Why uncommissioned public art? | ORESTIS PANGALOS
Interview by MODESTA DI PAOLA
Why public art?/ What is the “art” in public art?
Let us start with two of the most characteristic examples of public art, monuments and sculptures, in all sizes, from small statues to complex installations. Artistic, playful, imaginative, educational with reference to art, memory and cultural heritage (in terms of tradition and history), they express various artistic tendencies and movements and they inform or represent an era. They are essential urban elements that testify the city’s character. They can be found in small or big squares, streets, parks. They are regarded as landmarks or even points of reference, make routes interesting or at least less boring and they give residents essential stimuli by bringing them in direct contact with works of art, offering them a memento or, at times, a bond.
Public art is, without a doubt, essential and necessary, but not always inherently good. Just as it is with a painting or any other art exhibit, it is possible for public art to be good or bad, successful or unsuccessful. Public art, however, carries a greater weight, that of the responsibility of being put on public display.
A great number of questions are raised. What is the scale, the connection, and the interaction with the environment and how is public art integrated aesthetically and structurally? Are the selected materials respective of the theme and the already existing environment? What is the basic theme and what is its connection with the social framework; what is its connection with the historical context in terms of the neighbourhood, the city, the country – extending perhaps beyond this and marking a connection with the global social framework and global current affairs. Besides, the setting for the public art is one of its fundamental considerations. The setting gives meaning to the work of art and the work of art gives meaning to the setting, which is only part of a complex social structure that extends well beyond the local.
How does public art manage memory and what kind of memory is this? Does it aspire to carry any messages and if so, how does it attempt to do so? What are the symbolisms it carries – if any – and in what ways does it communicate them? Does it let the imagination run wild or does it instead limit it? Is it realistic, impressionistic, expressionistic, abstract and so on and so forth? How does it follow tradition and how does it break from it? What is its style and how does it attempt to transcend time? In each case and always in connection with its context it can be seen as uninteresting, boring, moving, harmonious, extravagant, cacophonous and so on.
There is no end to the multiple levels of consideration for its creation; cost; who will be its creator and how will this decision be reached; who funds it; what freedom of expression is granted to the artist and how does the artist make use of this freedom?
There is a certain dynamic that is often disregarded or given less attention although it is crucial and self-evident. This relates to the fact that the works of public art, are, among other things, exhibits of power and control, be it financial, political, or ideological with vast implications on the management of memory, tradition, history and aesthetics by promoting certain artists, movements, morals and propaganda. Although each case differs according to the environment, the historical moment and the setting, this dynamic is exhibited in all public art we encounter in squares, parks and streets.
Sculptures and monuments are by no means the only examples of public art. Indeed, public art is not a type of art or an artistic movement. It is defined by the mere fact that the exhibits are on public display, in a public space, and it encompasses a vast spectre of artworks and practices. Although it might seem exaggerated at first, it is fair to claim that it spans from haircutting to architecture; from self-expression to landscape architecture and urban design including any possible explorations in-between.
A playground can be perceived as a work of art (perhaps one of the best creative challenges). Streetscape planting design is initially a form of design but can also include artistic characteristics and is, on condition, a work of art. Same applies to a garden. The decorative elements on buildings are part of the aesthetics of the street and the city in general. Decorative elements on subway entrances and stations might also include artistic elements or might be works of art themselves.
Skateboarding and bmx bike tricks, parkour, can all be seen as art, as would be the case for any type of dancing performed in public while any grouping for these activities can also be seen as a public event. The outfits, hairstyles, the accents and lingos, the ways of walking and body movement in general, mannerisms and expressions, accessories and symbols on bodies, jewellery, make up, any type of body art, including but not limited to tattoos, all these are part of art, if not art themselves. Citizens, by means of self-expression and overall style, create art – be it subtly or extravagantly. Although this might not be necessarily something they set out to do, this indeed happens, and in many cases in history this is how global trends started.
Street musicians and buskers, street theatre or a big gig are all types of public art, or else art on the streets. A street party, a parade, a demonstration or even a riot can be the starting point and the setting for a conglomerate of art practices. Even in a football match, fans sing, chant, dress accordingly, hang banners and perform choreographies: all of these are acts of public art.
