Points of Departure: Public Art’s Intentions, Indignities, and Interventions

Patricia C. Phillips takes a close look at today’s public art and asks the hard questions.

Mel Chin/The GALA Committee, “Bar Graph” (from a set for Melrose Place), 1997. Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles/Lyle Ashton Harris.

In the event that it escaped your notice, artist Mel Chin and the GALA Committee orchestrated a strategic invasion of selected pages of the December issue of Sculpture. Included were an “International Understanding” eye chart, a “Be Traditional” one-eighth-page advertisement, a one-quarter-page plea to subscribe, and a full page devoted to A.P. Ryder and the shocking decline of water quality in the United States. The GALA Committee’s interventions in the monthly art magazine format reconfigured the borders between business as usual and subtle insinuation. Although the project was initially easy to overlook, once recognized, the work is tenacious-impossible to dismiss. As with much of the group’s work, it adopts the conventions of a prevailing format (television production, advertising, art magazine) to develop intelligent, aggressive articulations.

Started by Chin when he was a visiting professor at the University of Georgia in Athens, the collaborative group originally consisted of students from the University of Georgia (GA) and the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles (LA). This core group expands to accommodate the conditions of particular projects. The group’s first and most significant project was the creation of objects for use on the sets of the weekly television show, Melrose Place. Not simply subversive or subliminal, the GALA Committee’s work embraced and quietly transformed this most ubiquitous form of mass communication. Introducing topics such as infectious disease and environmental degradation, the GALA Committee’s unobtrusive work gave new dimensions to Melrose Place’s weekly sets and characters. Whether producing a bed ensemble with an overall pattern of unrolled condoms or placing bottles on the shelves of a bar whose altered labels describe a history of alcohol consumption (Bar Graph), GALA has actively sought opportunities to exploit this-and other-pervasive public environments. Fans of the weekly program of professional angst and personal intrigue have established Melrose Place sites on the Internet. Consequently, the GALA Committee’s projects circulate with smart adaptability in this other media. We have come a long way from the jewel in the crown or the turd in the plaza (a colorful phrase used by SITE’s James Wines and others) typologies of public art.

Mel Chin/The GALA Committee, “Bar Graph” (from a set for Melrose Place), 1997. Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles / Lyle Ashton Harris.

As many presaged, through television the living room has become a public space, if not the new commons. The GALA Committee’s information-laden objects on the sets of Melrose Place have reached millions on a weekly basis, as television audiences throughout the world have either overlooked or experienced them on any number of levels of recognition. In spite of increasing appeals to verify and defend its influence and outreach, art’s impact is dependably imprecise and incalculable. Philosophical and strategic objectives remain more reliable and concrete subjects. Chin’s desire to break out of the art world (with this and other projects) has expanded the discourse on contemporary art. In provocative ways, the GALA Committee strongly challenges the art world of galleries and museums, as well as conventional assumptions, situations, and opportunities for public art. It is these shifting, supple dimensions of public art that attract, as well as confound.

Undoubtedly, as public art broadens and diversifies its contexts there will be rich opportunities and increased responsibilities for artists, audiences, and critics. But as public artists occupy fields, sites, or organizations where other professionals, teachers, administrators, and designers traditionally have worked, a clarity of intentions is compulsory. What happens when public art engages a new situation or format? What are the artist’s objectives and are they realistic? How do private and public continue to inform each other? And if public art is going to transgress boundaries, does it remain important to differentiate collective and private motives and spaces?

