Public art reaches out beyond the gallery


Public art is a hot topic right now, inspiring new directives, new public debates and greater breadth and imagination deployed in its commissioning and execution than ever before


blueprint

Words Veronica Simpson

It is hard to imagine how impoverished our conception of public art was a little more than a decade ago compared to our understanding of the term today. The dull, local-authority funded memorials and monuments of yesteryear have given way to an extraordinary smorgasbord of creativity supported by a wide variety of private individuals, corporations, developers, regeneration-orientated charities and arts agencies. Instead of plaques or statues commemorating the worthy, the best of public art today is all about creating joyful or emotionally charged moments of visual/sensory connectivity in urban - or rural - space.

Andy Moss and Jamie Wardley’s 2013 work The Fallen. Nine thousand silhouettes, representing the soldiers (on both sides) and civilians who died in the D-Day landings, were stencilled on to the sand at the D-Day landing beach of Arromanches on International Peace Day, September 2013

Andy Moss and Jamie Wardley's 2013 work The Fallen. Nine thousand silhouettes, representing the soldiers (on both sides) and civilians who died in the D-Day landings, were stencilled on to the sand at the D-Day landing beach of Arromanches on International Peace Day, September 2013

Of course, developers have long been prone to dropping shiny baubles by big-name artists into their schemes, to ramp up their perceived uniqueness and prestige. This practice has only intensified over the past decade. For example, the developer of the £10bn Hudson Yards scheme in New York has given Thomas Heatherwick Studio £45m to create an iconic public art piece to galvanise the scheme's regenerative momentum. Yet Heatherwick's response is unlikely to be any more creative or profound than British artists Andy Moss and Jamie Wardley's 2013 low-budget piece The Fallen, a commemoration of the 9,000 soldiers and civilians who died during the D-Day landings in Normandy; on International Peace Day, 21 September 2013, 9,000 silhouettes were stencilled on to the beach where the soldiers had landed, 70 years earlier, to be washed away by the tide just hours later.

Whatever the budget, the breadth of activities currently being conducted under the banner of public art is truly mindboggling. Just as a taster, at a Contemporary Art Society (CAS) public art forum in late 2013, the audience heard about Art on the Underground's commissioning of Mark Wallinger's Labyrinth scheme, with thousands of decorated vitreous enamel plaques placed around the London Underground - a different maze created for every station - to celebrate the 150th anniversary of one of the world's most visually distinctive transport networks. Meanwhile, in Barking, hundreds of old bricks were assembled into a fake folly by Muf Architecture, with pink benches and trees added to bring humour and whimsy to a new commercial square. We also learned of the engagement-rich schemes conceived and commissioned by Bristol's leading arts producer Situations, including artist Alex Hartley's 2012 project NowhereIsland - a floating island from the High Arctic which journeyed (pulled by tug boat) through international waters to tour the south-west coast. Tens of thousands of seashore spectators signed up to become citizens of this new nation.

Andy Moss and Jamie Wardley’s 2013 work The Fallen. Nine thousand silhouettes, representing the soldiers (on both sides) and civilians who died in the D-Day landings, were stencilled on to the sand at the D-Day landing beach of Arromanches on International Peace Day, September 2013

Andy Moss and Jamie Wardley's 2013 work The Fallen. Nine thousand silhouettes, representing the soldiers (on both sides) and civilians who died in the D-Day landings, were stencilled on to the sand at the D-Day landing beach of Arromanches on International Peace Day, September 2013

Though she would hesitate to call it a new 'golden age' for public art, Claire Doherty, Situations' charismatic director, feels there has been a distinct and welcome sea change in the various commissioning bodies' openness towards outdoor arts. The spectacular events and activities programmed during the Cultural Olympiad have contributed to this, she says, along with 'a maturing professional sector in public art commissioning and curating.'

