Lighting the Touchpaper: Public Art as Situation or Spectacle, Katy Beinart

Lighting the touchpaper: Public art as situation or spectacle

Alfredo Jaar Images courtesy the artist and Galerie Lelong, New York

Alfredo Jaar, The Skoghall Konsthall (2000). Image courtesy the artist and Galerie Lelong, New York

“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all life presents as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”

“The spectacle is not a collection of images, rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”

Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 1967.

Public Art (Now) is an event, a book, and a manifesto*. At the launch event at the Whitechapel gallery a packed out room heard contributions from Nato Thompson of Creative Time, artist Heather Morison, Situations Director Claire Doherty and Magdalena Malm, Director of Sweden’s Public Art Agency. Meanwhile the conversation was livestreamed around the world and broadcast by contemporary art magazine this is tomorrow, and the twittersphere exploded with #publicartnow tweets. The launch seemed to epitomise in part the nature of the new public art: immediate, event-based, social media friendly, mimetic and edgy.

The book attempts to provide some touchstones of a new typology of public art, presenting 40 public art projects and five conversations between artists and curators divided into categories of Displacement, Intervention, Disorientation, Occupation, and Perpetuation. These terms reference Situationism and the radical activism of the 1960s and 70s, but it seems like there is still a fine line between spectacle and situation. Debord critiqued the society of the spectacle as a mediated consumption of life through images, and instead he proposed to wake up the spectator ‘through radical action in the form of the construction of situations…that bring a revolutionary reordering of life, politics, and art.’ The artworks of Public Art (Now) often use the strategies of Situationism, but do they disrupt our understanding of our mediated landscape or end up caught within it? Perhaps as the book suggests, they embody the contradictory pull ‘between the dream of an ideal society and the circumstances of the world in which we live.’

In Situations (2009), Claire Doherty used the term ‘situation’ to move away from site-specific art and instead chart a genealogy from the Situationists to contemporary artists works that respond to, produce and destabilize place and locality. She defines the ‘tactical practices’ used by these artists, or what Jane Rendell describes as ‘Critical Spatial Practices’, as those that have the potential to be critical within the public sphere (as opposed to a media stunt, or a spectacle). The intention of Public Art (Now) is in part to continue a discussion of public art as an arena in which artists are rethinking space and time, using displacements to shake up corporate encroachment and ideas of permanence. This is in sharp contrast to Jonathon Jones’ definition of public art as ‘a production line for boring art…mavericks have no place in its dreary ethic.’ Jones has written elsewhere of the lack of belief or values evident in most public art without recognising the politics inherent in much of the work represented in Public Art (Now) and new public art elsewhere.

So as Claire asks in opening the event, ‘what’s at stake now? What do we want to believe in?’ Nato Thompson, while seeing ‘endless possibilities’ in public art with the expanse of the city as canvas, proposes that the media is an expanding area of ‘publicness’, and that artists are increasingly becoming content providers for media platforms, for example through the Creative Time reports. Heather Morison describes how an arson attack on their work ‘Luna Park’ brought forth an outpouring of support for the work on social media, and the work became a story; Claire refers to Alfredo Jaar’s paper mill which he deliberately burnt down, intentionally creating a local myth. These examples highlight the different ways artworks can be transformed by media; while this is not inherently a good or bad thing, the mediated response to work changes our understanding of the work itself.

It’s difficult. Of course commissioners and artists, no matter how critical or radical their intention, need the media. Funding demands a public presence beyond the event itself, and it is hard to think of a definition of success as an artist hiding away and not promoting the work. An added difficulty is that while the work may be critical from the art critics or commissioners understanding, language is key; wider media coverage can miss the point. Michael Sailstorfer’s Folkestone Digs for the 2014 Folkestone Triennale created a media frenzy at the time, and has subsequently been viewed both as a positive and negative representation of the issues currently facing Folkestone. A recent article called the artwork a ‘documentary of despair’ while a response letter highlighted the positive differences art has made to the town. This returns to the question of how the media frames the work; we have to accept that work in public comes into a critical space, one not limited to art criticism, and one that has the power to re-frame the work beyond our intentions.

Michael Sailstorfer, Folkestone Digs Photos

Michael Sailstorfer, Folkestone Digs (2014). Photo: Eloise Dunwell

Last year as part of artists group Figure Ground I drove a caravan around the UK, interviewing artists about their work in the public realm. Most of these were ‘emerging’, working locally over long periods of time, had thought carefully about the intention and effect of the their practice, and were making quietly provocative, subversive work. They struggled to get funding, curatorial or producer support.

On the flipside, many artists who are commissioned by producers are already successful gallery based artists, being brought into the public realm with a support team in place.

The speakers acknowledge the need to change institutional structure in order to allow new forms of public art to emerge, and the need for artists, producers and curators to gain skills to make public art work in reality. Another change that might be interesting to explore is how public art could shift hierarchies, and allow artists at different stages of their career to develop projects they have already initiated. Magdalena’s leadership of Sweden’s state-run Public Art Agency has seen her transform the institution, ‘adding temporary projects as a laboratory, the heart of the organisation, which keeps everything else alive and is the way we are reminded of what artists themselves want to pursue.’ She quotes Marina Garces: ‘If you really want to step into reality, then you have to be ready to transform.’ But in an advanced capitalist society, transformation can all too easily be co-opted.

Garces goes on to say ‘…such transformations are not necessarily the guarantee of a re-encounter between the creation and the political. We see how easily they reproduce new forms of banality and new spaces for self-consumption and recognition.’ She calls for a deeper engagement in reality, quoting Peter Sloterdijk: ‘If things have come close enough to burn us, there should appear a critique that expresses this burn. It is not so much a matter of a proper distance as one of proper proximity.’

I’m reminded of the arson attack on Morison’s Luna Park, and the proximity this suggests. Getting close can mean getting hurt, abandoning what you thought you knew, and taking risks. There is a bravery to some of the work in Public Art (Now) and to the message it carries, but it is perhaps inevitable that in representing it, it becomes a part of the spectacle. This is a key problematic of working in the public realm, and a challenge for developing a new public art.


Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle. 1967

*The New Rules of Public Art,

Claire Doherty (ed.) Out of Time, Out of Place: Public Art (Now), Art Books Publishing, 2015

Claire Doherty (ed.) Situations, Whitechapel Documents of Contemporary Art, 2009

Jonathon Jones, The fate of Wallinger’s horse shows why public art cannot be good art, The Guardian 5th July 2011.

Jonathon Jones, Named and shamed: the six worst works of British public art, The Guardian, 13th February 2015

Stephen Armstrong and Maruxa Ruiz del Árbol, Why the digging has never stopped in England’s gold-rush town, The Guardian, Thursday 16 April 2015

Alastair Upton, Why art works for us at the Folkestone Triennial, Letters, The Guardian, Monday 20th April 2015.

Marina Garces, ‘Honesty with the real’, Journal of Aesthetics and Culture, Vol. 4 (2012)


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