Is the art trail leading us down the wrong path?

This summer the ‘art trail’ prevailed as the ‘go-to’ family-friendly public art activity.

Bristol’s most successful cultural attraction since Banksy v. Bristol Museum, Gromit Unleashed (Aardman’s fundraiser for Wallace and Gromit’s Grand Appeal to support the expansion of Bristol Children’s Hospital), doubled the city’s visitors over the summer.

Nationally Art Everywhere was billed as the “largest exhibition of its kind in the world”. Over three weeks in August, 22,000 poster sites and billboards across the UK hosted reproductions of over 50 works of art from Sonya Boyce’s She Aint Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On (Some English Rose) to George Stubbs’ Whistlejacket, Anish Kapoor’s As if to Celebrate, I Discovered a Mountain Blooming with Red Flowers sculptural installation to Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott (pictured).

Art Everywhere

Critical responses to the endeavour have begun to emerge which focus on the ineffectiveness of the campaign to promote the nation’s artworks given the dominance and sophistication of contemporary advertising. Joe Turnbull argued in The Guardian this week that, though commendable, the project had failed:

“The positioning of the prints in city centres and transport links meant that most people were probably only able to catch a fleeting glimpse of each artwork, making the art feel disposable and unworthy of prolonged attention, just like the adverts they replaced.”

Sophisticated strategies by artists and commissioners have long been used to produce works which infiltrate the white noise of the contemporary advertising landscape – many of which have used the billboard as a site of agitation: from Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled 1991 (below) to the Docklands Community Poster Project (1981-1991) led by Lorraine Leeson and Peter Dunn; and numerous billboard commissions by organisations internationally from Art on the Underground to Eastside Projects, the High Line to Frieze Projects.


Let’s be clear: the site of the billboard is not the site of production in Art Everywhere but simply the site of promotion (the use of the terms ‘exhibition’ and ‘artworks’  to describe the project are questionable) and in this sense, the crowd-funded project attempted to use the density of coverage across thousands of locations to implant the images of historical and contemporary works into public consciousness.

But what is new here is the exhortation to viewers to seek out the advertisements as an art trail which raises some interesting questions for artists and producers in the public realm.

Biennials and international large-scale exhibitions of art in the public realm have, since the 1970s and more ubiquitously since the early 1990s, utilised the trail as the basis for the visitor experience across specific sites and regions. But as the forms of public art have become dispersed and timespans fluid and durational rather than stable or scheduled, so the guided experience of ‘ticking off’ one work after another has become less and less appropriate, and the press launches, print and maps ineffectual in guiding us to a single place at a single time at which we might fully experience a work. The artist Dora Garcia beautifully encapsulated this during Sculpture Projects Muenster in 2007 by arming “The Beggar,” sole protagonist of her project The Beggar’s Opera with a sign declaring 06 – the number of her work on the exhibition map.

One Day Sculpture

When commissioning One Day Sculpture for New Zealand in 2008-9, one of the most contentious (and ultimately defining) issues for the series was how to tailor communications and interpretative strategies to the needs of projects which might occur under the radar and allow unintended encounters with an artwork. A number of commissioned artists sought to destabilise the promotion of their works as events by working with us to embargo the preannouncement of details of their projects (much to the frustration of some), which allowed the work to be stumbled across by an unintended public. The 20 days of One Day Sculpture projects were scattered over the course of a year across five regions in two islands in the south-western Pacific. Dispersed across time and place, One Day Sculpture operated as a counter exhibition to the art trail demanding either local residence or, at the very least, dedicated pilgrimage beyond the window of a conventional art tourist visit.

But given our collective desire to expand the possibilities for engagement with contemporary art in the public realm alongside increased opportunities for strengthening the connections between tourism and culture in the UK (through funding schemes such as the Arts Council’s Cultural Destinations), how are we to reconcile this desire for stealth and dispersal in public art, with the needs and desires of visitors? How do we match the critical mass and cumulative offer of the art trail whilst encouraging audiences to explore the dispersed elements of just one work?

Secret Cinema - Blade Runner

One possible solution might be to consider structural devices (physical and viral) that offer different entry points for the visitor. Learning from the tactics employed by rave culture and, more recently, Secret Cinema, might the public be encouraged to call a phone number, undertake a set of instructions, follow a twitter feed or figure out their own path through a series of signals to navigate their way to and through an experience of an artwork in the public realm? Might we begin to build an broader understanding of how a work might unfold over time and how engagement with the ideas could begin online?

Might getting lost together become next summer’s cultural activity?

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