Despite the drastic cutbacks to local authority budgets and those of the Arts Council England (ACE), there is still a significant pot of gold to be pursued, thanks to section 106 and other 'environmental enhancement' requirements that planning authorities demand from developers' new commercial and residential building schemes. Doherty says: 'Funding for public art in the UK from local authorities alone totalled £22m in 2012. That's comparable to the amount spent on public and street art through ACE's grants for arts in the eight years between 2003 and 2011.' The Olympics undoubtedly skewed this total, but there continues to be a flowering of diverse, collaborative and community-orientated schemes, thanks to the local authorities' shift of emphasis towards 'social as well as environmental benefits,' as Doherty says.

But the projects funded by this pool of public-art cash are highly variable in quality and impact. Local authorities, after all, still control the outcomes and they are, as one leading curator says, 'a risk-averse breed'. Lack of awareness, rather than interest, is the main problem here, says Doherty. 'When we start talking to collaborators, partners, funders, artists, a lot of people don't have the knowledge, skills or experience to work with new forms of public art. That has to change.'

Muf Architecture – Barking piazza/folly. Muf’s work for Barking Town Square – a newly constructed folly built from vintage bricks, plus trees and seating – add a much-needed dose of human-scale interactivity to the anonymous glazed elevations of the town’s bland new commercial, healthcare and residential buildings

Muf Architecture - Barking piazza/folly. Muf's work for Barking Town Square - a newly constructed folly built from vintage bricks, plus trees and seating - add a much-needed dose of human-scale interactivity to the anonymous glazed elevations of the town's bland new commercial, healthcare and residential buildings

To this end, Situations launched Public Art Now at the beginning of 2014, a national consciousness-raising programme aimed at expanding ideas about where, when and how public art takes place. In The New Rules of Public Art, a set of 12 'provocations', Doherty exhorts readers to ditch the adherence to monuments, statues and fountains, and envisage public art instead as a whole variety of events and interventions that can build over the course of a day, a season or even biennally. Another rule is to allow projects to develop their own life and momentum.

Says Doherty: 'This is no design-and-build process. Artworks arrive through a series of accidents, failures and experiments. The best commissioning processes evolve over time, creating space for the unplanned.' As an example, she points to Slow Space in Oslo's Bjørvika district. Conceived as a seven-year project fuelled and shaped by collective activity, its initiatives include the creation of a public bakehouse by Californian group Futurefarmers that acts as a meeting point and the centre of a radical urban gardening project. Says Doherty: 'The Futurefarmers project in Oslo has fundamentally changed the future use of that area.'

Public art can be, as Brian Eno says, a 'celebration of some kind of temporary community', but it can also stimulate regeneration from the grass roots up, and help forge an identity for places in transition. The British seaside town of Folkestone has been harnessing the power of art and artists for its own regenerative plans since 2008, when its first Triennial was launched. Funded by local philanthropist Roger De Haan and run by his Creative Foundation charity, its aim is to establish Folkestone as a cultural destination. The curator of its first two events, Andrea Schlieker, filled the town with temporary and permanent commissioned works from both internationally renowned and local artists, aimed at encouraging visitors and residents to explore the town in new and dynamic ways. The Triennial's new artistic director, Lewis Biggs - fresh from a decade directing Liverpool's own groundbreaking Biennial- will have just announced the 2014 programme as this issue of Blueprint goes to press.

Jeremy Deller’s work ‘It is what it is’: a car that had been crushed in an American attack on Baghdad in 2007, and which Deller towed around the USA in 2009, parking outside public buildings to spark conversations with passers-by about the impact of the Iraq war

Jeremy Deller's work 'It is what it is': a car that had been crushed in a bomb attack in Baghdad in 2007, which Deller towed around the US in 2009, and parked outside public buildings in order to spark conversations with passers-by about the impact of the Iraq war

But what sets Folkestone's Triennial (and Liverpool's Biennial) apart is the clarity and autonomy of its structure. With Folkestone, the majority of funding comes from studio properties that De Haan's Creative Foundation lets out (at modest rents) to creative tenants; £4.5m has been donated to the first three triennials in this way, although substantial contributions are still required from Arts Council England and other agencies.

