2006. Theo Tegelaers. ART IN PUBLIC AREAS


The Art responsible for architecture and public spaces in the first half of the 20th century provided new forms of life and was very utopian in nature. It was connected to visionary forms of social life and it tried to serve people as best possible. For example, we have the Monument to the Third International by Tatlin, a man who was convinced that art should have a primarily social function and purpose. The artist Constant designed the utopian city of New Babylon, where man could live in a society without hunger, without exploitation, without work as well, a society, therefore, where every person could develop their creativity to the full. This was a place where man would no longer have to work. Instead, citizens would lead a nomadic existence following their leanings.

Situationism was based along those lines and it aimed to remove the barrier separating art from life. It heralded a community free of bureaucracy, in a city that would be formed by its inhabitants’ preferences and longings, a dynamic and changing city full of the poetry of sounds, aromas, tastes and colours.
Two important models within the situationist trend are “psychogeography” and “détournement”. Psychogeography consists of rethinking or “mapping” districts, cities, intersections and networks based on certain previously determined desires or aspirations. They went for walks, letting themselves get carried away figuratively and sometimes literally by their sense of smell, doing what was called “dérive”, drifting. These aimless urban itineraries undertaken by people in tune with each other served as a basis for changing the map. Wilfried Hou Je Bek (see socialfiction.org) is currently exploiting these theories. The aspiration to discover what is hidden in a city, without any aims or prejudices, still exists. Routes whose purpose is to discover or rediscover the public area to uncover phenomena immersed in that space is what has led Social Fiction to start their Psychogeographical project.

By “détournement” (diverting) we understand the twisting of pre-existing texts, works of art and compositions. The distortion of texts, images and commercial and media messages produces confusion in culture and in society. This tactic also has its contemporary variant called culture jamming, the reordering of data and images. Those who design stickers use methods with the same starting point: they manipulate codes, slogans and logotypes to mislead ordinary people. That is why Wilfried Hou Je Bek says that culture jamming is a marketing strategy.

Choosing art for public spaces has been in the hands of experts and those in the know for many years (since the seventies). This prevented public opinion from having a decisive role in that choice. On the contrary, art served to instruct and enlighten the people. That policy has resulted in public art that often yields to the demands of its surroundings, where it gives the impression of impotence, as if it were shouting out that art is a medium incapable of changing reality. Furthermore, works of art that are closely linked with architecture or with specific social or cultural groups, and which, therefore, ignore all the rest, tend to favour the privatisation of the public domain.

At the moment we can observe many situations where the artist is invited to use his artistic skill without this meaning that any power will rub off onto him. The artist is expected to analyse the environment, submit his analysis and think in terms of solving problems: often plastic and visual capacity is confused with the artist’s conceptual and organisational skills. In those cases, social processes form part of the work and they are a way to satisfy the population’s desires and to bring about a common end. With this pretence of a co-decision-making process and taking advantage of the willingness to come to an agreement, the general public is made an accomplice in solving spatial and urban areas by means of artistic projects. The result is often timid interactions leading to very little art.
We would need to ask ourselves if artists should take part in these decision-making processes or if they should abstain from them. Because the desire for art to be an integral part of society as a whole, and for works of art to be a creative result of certain social processes, strips Art of its appropriate independent and uncommitted nature. Art’s strength lies precisely in the unexpected and the irrational.

In other projects, they try to provoke “authentic” experiences. This often leads to adorning the environment, making it prettier, given that it is impossible to give every passer-by an “authentic” experience at any time of day. The developers’ desire is to give the environment some authenticity. Artists are asked to demonstrate originality in an environment that already lacks any naturalness. That is why asking for an “authentic experience” does not seem sincere. Within that reality there is no place for nature in the strict sense of the term, which is considered unmanageable in the feasible community we intend to attain. Consequently, we have actually dismissed faith in authenticity.

Should Art be part of what is real and should it therefore address authority and governors? Is it not precisely this pre-existing reality that disturbs plans for renewal and experiments with public spaces? And is not the reality we dream of the price we pay for that, does it not make us dispense with futurist visions? Or should the general public predominate? Because public space is the general public’s space. But a work of art made for “the general public” presupposes that there is a homogenous public, while what we call “the general public” is rather a very mixed conglomerate of social and ethnic groups with opposing interests and desires.

In the Anglo-Saxon tradition, “public art” derives its right to exist from the interaction between authorities and the general public.
According to this social pattern, art does not try to achieve a consensus. Instead it exposes the general public to contradictions, conflicts and discussions. Different groups of people organise and finance “their” works of art, thus demonstrating “their” presence in the common area and making “their” cultural and social position visible.

This manner of thinking results in “community art” or projects in which self-organisation plays an important part. Factors are also combined here, such as urbanism, social movements and plastic arts, and the question of when the activity of some individuals starts to form part of the common area and the urban environment is not asked at an administrative level. Instead the interested parties turn it directly into specific events. Often they are marginalised social activities or phenomena that escape the limitations of regulations on public spaces. These projects arise from the need to get involved in the current and future aspect of one’s own metropolis. The desire to feel safe and protected, to tidy up degraded common areas and to increase a district’s or neighbourhood’s self-esteem. If art does not itself become responsible for social and economic issues, which often have a great deal of influence on the way in which the area is urbanised, the decisions on those issues will continue to be in the hands of the authorities in power at that time. In that case, and even if the authorities demonstrate good will, the interests created and short-term thinking can lead to a dreadful result.

Art was –and still is- something that authorities offer, but far too often without paying any attention to urban needs and completely ignoring the general public. Only art explicitly involved in the public space and with social groups forming the community together deserves to be called “public art”.

I would like to finish with the words of the Dutch artist Marc Bijl:
“The rules in public space lie in your hands. Try to avoid any disturbance of public domain.”
“Be good to other people in this area or get into fights with them. It’s up to you. It’s public space; a jungle of freedom. Be careful. Take care.”

Theo Tegelaers
Curator and adviser on artistic projects

Siebe Thissen, Over openbare kunst; 2004
Jeroen Boomgaard, Kunst gevangen tussen authenticiteit en constructie; Open 4, 2003