Research text developed on the basis of a curatorial roundtable in March 2017 on the concept, place and value of Expanded Art in public space today.
The text compiles a mix of discussion quotes, comments, theoretical reflections, and prepared statements by roundtable participants and the audiences. The discussion was recorded.
Trude Schjelderup Iversen, Senior Curator at Kunst i Offentlige Rum (KORO)
Sissel Lillebostad, Curator, Writer and Artist
Geir Haraldseth, Director of Rogaland Kunstsenter
Hege Tapio, Director of i/o/lab Stavanger
Daniela Arriado, Director of Screen City Moving Image Biennial
Merete Jonvik, Sociologist and Researcher at IRIS (cultural sociology, art reception)
Tanya Toft, Curator and Head of Research, Screen City Biennial
Ernesto Bautista, Artist
Samson Kambalu, Artist
Mari Rossavik, Head of Productions Screen City Biennial
Martyn Reed, Founder and Director of Nuart Festival, Stavanger
James Finucane, Festival Manager of Nuart Festival, Stavanger
The Value of Expanded Art in Public Space
Dedicated to urban public space, most of the artworks presented in the framework of the Screen City Biennial unfold in the urban context – in 2017, under the theme Migrating Stories, the Biennial program particularly takes up Vågen, the harbor of Stavanger. The aim of this curatorial roundtable was to invite and address local issues relating to the art’s expansion into public space as a point of departure for examining and discussing this topic throughout the Biennial’s program. Participants were invited from different disciplines with projects and artistic methodologies relating to public space – art history and artistic production, sociology, urbanism, politics, and the Norwegian public art funding system – and included representatives from the major art institutions in Stavanger and in Norway dealing with art in public space, including the Article Biennial, i/o/lab, Nuart, The Norwegian Association of Curators, and the Screen City Biennial.
The conversation on the theme Expanded Art(1) in Public Space unfolded as a discussion relating to the migration of expanded art into public space and took the form of a discussion on the value that art might have in an urban context: Why should art continue to expand in new forms in the public domain, and how might we consider the value of artistic interference?
Expanded ‘Public’ Art Today
In the western context – the context of Stavanger – art situated in the urban public domain has significantly explored new modes of expansion since the post-war avant-garde. From artists beginning to question what makes the art object in conceptual art in the 1950s, where the concept or idea of the work took precedence over the aesthetics of material form, art’s migration toward the urban public context was especially furthered by various avant-garde movements in the 1960s. In critical positions against institutional exhibition spaces critiquing the museum as an institution that sets the rules for both the artists’ and the audience’s experience, art moved into new experimental inquiries in the public domain. With these critiques, the focus moved to the art as not only work or an object, but also an examination of how art takes other forms, such as a happening, performance, event, social activity, or situation. Art in public spaces gradually gained autonomy as a form of site construction and intervention in the realm of public interest. Since public art developed into a domain more or less of its own in the 1970s, the art became “public” in public space: it became about the public.
In the urban public domain, the art enters a web of social relations, interests, forces, power structures, economic frameworks, and media cultures in which the meaning and what is considered the value of the art is negotiated. The migration of media art into the urban context, in dialogue with architecture and urban spatial politics and culture in response to the contemporary digitized city through networked, participatory and visible tactics, has been accompanied by a great deal of attention to its value in public space. Urban media art has navigated according to expectations from various disciplines including public art, media architecture, cultural production, urban policy, academia, and technological territories, with a range of objectives motivated by factors as vast as artistic experimentation, activism, economy, local and global positioning, technological demonstration, social conviviality, and genuine cultural concerns.
The pursuit of determining the value of art in public space has therefore reflected a number of factors including the need for financial, political, and stakeholder support in order to achieve allowances, space, and economic means. As noted by Merete Jonvik, who comes from a background in sociology: “I find it interesting to follow and investigate how various participants in the art field weigh and operationalize the public part of the art in public space. From a cultural sociologist’s viewpoint, it is interesting to observe how the ‘public’ as part of the term ‘art in public space’ is operationalized creatively, theoretically, and geographically”. Jonvik raises the questions: “Does art in public space create new forms of art? New audiences for art?”