The psychological and political dimensions of public and private have been set adrift by rapid changes in social and technological environments and insatiable appetites stimulated by market-driven, commodity-crazed economies. The intersection of public and private constantly shifts and both realms often exist simultaneously. Perhaps the most germane distinction between private art and public art is economic. Some-even most-independent work is produced for the market, finding its way through purchases and acquisitions into personal and public collections. Although not entirely exempt from these mercantile pressures, public art responds to other capitalistic forces of supply and demand; approval develops in other ways. But it is only occasionally a brave alternative. Rosalyn Deutsche and other critics have disclosed that public art can be alarmingly compliant.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Unburning Freedom Hall (from the “Uncommon Sense”exhibition), 1997. Video installation and meeting place with 600 tons of crushed glass, glass table, and mixed media. Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles / Lyle Ashton Harris

In the past decade, the geography and economy of public art may be the most significant sites of change. When I first began to write about public art more than a dozen years ago, the dominant model was a large sculpture-permanent or temporary-located in a civic or quasi-public space. The site could be an open space in the urban fabric generally understood as part of public territory. An often perturbing alternative to this was the proliferation of outside or inside areas that were provided, hosted, and, more importantly, regulated, by a corporation or private developer. These quasi-public spaces were available during particular hours and to a selected clientele. There were published and unstated rules. The projects in these public spaces might be funded by state and federal programs or by private and corporate support.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, “Touch Sanitation”, 1984. Mixed-media installation at Ronald Feldman Gallery and Marine Transfer Station, 59th Street and Hudson River, NY. Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York.

Public sites as formal settings for art remain a conspicuous manifestation. I suspect that if Komar and Melamid were to conduct a “People’s Choice for Public Art,” the statue or fountain in the middle of the plaza would win hands down above any other consideration of site, subject, or material evidence. And yet theory and discourse on public art are routinely dismissive, if not disdainful, of these familiar manifestations of public art. A review of recent projects, publications, and conferences indicates that public art has an inquiring, critical potential that some of its most notable achievements leave unexamined. An interest and a funding structure for projects in public spaces still exist, but there are clear signs of a growing preoccupation with the content and structure of communities and institutions that generally serve and periodically define different publics-the workplace, neighborhoods, schools, museums, transportation facilities, and other major urban systems. An increasing number of artists maneuver in the intricate web of networks that chronically shape and reproduce ideas of the “public.” Funding support for this work is another complex skein. Projects are often sponsored by independent art organizations and selected state or federal programs, and a combination of private and public funds. Some of the work is artist-initiated, taking more autonomous and idiosyncratic paths toward realization.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, The Social Mirror, 1983. Performance/sculpture with mirrored garbage truck. Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York / Marita Sturken.

The January 1998 issue of Harper’s included critic Dave Hickey’s essay “Why Art Should Be Bad,” excerpted from his book “Air Guitar”. As Hickey depicted and diagnosed with lucid amusement the current plight of art, artists, and the marketplace, I wondered how some of his provocative observations might apply to the subject of public art. (Hickey does not typically take on this arena, but how fascinating and shocking this would be!) He proposes a suspension of holier-than-thou attitudes and an acceptance of art’s frivolous, even unsavory, characteristics. Without addressing this particular proposition, I am intrigued by his appeal that artists “be more concerned with good effects than dramatizing their good intentions.” (p. 16)

It is paradoxical that despite conspicuous controversies in the past 15 years, many people would argue that public art is generally a bounty of good intentions. Obvious exceptions aside, there is a common assumption that public art seeks to maintain an equation with common good. The “good” often arrives in the form of an amenity or diversion, but artists’ intentions, if not high-minded, are generally perceived as sincere. But what artistic event or evidence is good for a community? What will people admire and identify with? How does art satisfy? How do people benefit from public art? These and other questions indicate that “good effects” are more irksome.

With few magazines and other publications even marginally interested in the public agenda, there are only sporadic surges of thoughtful public art criticism. But some recent publications, conferences, and projects have focused on issues and have stimulated conversation beyond the explicit “dramatized good intentions” to more evasive “good effects.” The lines have been drawn for some time between traditional-static-formal, and speculative-dynamic- contextual dimensions of contemporary public art practices. The highly publicized “Culture in Action” project (1993) announced that, in spite of the predominant model of sculptures, murals, and amenities in cities and communities, public art has never been a single-minded, object-driven enterprise. Organized by curator and writer Mary Jane Jacob for Sculpture Chicago, “Culture in Action” dispersed a group of artists to diverse neighborhoods in Chicago to pursue community-based art projects.