Biggs agrees this degree of clarity of vision and autonomy in the commissioning process is enviable, compared to the many schemes that must negotiate the labyrinthine bureaucratic procedures and lack of awareness, insight or ambition that can hamper local authority and developer-backed projects. To help promote good practice, Biggs co-founded the Institute for Public Art last year - an international network of people active and interested in public art, funded by Shanghai University (China is emerging as an avid consumer of public art, of which more later).

Biggs applauds the New Rules of Public Art proposed by Doherty (a fellow IPA member) but says: 'Rules are all very well but it's about how to apply the rules. If a council officer has been detailed to get on with commissioning some new street furniture, are they going to turn to an organisation called an art consultancy? There's no recognised body of art consultancies.

Situations/Alex Hartley’s 2012 NowhereIsland toured the UK’s south-west coast, inspiring thousands of seashore spectators to sign up as citizens, including Blueprint, and sparking public debates on citizenship wherever it went

Situations/Alex Hartley's 2012 NowhereIsland toured the UK's south-west coast, inspiring thousands of seashore spectators to sign up as citizens, including Blueprint, and sparking public debates on citizenship wherever it went

You don't know whether it's a good one or a bad one. Landscape architects have letters after their name. They have insurances in place. It's safer to go for the known. For better or worse, because art by its nature is so individual - and that's its selling point - it's more complicated and time-consuming. You're starting from scratch every time you sit down and talk with someone. It's much harder work than going to a landscape architect - though I'd say you get a much better result.'

On this point, Biggs is happy to see a growing number of architects getting involved in public art and environmental schemes - thanks to pioneering practices such as Muf and FAT, and the new generation coming through, including We Made That, The Klassnik Corporation and Studio Weave, bringing their own particular sensibility to materials, context and community. 'That's a very optimistic development,' he says. 'I'd rather have a good environmental scheme than a bad art scheme.'

However, Biggs points out: 'What's on the side of thinking in an art way is the way it can be used in branding and identity. Everyone wants to feel they're unique in some way. Every prospective leaser of an office or buyer of a house wants to feel they're getting something that nobody else has. Environmental schemes aren't able to deliver that. A properly thought-through art project is. Antony Gormley's Another Place (Crosby Beach, in Liverpool), for instance, really did make the people who live by Crosby Beach feel that they were unique in the universe.'

The Return of Colmcille – a day-long event staged by outdoor events specialist Walk the Plank included 30 hours of original street theatre and procession

The Return of Colmcille - a two-day event staged by outdoor events specialist Walk the Plank featured five shows in just 30 hours, including original street theatre and procession

Unfortunately, too many councils and their developer partners now seek to replicate that Antony Gormley effect - looking for another monumental art project to equal Angel of the North or Another Place - without questioning the value, purpose or relevance.

At the aforementioned CAS evening, Doherty was asked: 'Does it matter who commissions the public art?' She answered: 'It's knowing how and why. It's not who. Anyone can commission as long as they have a skilled team bring it to fruition.' For a textbook demonstration of her words, we could do worse than look to the public art commissioning programme around the 2012 Olympics. Sarah Weir, the then head of Arts Council England, stepped in at a stage when there was no budget and no commitment to public art in the masterplan. With the help of a skilled team and the support of Tate boss Nicholas Serota as Design Champion on the Olympic Delivery Authority board, she has masterminded a scheme that is - and will increasingly be - rich in community driven landscape enhancement, life-enhancing focal points and permanent visual monuments (Anish Kapoor's clunky Orbit notwithstanding).

But there are some who feel that our Western model of public art is missing the point completely. Philip Dodd, broadcaster and curator, says: 'I think art and its role in city life is being re-imagined across places outside of western Europe and North America in far more exciting and profound ways.' In China, for example, 'they are thinking in much more ambitious terms. It's much more about integrating the idea of art into the social and economic model of cities... In Shanghai they are building a "west bank". They are building several private museums there and these private museums will become the fulcrum of a whole set of cultural activities that will run from galleries to retail.'