Moreover, people who decorate the outside of their houses for Christmas or any other holiday also in a way perform an artistic act. A customised car can also be a unique work of art, an embellishment for the streets. Projections onto public buildings, firework shows, hot air balloon festivals and airshows can also be public art. So it is for shop signs, street signs, street posters and all types of urban typography. The whole range of graffiti from tags to throw ups and pieces as well as ‘street art’ are all types and practices of public art. In other words, there is an artistic possibility on everything and public art can be showcased everywhere and in any way in daily life whether blatantly or not.
However, focusing on the above examples, there are a few basic and general categorisations. They relate to the creators of the exhibits as well as the type of exhibits. There are, then, two categories of exhibits: the ones that are created by i.) the state or the local/council authorities and individuals of great power (companies, foundations, landowners), and ii.) citizens. The former are the ones that commission and fund the work that is done by individuals or groups of artists. The latter are those that either individually or in groups create art out of their own accord.
With the exception of the peculiar case of self-expression that is free (and in the last decades is considered a right and is therefore decriminalised), as well as all the cases that are legal, all other cases are performed without having been commissioned and without any prior application for licence. For the purposes of this review, any such case will be referred to as uncommissioned public art, in the sense that no licence has been applied for.
The two categories that were mentioned above, however, are not strict. Instead, they also encompass a multitude of cases that come in-between the two categories. One instance would be the case of a local community taking over a project (this could be a school community, a neighbourhood group, or any group of people who come into contact with the management of a sports ground, a hospital, a prison, or a workplace). Another instance would be the case of tolerance in an environment which in a way deems the act legal and acceptable. In this case, it is, therefore, a work of art that lacks licence but is not criminalised and a work of free acting on both sides of the creator’s intentions as well as its reception by the owner/ neighbourhood/ general public/ state. In this case, the creators do not break the law. On the other hand, the state and the powerful individuals do not always act according to the law. This might involve their actions relating to building regulations or other laws and restrictions, funding and in the transparent choice of the artist. Moreover, they might be legal but not necessarily ethical in their actions.
The other grand category refers to the two ‘types’ of art; installations and performances. One of their differences pertains to the fact that although installations leave a trace, performances do not. Acts and installations created by individuals (uncommissioned public art) can vary in scale and can include graffiti, posters, sculptures, and various kinds of structures. In this case there is a myriad of in-between cases, as well. Sometimes performances can indeed leave a trace (for instance, bmx and skateboarding tricks can leave a trace of broken marbles on the streets or staircases). Conversely, an installation that takes place in front of an audience can be a performance at the same time as being an installation.
What is common for both categories here as well, is the issue of financial power and control that was discussed above as well as the citizens’ right to act on a setting.
Who is the “public” in public art? / Where is the space for public art? / When is it public art?
The ‘public’ in public art and the public space (the setting for public art) are also complex entities.
Public space is often defined as the opposite of private, yet as my teacher, Dimitris Kotsakis, explains, this is far from true. In reality, there are public-private spaces (which he names as collective or common spaces). In addition, he marks a shift from this binary dialectic of private/public to one of personal/public spaces. The former relate to the domestic sphere whereas the latter to its opposite (based on the traditional dichotomy of home/city). Therefore, public is anything outside the domestic (being the only purely private space) and moreover, the space where we find ourselves among others.
Take for example a gathering in a private theatre or stadium. Even though the space is private and does not carry the characteristics of a public space of a square or a park, it is still considered as public since in this space we meet with hundreds or thousands other individuals. Carrying on from this, a piece of art hanging on a wall of the private-public space of a gallery, could be, in one way, considered as a work of public art, yet it lacks the characteristics of a work of art found on the streets and it would be misleading to call it as such. It is, instead, someone’s property and access to it is controlled in terms of opening hours and tickets. Furthermore, going to see it is itself a destination not a mere stop on someone’s route to another destination. Therefore, a person who does not frequent such places, is excluded from viewing this artwork, whereas this is not the case for art exhibited in the public sphere.
On the other hand, art exhibited in the public sphere can be owned by an individual yet still be public (due to its public location). This is often the case for murals on private walls or graffiti on trains which are private property of companies, used for public transport, moving through the public spaces of city and countryside. A sculptural installation on a private lot or on a terrace is public. Same applies to any installation on natural landscape, be it urban or rural, forest, sky, lake or the bottom of the sea. Private interest festivals and concerts are public, irrelevant of whether they take place within private and fenced, or common grounds (squares, parks, beaches) or whether they are ticketed or not. And the same goes for a dance performance on a square, on the subway or in a mall.