Krzystof Wodiczko, Alien Staff, 1992. Performance piece featuring immigrants carrying “story-telling” equipment, Barcelona, Spain.

In most cases, participating artists identified groups and constituencies that functioned as new hybrids of collaborator, client, or context. Ideally, if not actually, communities led artists to pressing subjects and issues. Factory workers, residents of public housing, neighborhood teenagers, or the past and present community of women in the city were anchors and incentives for a broad range of artistic activities. Jacob was the first national curator to organize and promote such a high-profile, community-based public art initiative. (“Culture in Action” was presaged by her earlier exhibition, “Places with a Past,” in Charleston, South Carolina, as well as a number of activist precedents including the Chicago Mural Movement.) A consequence of this and other projects was that the respective roles of artists, administrators, curators, and critics became more discursive and negotiable, and “good effects”-the aesthetic productions of prolonged process-became sundry and shifty.

Arriving in 1995, hard on the heels of the Chicago project, was a series of essays collected and edited by artist Suzanne Lacy (also a participant in “Culture in Action”). “Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art” remains a critical text at a significant juncture in public art practice. The book’s essays cited ongoing and new projects and diversified publics, while framing some of the important, often intractable, issues of situating a public and an artist in public art.

It is difficult to condemn the “good intentions” of these and other projects, but motive and outcome have been examined and challenged. Critic Miwon Kwon, among others, has questioned this community-based work for its opportunistic involvement of individuals in order to produce work with little lasting significance for the community that it employs (or exploits.) In the fall 1996 issue of Documents she writes:

Certainly, good intentions cannot blind us to critical insights. Nor should they allow us to be routinely dismissive; good intentions often produce good effects. Five years ago I also raised issues about a new troupe of artists that was traveling the globe to produce work for particular projects or expositions.1 Whether involved in international distribution or regional remediation, the predictable roster of artists began to constitute a packaged exhibition. Even with the requisite preliminary visits, there was the succinct sense of artists and their works being parachuted into fashioned, artificial opportunities. It was a gunslinger approach to public art. The works were often gratuitously site-specific; community was an abstraction and occasionally a convenient justification.

Given these reservations, it is important to differentiate modalities and to identify pertinent issues. How do we (critics and artists) establish and clarify positions without being reductive, shallow, sentimental, or noncommittal? How do we map the critical points in between displaced, aloof, and specific-but opportunistic-public art?

“Culture in Action” remains a precedent for similar initiatives, such as the Arts Festival of Atlanta’s 1996 “Conversations in the Castle” (also curated by Jacob) and the Three Rivers Arts Festival’s 1996 “Points of Entry.” The artists in “Points of Entry” formed different concepts and methodologies to work-often over a prolonged period of time-with community groups. Artist Ann Carlson worked within the health care system shadowing employees in neonatal and obstetrical units. Group Material appropriated the festival program guide, adding passages about Pittsburgh’s hidden histories-elicited during a radio call-in program. The accumulated voices challenged the “professionalization of community-based art” and complicated any secure concept of community, “by introducing unexpected observations, critiques, and agendas.” (“Points of Entry” catalogue, p. 23)

Do we, how do we, and should we bring different critical expectations to this work? Does community-based work fail because of unreasonable critical positions? Or does it succeed because good intentions are irreproachable? Clearly, critics must guard against cynicism or seduction.

Krzystof Wodiczko, Mouthpiece and Alien Staff, 1995. Performance/sculpture, Helsinki, Finland. Galerie Lelong, New York.