Bringing a concrete local initiative into the conversation, Hege Tapio describes from her experience initiating and curating the Article Biennial in Stavanger and how she acknowledged the new forms of art that came about with developments in technology, as well as how she practiced a curatorial strategy of “following the art” into new forms of installation in the urban public domain: “The Article Biennial was a project that emerged from wanting to present the ‘homeless art’ – in this case, art that deals with new media and with technology that, around the time of 2005-2006, did not have a proper home. It was not widely exhibited in the gallery space, and it was kind of difficult to approach. It had a different set of references. The Article Biennial was shaped in an attempt to try and find new, experimental, and playful ways to give this art a venue. i/o/lab did not have a gallery space – it was a project space, so to take on the challenge to create a festival in the city with technologically-based or unstable media was daunting. We approached it so that it could also create opportunities for artists to create new artworks and explore how the artworks could work in a contextualized setting”.
Daniela Arriado follows up on Hege’s experience with curating expanded art forms in public spaces in the context of Stavanger by explaining how the concept of the Screen City Biennial is rooted in the thinking and practical experimentation of the Article Biennial: “I worked with Hege on the Article Biennial and it was a great inspiration for Screen City. I have focused on this journey of the expanded moving image, from the cinema to the cube, to being presented in public space and online. Screen City began as an event, then a festival, and now a Biennial. Initially, in 2011, it was more Do It Yourself – I wanted to break out of these very set structures within which film was often presented. I was walking along Petersgata, a street that leads to the east side of the city from Nytorget, where we are now. It was an interesting street because it had all these empty spaces back then; it was in a transformational process, as was the rest of the Stavanger East Side. It became a canvas for many projects. For a weekend, we activated the empty storefront spaces in a screen passage of rear-projecting videos by local artists – very experimental and low budget. This opened up the idea of initiating a festival in 2013 and making the art in these forms of installation more present in the city, spreading them into more spaces than Pedersgata in Stavanger East. The whole idea has been to create a dialogue between sound, image, and architecture; to expand it and make it a cross-disciplinary encounter”.
Hege Tapio: “Public space can add value to the art and enable extended dialogues with the artwork. We tried to make the art more accessible – this strange, media-based art that was not a painting, not a drawing, not something people would instantly recognize as art – exposing it to an audience that was much wider than the audience who normally goes to a gallery space. In public spaces, the art would create a different interaction and discussion with the audience”.
On Participation/Social Practice
Martyn Reed notes – speaking from his extensive experience of curating street art in public space – how often, when putting the world “public” in front of the word “art”, academics tend to strip away the street form the art and just consider the art qualitatively, rather than as a participatory process. “When street art is judged as art, the street tends to be stripped away – however, graffiti is participatory”.
Ever since art expanded into public space in the 1960s and 1970s, it has been exploring ways of engaging the socio-cultural web. Sub-definitions of public art – such as contextual art, relational art, participatory art, dialogical art, community-based art, activist art, and social art – have accompanied the art while formulating various imperatives for it – granted value as an aesthetic mechanism serving humans as a collective species – and facilitating both experimental and everyday forms of participation in public space.
An example of this is offered by Ernesto Bautista, visiting Stavanger from El Salvador for the exhibition DIOS, UNION, LIBERTAD (God, Unity, Liberty) with the artist group The Fire Theory(2) at Projektrom Normanns in Stavanger: Chemi Rosado Seijo, who painted all the houses in a Puerto Rican “lower-class” community green in one of his early large-scale works, thus starting a situation of participation (Vázquez-Concepción 2016). As Bautista explains: “What is created not only happens in that one place. It is also something that is going to unfold in the coming years and something from which these people may create something new – a new layer”.
