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Going Public – Telling it as it is?

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Boom by Alex Reynolds

Boom by Alex Reynolds

Boom by Alex Reynolds

. by Falke Pisano  Francesco Pedraglio &

Intervention in El Correo by Martha Rosler

Intervention in El Correo by Martha Rosler
European Network of Public Art Producers,
Mar 22, 2012 - Mar 24, 2012
Bilbao, Spain

Going Public – Telling it as it is?
by Jaime Cuenca

Is Public Art Really Public?
On the "Going Public – Telling it as it is?" Symposium

"Public art" is one of those expressions that wants to say more than it really does. It seems to embody the perfect boundary for accomplishing one of the old dreams of modern art: bypassing art institutions and addressing the viewer directly. It would seem that by avoiding museums and galleries art can eliminate having to negotiate with a dense array of political and economic commitments and direct its pure, unsullied message at the very center of social life. The artist would thus regain the practical effectiveness that institutions have undermined and be able to transform society through aesthetic media. Modern art has periodically abandoned itself to this venerable reverie for more than a century, and the expression "public art" now seems to lend itself to that dream very effectively, perhaps because of its etymological root, the Latin populus (people).

I don’t mean to deny the historical relevance of many of today’s public-art offerings: on the contrary, I think they explore an indispensable avenue that today’s art could not ignore without feelings of guilt. Instead my aim is to draw attention to the need to discuss the concept itself, while making a distinction between what it wants to say and what it actually says. What it wants to say has a lot to do with the fantasy I referred to while being all-too naive; what it actually says is not at all clear and says too little. The semantic vagueness of the concept is such that many approaches to art can effortlessly meet the vague requirements behind public art and can thus be justified by virtue of the dream it embodies. It is only by subjecting the concept to serious discussion that can we separate worthy proposals from those that hide their deficiencies through this hazy way of legitimizing themselves. The "Going Public – Telling it as it is?" symposium held in Bilbao, Spain, from 22 to 24 March of this year, focuses on this much-needed discussion.

Organized by ENPAP – the European Network of Public Art Producers – and coordinated by consonni, the symposium addressed a set of different artistic devices characterized by the aim of reflecting on storytelling as a means of producing and viewing public-art works. This reflection was conducted through some performance conferences by various artists, and through art proposals* claiming to be public art. The exercise in reflection was practice-based; a very consistent approach, bearing in mind that ENPAP is made up of six organizations that can be viewed as producers of public art: BAC-Baltic Art Center (Visby, Sweden), consonni (Bilbao, Spain), Mossutställningar (Stockholm, Sweden), Situations (Bristol, United Kingdom), SKOR-Foundation for Art and Public Domain (Amsterdam, the Netherlands) and Vector Association (Iasi, Rumania).

On the first day of the symposium several art interventions took place in the media and in different parts of the city. Martha Rosler and Phil Collins intervened in two local newspapers (El Correo and Birria), while Basque television showed María Ruido’s film, Electro Class, produced by consonni. Meanwhile, Itziar Barrio’s project We could have had it all was on show at the Teatro Arriaga and the adjacent plaza for much of the day, and two showings of Boom, a performance conceived by Alex Reynolds for the window of a disused video club, were also held. The presence of these works at the symposium reflected the aim of defining public art deictically, i.e., by showing specific examples. They should be taken into account while they simultaneously demonstrate the validity of different attempts to define public art. Before commenting on the specific content of these interventions, we should point out something that deserves special mention, which is that they were all conducted outside the confines of the traditional institutions of the world of art. It could be said that their localization alone is what makes them public art, but this way of characterizing the concept is not without its problems. I shall point out two issues at hand.

Firstly, while it is admittedly useful to refer to the art found outside the museum and gallery network as a genre, it is not clear in what sense such art can be called "public". As the opposite meaning of "private", "public" usually points to a form of property. In this case, however, it only serves to complicate the issue. Much of the artwork displayed in museums is State-owned and is therefore public property, but that does not make it public art. As for the work presented at the symposium, the very question of their property seems out of place: how could anyone own Itziar Barrios’s project or Alex Reynolds’s performance? Even if it were actually possible, it is clear that no government today could be considered the owner of such works. Another possibility would be to view the concept of ownership in Marxist terms, not of the works of art themselves, but of their means of production. These were provided by consonni, as the producer of the two interventions mentioned above. But here one cannot speak of public property either, since in legal terms consonni is a privately-owned non-profit association. The interventions were predominantly government-funded, but not altogether: private concerns such as El Correo and Berria made a financial contribution to the symposium by not charging for the space used by Martha Rosler and Phil Collins in their newspapers.

By and large, when one talks about "public art" one is not referring so much to the production or financing of the work, but to its location: "public art" is art made in a public space. But once again this apparent definition just complicates the issue all the more: what does "public space" really mean? If we understand it to mean a space that is not owned by anyone in particular, then we must conclude that one of the interventions at the symposium was not public art, since Alex Reynolds’s performance took place in an unused commercial space temporarily loaned by its owner. We would be facing the same problem if we were to understand, even more trivially, that a "public space" is synonymous with an "open-air space". The only remaining option is to assume that in this context "public" means "not pertaining to a gallery or a museum". This is acceptable for the purposes of respecting a general convention, but naturally there is no real reason that can justify such an improper use of the term.

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