Physical public space is defined as the physical part of the public space. The public (the term is used here in the sense of an audience) is potentially formed by all of the city’s citizens but also others beyond. Firstly, if we take ‘public’ to mean anything that is set on public display then, by extension, everything that is ‘publicly known’ is also public (used here in the sense of the public sphere). In this way, anything that is printed or published online becomes public. Activities with an initial limited audience, or recorded within the domestic sphere can then become viral on such platforms as YouTube. A public work of art that is photographed or recorded and then published online might have millions more viewers online rather than on its original place. Its real lifetime might also be short whereas its online presence is not. Finally, gifs and memes might also be considered one of the latest trends in public art as they are intended for all, created usually anonymously and they have a massive global audience. This final point, however, needs further analysis as it is particularly complex and is beyond the scope of this discussion.
But to return to the public space, beyond its representations and cyberspace, it is imperative to underline once again that in any case this is a place where major financial and political powers of control and authority come into play and as they govern every area of life they also reflect on public art. Naturally, this leads to an essential question: Who makes the decisions about the cities we live in, the laws, memory management and public aesthetics?
On the other hand, uncommissioned public art, whenever this appears, transcends the above and questions the usual rules that pertain to the creator(s) of public art. In this case, publicity elevates its quality as it becomes public art created by the citizens themselves, public art created by the city’s public. This leads us to one more question:
Why uncommissioned public art?
Uncommissioned public art can be useful in the sense that the creators, by appropriating a public space, question the authority of who makes the decision about said space. Thus, they embody the famous ‘right to the city’ (Lefebvre) since they also exhibit signs of creative disobedience by taking advantage of all the privileges of ‘the uses of disorder’ (Sennett). Moreover, the power of uncommissioned public art has been undeniable in forging new art movements such as graffiti, undoubtedly one of the greatest art movements of the late 20th century.
To clarify, the illegal status is not a prerequisite or in itself a political statement. It is however, part of the process of the obtrusive practice and it relates to the methods used as well as the chosen subject/ theme. In turn, the theme is also important, being a sort of imaginative or humorous commentary that sparks discussions and incites critical thinking. This is of imperative importance in crucial situations of social injustice currently experienced around the world. These situations seem even more pronounced nowadays as they are accompanied by a shocking inability to action and discussion, particularly in light of an increasingly globalised and informed world.
This critical line of thought that I am describing here is only rarely, if ever, and most probably hypocritically, expressed by the public art authorities. By these authorities, I mean those who have the financial and political power to fund and commission public art of their liking at a time when the lines between political authority and corporate power become increasingly blurry, if any at all.
As I said above, however, about public art and art in general, so it is for uncommissioned public art: it is necessary, but not necessarily good. It can be successful or unsuccessful and this depends on a number of reasons. Its political motive is not enough as this is an extremely complicated field. Despite having good intentions at heart, very often, attempts of that kind are rash, poorly designed or pretentious. In other cases, the creators might take advantage of a sensitive social issue simply to present themselves as caring and politically active or for publicity purposes (a practice that is found in abundance in the institutionalised artworld).
There is also another side to uncommissioned public art: the appropriation of its mythology, practices, and imagery by the very same status quo of authorities that it stands against. This appropriation took place precisely due to its popularity – hence its commercialisation – for the past two decades among the general youthful public. In part, it also took place because of the need for socially sensitive and political art as well as the need for an aesthetically pleasing environment – often the result of graffiti and ‘street art’.
I wish to clarify here that in the cases of graffiti, and the so-called ‘street art’, if they become institutionalised, they cease being considered uncommissioned public art and are instead just public art (in the case of ‘commissioned graffiti’, many graffiti writers would be justified in refusing to see it as graffiti at all).
Very often, however, works of art become the focus of commodification of public space in order to entice tourists, create street art guided tours and spike rents in the area and, thus, they are ultimately used as means of gentrification. When they are commissioned, these works end up being merely decorative or poorly explored narratives, substituting and endangering art’s potential of being a cause for critical thinking and action. Although not entirely impossible, it is less likely to come across this subversive power of art in commissioned works of art and the rules of the artist selection process are similar to those that can be encountered in any other field of the institutionally legitimate artworld.