Trude Schelderup Iversen contextualizes this artistic orientation into participatory processes as art in the context of Western art history: “What we now look at as ‘social practice’ was not coined as social practice at the time of its emergence; a time when the relationship between art and society – the artwork and the audience – was questioned and negotiated”. She mentions as an example the project Between the Door and the Street (1977) by Suzanne Lacy in which Lacy was interested in the space between the door and the street. She activated over fifty local activists and feminist organisations to take part in conversations on issues relating to gender politics, such as violence against women and “important questions concerning feminism today”. In 1994, Suzanne Lacy coined the term “new genre public art” to indicate this form of public art as social practice, with which she sought to redefine what public art can be and what it can look like. Today, however, Schjelderup Iversen notes, social practice is often overlooked: it is under-theorized and seldom an object for research and critique. “It is a real paradox that this practice is so under the radar because it has changed many of the parameters – and the autonomy model – of the art with the desire to move beyond existing definitions between art and the political”.
Schjelderup Iversen reminds however how the participatory turn in the art context – when the audience is not considered a passive receiver of the artwork but as a participant, or someone who fulfils the actual work – is not unique to contemporary art but reflects a growing interest in new forms of public participation or interaction across a broad range of cultural and social fields: From debates of liberal democracy and current political theory to new activist forms based on modes of crowdsourcing and collective mobilization via technology.
Visions for participation in art in public space have, however, not entered artistic and curatorial discourse without accompanying concerns. Sissel Lillebostad, who presents the project Vågestykke (3), a series of timely restricted art projects taking place between 2016 and 2018 at the Høgskulen på Vestlandet at Campus Kronstad, raises some essential questions relating to participation in art today: “What does participation actually mean, when do we participate, and do people even want to participate? By going into the social space of people, we are not only taking care of this space but also invading it and invading people’s daily life”.
Art’s Invasion in Public
Situated in urban public space, art engages its audiences as well as random passers-by – rarely being asked whether they want to participate in an exhibition or installation before finding themselves in the middle of it. Geir Haraldseth follows up on the notion of invasion by addressing how the city of Stavanger is filled with – or, perhaps, invaded by – public art, raising the question of if people even want to be disturbed in public space, even if by art? He refers to the American curator and writer Joshua Decter, who visited Stavanger in 2014 and talked about art in public space. Using the phrase “art is not a holiday”, Decter explained how there is no need to walk around a town and see art everywhere, and how there has to be public spaces that are free of art.
The question of art’s potential intrusion in or invasion of public space is more often a matter of diversity in audiences and their expectations of what they may encounter in that domain in which they live out their habitual rhythms in everyday life. Sissel Lillebostad recalls her experience of a sound walk – A Folded Path (2013) by Circumstance – developed for the Screen City Festival in 2013: “…we were sitting on a train between Stavanger and Sandnes and a soundtrack was put inside the train compartment, turning the whole journey into something completely different – like a film”. Mari Rossavik follows up on Lillebostad’s positive experience of A Folded Path, recalling how she was helping the artist Duncan Speakman put up the work in Stavanger and received comments from people who felt that the work was interfering with their everyday journey in an intruding way: “It was interesting to see how the local people who use the train when getting to or from work felt it to be an interference. I think it also depends on the expectations you have when you go into the experience, if you expect it to be there”. Lillebostad notes: “That is the moment where we are talking about the invasion; because it is the same place, the same thing, but two different experiences”.
Geir Haraldseth returns to the question of the value of art in public space, asking: “But in what is the value? Is it when the majority likes it? Because then we can just put up a biscuit machine that feeds the public a biscuit every five minutes. It is also about what kind of desires are you pleasing using art: Who are you pleasing and who owns the space?”
Martyn Reed: “I think a lot of these ideas about invading space are based on their perception of power: Who has actually placed it there, and why? If that [referring to the sound walk A Folded Path] was a tag or a stencil – a piece of graffiti – it might just have been accepted as part of people’s everyday life, so maybe it goes back to what Geir was saying that we don’t want art everywhere? But, maybe we still have to put it there to make people accept it as part of everyday life?”
Trude Schjelderup Iversen invokes the thoughts of the theorist Nicolas Bourriaud concerning the co-existance of the work of art and the viewer (Bourriaud 1998): “The question is, can I and the work of art co-exist? [Bourriaud] also put his finger on how public space is dominated not by art, but completely by other forces and types of visual dynamics. So for an institution – at least for me as a curator – I would defend that public space should also be a space for art. Not everywhere and at all times – but why should art not also find its natural position in the public space?”