Fantasticology, Olympic Park, 2012. The Klassnik Corporation recreated the plan of industrial buildings on the Olympic site, with planting replicating vanished buildings and car parks

Fantasticology, Olympic Park, 2012. The Klassnik Corporation recreated the plan of industrial buildings on the Olympic site, with planting replicating vanished buildings and car parks

Dodd suggests more could be achieved by collaborating and pooling resources. If there is £22m available, it might be better to concentrate it into major regional initiatives such as annual arts festivals - or to 'build a small cinema where you could show artists films and cinema'. The urgent need for intelligent debate around the uses and abuses of public art inspired the launch this February of Art and the City, a forum on public art hosted by Dodd and NLA director Peter Murray, as a new and integral feature of global art fair Art14 London.

The bottom line underpinning all of this debate is, of course: how do we know that public art has made a difference? Where is the evidence, for example, that the Folkestone Triennial has had the desired impact in attracting new and creative businesses, residents and visitors? Biggs replies: 'In the time that I've been there I've met people who say they have moved to Folkestone because of the Triennial. It was exactly the same when we opened Tate Liverpool. People said: "Is this going to make any difference to Liverpool as a place?" The Tate Liverpool, as a wider offer, got people who hadn't previously felt they were part of the picture thinking more optimistically and engaging with communities. It was a very important part of the jigsaw puzzle that led to it becoming European capital of culture 20 years later. But it does take 20 years. Nobody could kid themselves that they can do it in 10.'

Slow Space was is a seven-year project with initiatives including the creation of a public bakehouse by Californian group Futurefarmers in Oslo’s Bjørvika district

Slow Space was is a seven-year project with initiatives including the creation of a public bakehouse by Californian groupFuturefarmers in Oslo's Bjørvika district

Whatever the Chinese government's ambitions, readers of Ai Weiwei's riveting blog will know how sceptical he is of politicians' attempts to graft culture on to places where citizens' rights will always take a back seat to industry and profit. But when real engagement combines with inspired commissioning and lasting public-realm improvements, public-art initiatives can have profound effects, as anyone lucky enough to attend - or even to read coverage of - Londonderry/Derry's UK Capital of Culture events will know.

In its year-long festival, described in December 2013 by writer for The Observer Ed Vulliamy as 'edgy, subversive, joyful and new' - which saw the city host the Turner Prize show, Grayson Perry's BBC Reith Lectures, and a ground-breaking light show in Lumiere (for four nights, the city was transformed with 17 light sculptures and installations across its buildings) - the combination of events and locations was truly inspired. For example, Ebrington Square, the former parade ground of the army barracks from which the 'Bloody Sunday' massacre was launched, has been transformed into a public gathering and events space by Belfast-based architecture practice McAdam Design, and was used for a triumphant 'homecoming' concert of local-born singer Bronagh Gallagher. McAdam Design's new Peace Bridge also played a crucial part in the mid-summer highlight, The Return of Colmcille, a two-day event masterminded by Walk The Plank and Frank Cottrell Boyce, writer of the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony.

Jacqueline Poncelet – wrapper. Part of Art on the Underground this permanent piece on Edgware Road. Launched in 2012, Poncelet’s 10 mosaic clads the outside of a electricity sub station and presents a decorative and uplifting face to the street as well as Underground users

Jacqueline Poncelet - wrapper. Part of Art on the Underground this permanent piece on Edgware Road. Launched in 2012, Poncelet's 10 mosaic clads the outside of a electricity sub station and presents a decorative and uplifting face to the street as well as Underground users

In conclusion, Vulliamy quoted local film-maker Mark McCauley: 'I've seen people awakened by the scale of these public events. Our city centre has for years been made of dark, dangerous streets; people had become conditioned into being frightened. But now those streets were full. I saw my city with different eyes...'





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