Community-informed work is not univalent. It is important to acknowledge and examine independent strategies and to consider subsequent projects for their particular focus. Is a project simply a knock-off or is there an enhancement-a fresh exploration of relevant ideas? What are acceptable ways for an artist to learn about and work with a community in an ethically and aesthetically responsible way? In spite of its many perils and limitations, how do we ensure that an engagement of community remains a permissible subject-even a central mission-for public art?

As artists enter public institutions, they must thoughtfully study and experience particular cultures and their histories in order to clarify what they hope to accomplish in an institutional environment. For example, with many programs and incentives in place, more artists now have opportunities to work in public schools. They sometimes produce work with, and presumably for, students. Unlike work in a public site in the city, the student citizen may not have the same choices to engage or avoid work. Public art projects often are adopted by a course or curriculum; students may be enthusiastic participants or disenfranchised captives of a belabored process. Schools are not always constructive environments; they are never neutral sites. Public artists working in school environments are not art teachers; they are temporary visitors and potential insurgents. It is important to understand the circumstances-the opportunities and responsibilities-of this kind of work. Do good intentions mean to accept or contest institutional conditions? And how do these cultures and contexts influence andperceive good effects?

Systems have histories that embody dynamic characteristics. Institutions engage and employ people, and it is essential to acknowledge the conditions of scrutiny and service that an artist may unwittingly support. In truth, as much as I have advocated for artists to embrace “public” as an errant idea rather than a fixed site, the research, analysis, and insight required for artists to work critically and constructively in schools, with transportation and maintenance systems, or in art environments is a daunting, often discouraging task. All institutions are weavings of opportunity, expectation, compromise, and prospective failure. They are concurrently-and paradoxically-tenacious and fragile, which is all the more reason for artists to seek opportunities and define new roles in these public worlds.

If lucky, most artists work on a series of independent projects. A park here, a school there, and an exhibition next year. Probably the most thorough way that an artist can understand the institution as site and subject matter is through prolonged, sustained involvement. Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s many years as artist-in-residence with the New York City Department of Sanitation is a prime example. After almost two decades, she understands the systemic intricacies and the multiple roles required of an artist to remain intellectually and artistically agile enough to deal with the changes and constraints of a vast municipal organization. But this is neither structurally nor economically feasible for most artists. So how do we accept the existing limitations and still encourage the most challenging, responsible work to flourish? How do artists enter new communities equipped with incisive questions, clear objectives, and an openness to outcome?

How can public art be provocative in a political and economic atmosphere where controversy is seen as an impediment to funding and another nail in the coffin of critical public art? Thinking again of Dave Hickey’s passionately honed and possibly heretical observations, should public art be anything but bad? Can it afford to be anything but good? This is the internal, irreconcilable dilemma-and opportunity-of public art. To be public in the fullest sense of the word, it must be difficult, disturbing-and sometimes bad. To be supported, funded, and preserved, it must be agreeable, inspiring-and good. How can public art abstain from a critical position in public institutions? But how does critical work find its way into institutional sites? If public art simply treats complex sites as neutral settings, why do we need it? And if it is simply appropriate and acquiescent, why would we want it? As members of the public, artists can challenge and propose a shared vision that opens new perspectives and angles on these vexing issues.

Rick Lowe, Watts House Project (from “Uncommon Sense” exhibition), 1997. Open-frame house parallels rebuilding projects. Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles / Lyle Ashton Harris.

Some will argue that public art should be easy to “get.” I suggest that public art is sometimes hard to accept-that it can insistently raise questions and issues that challenge our complacency and confusion about our place in the public world. Of course, this may be a recipe for disaster, but the other alternative is a franchise of user-friendly art. In spite of some artists’ and critics’ attempts to legislate (to make certain subjects or strategies off limits), public art is inherently political and constitutionally problematic. Community-informed public art remains the most promising model for deployment and involvement. It is where artists have the most promising and demanding opportunities to embrace the irreconcilable, insurgent aspects of public art and to generate creative, constructive momentum with other members of the public.