Public Art in Society
In art’s expansion into public space, it has successfully found new modes of implementation into everyday life. Beyond mere decoration on buildings for a sense of embellishment, art in public space has been accompanied by a sense of opportunity for resistance, evoking the ideals of the Situationist International (1968-1972). The Situationist movement was derived from anti-authoritarian Marxism and avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century such as Dada and Surrealism. They presented a critique of mid-twentieth-century advanced capitalism – especially the effects of social alienation and commodity fetishism as aspects of everyday life and culture – in artistic tactics of subversion (détournements), psychogeography, and constructions of situations in order to study and challenge the specific effects of the geographic environment on the emotions and behaviors of individuals. The resistance tactics of the avant-garde involved a reaction – in theory, a radical one – against what (at the time) was considered a major cultural thread in society: capitalism and its visual politics in urban space (Debord 1967).
The legacy of the avant-garde and position to art’s value in public space in terms of resistance informs a dominant discourse today. We find in today’s urban media art that the resistance performed since the 1960s onward toward capitalism and its visual organization of our urban worlds has expanded its scope to address various conditions of digitization under contemporary capitalism and the resulting new challenges posed by urban culture. For example: Resistance against the foundation of a control society, the decline of public space and public forums as a constituent of democracy, and the speed of technological “progress” in capitalist Western society.
However, art’s direct negotiation with the surrounding urban context, politics, and socio-material form has gradually moved into more consensus-oriented visions of art as purposeful and “doing good”. Ernesto Bautista speaks of how he belongs to an artistic ecosystem that aims to create public spaces wherein art is considered a potentially positive tool for change in the context of El Salvador. As he describes: “[It’s] not only like a form of ‘social tool’ – art is considered to hold the possibility to improve the ways in which a community, a public, or a people – who are interacting with this kind of invasion – are going to receive what art can give”.
In Scandinavia and in Europe at large, we have nurtured a tradition of consensus with socially-engaged art and participatory art emerging from the 1980s and 1990s’ attention to public space. We have witnessed a trend of using art in more or less instrumental manners for purposes and objectives formulated beyond the art itself – in particular, [art] in the discourse of conjoining art and urban, cultural, and social development processes.
Merete Jonvik refers to these orientations in art: “The affective turn in the humanities, the focus on citizen involvement and user preferences across various societal areas (health sector, smart city ideologies), socially engaged art, the ‘useological turn’ in the art field, and the challenging of the notion of art for art’s own sake all point in the direction of an orientation towards creating closer ties between art and everyday life – between art and society”. However, while art has migrated further into our everyday lives in public space, it has also moved further into compromises with the politics and power structures that organize and rule in the urban public domain.
In a quote shared by Geir Haraldseth from The Question of “Public Space”, Rosalyn Deutsche describes: “…the discourse about public space that has erupted over the last decade in art, architecture, and urban studies is inseparable from a far more extensive eruption of debates about the meaning of ‘democracy’ – debates taking place in many arenas: political philosophy, new social movements, educational theory, legal studies, mass media, and popular culture. The term ‘public space’ is one component of a rhetoric of democracy that, in some of its most widespread forms, is used to justify less than democratic policies: the creation of exclusionary urban spaces, state coercion and censorship, surveillance, economic privatization, the repression of differences and attacks on the rights of the most expendable members of society, on the rights of strangers and on the very idea of rights—on what Hannah Arendt called ‘the right to have rights’. The term public frequently serves as an alibi under whose protection authoritarian agendas are pursued and justified. The term, that is, is playing a starring role in what Stuart Hall, in another context, called ‘authoritarian populism’, by which he meant the mobilization of democratic discourses to sanction, indeed to pioneer, shifts toward state coercion. Adapting Hall’s concept, we might say that the term public has become part of the rhetoric of conservative democracy, which may well be the most pertinent political problem of our time. By ‘conservative democracy’, I mean the use of democratic concepts such as ‘liberty’, ‘equality’, ‘individual freedom’, ‘activism’ and ‘participation’ for specifically right-wing ends. Public space is another democratic concept, one that is central to discourse about cities, where it is used to support a cruel and unreasonable urbanism” (Deutsche 1992).
