’. The realization of that which is infinitely vast outside oneself can lead to the terrifying realization of ones own singleness within the realm of time and space. That singularity, ones own self-conscious, can also become an entire universe. Through this ‘I’ we perceive and communicate with everything else. Yet that ‘I’ is had to quantify or to explain without that which is its other. Nothing and being are very closely related as much as they are opposites. As Bachelard puts it, existence is a ‘horrible inside outside’.
One can easily be lost in the ambiguity of existence or one can define a connectivity in which inside and outside are reliant on one another. Being lost within the vastness of consciousness is at the core of the Outsider’s problem of separation. They are plagued by self-doubt as they question themselves and their inability to connect with others. However this long course in self-doubt could perhaps lead to the eventual and more considered self-confidence to act. The positivity of temporarily being lost in the self is that it provides the opportunity to define the relationship between oneself and the world; a strengthening self retrospective mindset that is questioning and investigative.
The ideas and work created at the Figure Ground event show the artists creating connections spontaneously with others and the space they find themselves within. That connection is left open for others to take forward. The freedom to ‘play’ in public space and invite others to do so is a positive demonstration of our ability to act and to have a sense of connected ownership of public space.
Wilson writes of the power of ‘Yea-saying’; a positive, poetic expression of experiencing participate joy and super-sensitivity to life. In the same way that Blake’s ‘visions’ were as much a part of reality for him as anything else, the work produced at the Figure Ground Event in Brighton connected internal reality with external reality. A collectively imagined will created a public space where it was previously lacking. Things are both less and more real.