One might wonder here if subversive forms of art in the streets should be recognised as having artistic merit and legal authority. This is, naturally, a vast discussion and one should take into consideration the differences in the type of action (installation or performance), the setting (an integral part of public art), and the theme. If we were to analyse murals, for example, we would see that the dynamics of graffiti and its ensuing ‘street art’ paved the way. This somewhat exemplifies society’s advancement and in many cases results in a more interesting and, what appears to be, a friendlier urban environment. Yet, this contrasts with the original objectives and practices by antagonising them, taking over their space (the walls and any other surface), their popularity and generally taints the authenticity of the practice and the integrity of its creators by the entrance of a number of them into the artworld and other commercial activities.
But let us conclude by focusing here on the positive examples mentioned above of society’s acceptance, with the help of communities and individuals, and those of circumventing the big sponsors. These examples showcase the positive interaction between communities and artists. We also need to remember that a lot of artists have turned down major sponsors and they have expressed their unwillingness to ever work for them. Yet, despite the appropriation of the practices of uncommissioned public art and the dominant narrative that presents this appropriation as part of a natural and inevitable progression, there are still those who resist and refuse to participate in institutionalised practices. Needless to say that this is hardly projected on the media due to its non-commercial nature but also because of the fact that these people are hardly ever given a chance to articulate these attitudes due to their non-presence in such events where publicity is granted. In contrast, public discourse is monopolised by those people who do attend such events. There is also another harbinger of positivity and hope. There is a constant and continuous tradition of action that, despite the general appropriation, promises to deliver works and individuals who are ready to strike at any given point, quietly, belatedly perhaps, but in an explosive manner. These might seem like romanticised and utopian ideals, expressing the anticipation of change, and an innocent approach to life and art. However, it is therein that one can locate some of the fundamental characteristics, the motivational force, and the essence of such practices.
‘US Gov’ment killed MLK’. Bushwick, 2016
photography: Orestis Pangalos
A work of clear political and accusatory tone in Brooklyn’s Bushwick, where a number of blocks have been turned into an open mural gallery. In this case, the murals and the graffiti tradition have been turned into objects of commercialisation and gentrification: the area has been upgraded, new residents are coming in while the old ones are being effectively forced out of their homes. The work of art, by its inclusion in the social structure of the area, loses its meaning and power (this view was supported by students of the Media Activism class in Hunter College at a discussion about the political aspects of graffiti in March 2016). In the last week of March, Time Out magazine had a graffiti-inspired mural on its cover, painted especially for this case. The magazine presented Bushwick as one of the best areas to live in the city while a few years ago, it was widely regarded as one of the most dangerous.
’The Koch Brothers’. Lower East Side, 2016
Portrait by Joseph Acker – Prison ID #15967538. Mural by Willow.
The Captured project. People in prison drawing people who should be.
photography: Orestis Pangalos
The graffiti on the Athens Polytechnic Building. National Technical University of Athens, 2015
photography: Maria Papanikolaou
Possibly the most discussed artwork of recent decades in Greece, this graffiti was painted on the emblematic landmark of the Athens Polytechnic Building. It was a reminder of the importance of the setting in public art and the intrusive character of graffiti, it played with the building’s symbolism, and stretched the boundaries of the form as well as the current levels of tolerance for graffiti in Athens. It monopolised media attention for days and sparked a lot of reactions, often negative and hypocritical but also supportive ones, too.
At the end of the film Style Wars 2 (2013) by Veli Silver (from Slovenia) and Toni Amos (from Austria), a Palestinian boy is intervening in the work of a famous artist by reinstalling painted bricks on to the hole and the place where the work of art had previously been exhibited on. The filmmakers had previously painted over works of art by famous artists – including Blu – with blue paint. At the same time, a question is raised as to whether these works intended to move the global opinion in reference to the military regime in Palestine or rather to promote these artists. Half a decade later, Blu, realising that his works were commercialised and used as part of gentrification projects, as if inspired by these art destroyers, he started destroying his own works in Berlin and his hometown, Bologna.
‘Rape Trump’. Indecline, Tijuana, 2015.
Graffiti on the dividing fence (prior to the wall) in the borders between Mexico and the States – a response to Trump’s comments on Mexicans.
‘Decembrists commemoration action’. Voina Group, Moscow, 2008
Action in a supermarket (public art in a private-public space) by the Voina Group.
Video still from ‘Patrias de Nailon’. Javier Jaen and Jose Lafarga, Valencia, 2016
Performance with a projection onto an installation. It was finally dismantled (burnt and demolished) under the simultaneous sounds of music and a firework show.
English translation: Leda Mellou
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