Geir Haraldseth evaluates on the quote by Deutsche: “So this is about art’s function and all the desires that take place in a city, in public; how art is molded and shaped to justify different types of strategies and policies, invisible or visible. Also, with relevance to Stavanger, it concerns how individual freedom, activism, and participation are utilized also to justify more conservative and right-wing agendas — positions and directions that the art world does not necessarily tend to lean towards, which most often emerges from more leftist positions or situations”. He then brings up an important point about how art is used to mold various interests, aesthetics, practices, and visions for urban space, asking what this molding can contain, who can participate in it, and what the principles may be that should be put into that mix.
But how does art actually “do good”, and how might it find a balance between conflict and consensus? Should the aim of bringing art to public space be to create a situation of consensus at all? Samson Kambalu takes a critical position on the good intention accompanying recent discourses of art in public space as a tool of social, political, or cultural change in line with the position of Rosalyn Deutsche, stating: “I think people have a reason to distrust public art. In perspective of my background in Africa, Malawi art is always conceived as a sovereign activity. But we as contemporary artists are expected to be nice people; art is being nice and it always stands against power. But it is almost accepted here that art has to ‘serve’. If you apply for funding in the UK, they ask you how many people are going to come to your show? What good is in it for the community? If you don’t have good answers to that, you don’t get funding. In order to get funding from the government, we have to do public good. Then, I don’t know how effective the art becomes”.
In disagreement with this position, Trude Schjelderup Iversen states: “I am very reluctant to say that all art in public space is an expression of power. Art should also be a part of our public environment where commercial interests are, power interests etc.; why should visuals from artists not be a part of our daily environment? It is a counter-reaction, not an expression of power”.
Samson Kambalu: “The question of art is very comfortable and that is what is so unsettling. We live in a particular society that will only give us a particular art. What we need to ask is how is this so-called public art addressing automated ways of looking at the world – automatic economies? I am pretty convinced that if all art is created for accepted power structures, then it cannot create anything alternative. Whether it is art as performance or political intervention, if it is working within the very same way of thinking, then it is a problem. For public art, we have to ask for permission from specific authorities who believe in specific things. And that is a problem: There is only one kind of art that is accepted”.
He continues in response to a question raised by Trude Schjelderup Iversen (if he thinks that all art that is being manifested in public is uncritical): “I think they are the same – what you can call ‘art as superstructure’. Capital has a way of thinking of art as the kind of afterthought”. Kambalu takes a Situationist perspective, invoking the theories of McKenzie Wark, who says that as long as art is perceived as superstructure, it cannot do anything: “Art becomes infrastructure – the situation is suggested – and as long as art is involved with power, economics, religion, or philosophy, it is always a spectacle”.
Schjelderup Iversen: “I think that perhaps we are shifting between talking about art in public space and public art. You can recognize [public art] in a lot of your arguments in terms of being representatives or the art of ‘the power’; the representative of the leading forces in society”.
James Finucane: “When the structure you describe is mediated by art professionals and consultants then, although it is there for the public, it does not actually engage the public – and that for me would be one of the core things missing from that process”.
Schjelderup Iversen: “Well, the process can be very different. At the time now in Koro, there are many types of methodologies that are at play. You have the traditional multi-party committees, Kunstnerudvalget; and then we have curatorial approaches where the curator is the driving force to work on implementation or anchoring, to have the organic dialogue with the milieu, site, or place you are working with. So I don’t think it is one model but there are many different models in place”.
The Indefinite of Art’s Value
In what way might we consider the value in art in public space in its expanded forms? For example: moving images, audio walks, Augmented Reality, and other aesthetic experiences? Perhaps, rather than locking our conception of the‘value of art in public space alongside discussions of the actors involved with bringing it there, or couching it in terms of how it performs a mode of either participation or resistance, or how it aligns with or challenges society’s superstructures, we can consider art’s value at an affective level. Merete Jonvik reminds how the philosopher John Armstrong proposes therapeutic readings to be added to the more standard forms of valuation of art, or principal reasons for why art historically has been judged important, such as technical, political, historical, and shock-value readings. Therapeutic readings – as a fifth criterion for judging art – values art by how well it caters to people’s inner needs, and how well and in what ways it addresses people’s psychological frailties, poor memory, need for hope, etc. (de Botton and Armstrong 2013). In addition to these five, Jonvik notes one can further add social and relational readings as relevant principles of valuation because, when situated in public, the art gains a new opportunity to be socially significant.
We might find the therapeutic reading in the feeling of je ne sais quoi – that feeling wherein you don’t really know what it is that affects you, but you feel something regardless. This is hinted at by Sissel Lillebostad when referring to once asking her students at the University College about which artworks [from the exhibition Vågestykke] they actually noticed – one of which was a work in the form of a soap bubble machine that produced a soap bubble every five minutes. She explains: “What made this so noticeable? It was this little glimpse of something really ephemeral in their daily life, almost like a moment of happiness – so the students described it – and then I started to wonder if actually that was the value of art; this moment of recognition and of notice; that you actually see something that is not there for some particular purpose”.
The principle of je ne sais quoi references that which is difficult to describe but is what makes the artwork emotional or extraordinary to you – perhaps the subject of artistic or aesthetic experience (Borgdorff 2012: 47) (4). This principle indicates art’s privilege as an engagement with the unknown – a breaking of the rules – and the preference to personal perception, and experience, and subjective observation. This principle also evokes how, when art in the 1970s found new formats as installation in the urban public domain, the focus moved from the artwork itself to the space, environment, or context of its installation, as well as significantly toward the modes of sensory perception in the presence of art in that context. Perhaps this is a dimension by which the art transcends power structures, discourses, agendas, and strategies, wherein we must trust that the art operates at its own poetic level whether inviting us to participate, look, or just stop and wonder, and whether we are prepared to engage with the artistic encounter or not – presenting us with alternative truths and states of being in opposition to those of our dominant narratives.
Bourriaud, Nicholas (1998), ‘Relational Aesthetics’, In C. Bishop (Ed.), Participation, London: Whitechapel and Cambridge: The MIT Press, pp. 160-171.
Borgdorff, Henk (2012), ‘The Production of Knowledge in Artistic Research’, in The Conflict of the Faculties: Perspectives on Artistic Research and Academia, Leiden: Leiden University Press.
Botton, Alain de and Armstrong, John (2013), Art as Therapy, London: Phaidon Press.
Vásquez-Conceptión, Á.R. (2016), ‘El Cerro: A social practice work by artist Chemi Rosado-Seijo, ongoing since 2002’, Official website of Cranium Corporation: Agency for exhibitions, contemporary arts, and education, www.craniumcorporation.org/2016/04/21/el-cerro-a-social-practice-work-by-artist-chemi-rosado-seijo-ongoing-since-2002. Accessed 25 May 2017.
Debord, Guy (1967), Society of the Spectacle, Detroit: Black & Red.
Deutsche, Rosalind (1992), ‘The Question of “Public Space”, in Social Text, 33:34-53.
Koro Official Website (2016), ‘Vågestykke’, www.koro.no/vaagestykke. Accessed 28 May 2017.
Screen City Biennial Official Website (2017), ‘Migrating Stories’, www.2017.screencitybiennial.org/migrating-stories. Accessed 26 May 2017.
1 On the conception of ‘expanded art’, see the Curatorial Statement ’Migrating Stories’ of the Screen City Biennial 2017 that addresses the expanded moving image (Screen City Biennial Official Website 2017).
3 The project Vågestykke aims to “[break] into everyday life” in the forms of professional, social, or political research projects and happenings, technologically challenging experiments, as well as performative, auditory and/or visual work (Koro Official Website 2016).
4 The expression of je ne sais quoi was introduced by Dominique Bouhours in the late 17th Century to indicate an indefinable component in artworks; “that indefinable something whose effects you feel”. It reflects a romantic worldview characteristic to the 1800-1850s, which sees the world primarily in terms of immediate appearance. This worldview considers feelings over facts and does not proceed by reason or by laws, but by feelings, intuition, and aesthetic conscience.