Much like Chin and his collaborators invaded prime-time television, the exhibition “Uncommon Sense” occupied the art museum as a site for public projects and interventions. Organized for a particular museum and urban environment, the exhibition is generously documented in a publication. Received with confusion, if not contempt, in some quarters, the exhibition provides another useful case study. Curated by Tom Finkelpearl and Julie Lazar, the exhibition sought “to create a public dialogue within a space that is historically hostile to this sort of endeavor.” (“Uncommon Sense” catalogue, p. 32) Finkelpearl cites projects that take art audiences away from galleries and museums into cities and communities (such as “Places with a Past”), but he also advocates for “fostering interaction” in the museum. (Ibid.) Lazar references Joseph Beuys’s ideas on art and teaching. She asks: “How can a museum, which produces (one-way) transmissions of curatorial theses, become engaged in sympathetic dialogues or debates with artists and audiences?” (Ibid., p. 40) But she also cautions that the “projects may not look like art at all.” (Ibid., p. 41) It is important to remember that “Culture in Action” stayed in the streets. “Uncommon Sense” was a bold speculation that the time was right for this kind of initiative in the art institution. Perhaps its mixed reception indicates that the time was ripe.

For “Uncommon Sense,” most of the artists worked in neighborhoods and municipal systems with special populations, including fire stations, community centers, classrooms, and rodeos, in order to produce work for exhibition. The museum served as a facilitating, connective site. Did the exhibition bravely and cogently challenge the conventions of this institutional culture, or was it a disappointing occasion of the domestication of public art? Was it an inroad or a retreat? Did public art enrich or subvert the predictable programs of art appreciation, or did it lose its edge, leaving the Museum of Contemporary Art unaffected and the art itself impoverished? Good intentions, good effects?

In her essay in “Uncommon Sense,” Marita Sturken reminds us that the success of each of these projects was contingent on process. And, as she suggests, the merits of the entire exhibition must also be based on a curatorial process which had negotiation as its subject and methodology. “These works have pushed the traditional art negotiation with materials and conceptual ideas, to engage with the negotiation of workers, television producers, businesses, and the city itself.” (p. 78) Process and negotiation are invaluable, but they are never isolated from intent or content. They are not unquestionably or uncritically good.

Based on a conference at the San Francisco Art Institute, the publication “Veiled Histories: The Body, Places, and Public Art” (New York: Critical Press, 1997) reveals another level of negotiations that looks directly at private and public as configured in the corporeal and symbolic body. As editor Anna Novakov writes: “Through unveiling the personal body, both physically and metaphorically, one is able to gain access to the historical constructions of the enveloping social body. The street is the arena for the playing out of this exchange.” (p. 4) In contrasting ways the public artists’ responsibility is a prolonged involvement with the many dimensions of negotiation, whether beginning with the scale of immigrants’ ignored or scorned bodies, or institutions’ dominant and privileged cultures. In contrast to “Culture in Action,” for most of the artists represented in this book (Dennis Adams, Krzysztof Wodiczko, Marina Abramovic, and others) political subjects and public interrogations lead them to individuals and communities. It is important to distinguish between work that emerges from artists working with communities from work that develops from artists’ theoretical/ aesthetic positions that connect with a relevant constituency. Given these contrasting strategies, it is simply too easy to see community-informed work as either wholly constructive or coercive.

Not surprisingly, there are many examples of “good intentions” and a paucity of “good effects” that conform to a historical understanding of what art is, where we encounter it, and what is the acceptable-or expected-range of physical evidence.

Public art has reached a point where the extent of the variables has produced a shocking critical crisis. Not only are the actual forms and duration of public artunpredictable and errant, but the contexts are far-ranging and difficult to understand thoroughly without prolonged research and experience. Most approaches to art criticism are ill-equipped and disinclined to address much of this work. It is this predicament that creates a reluctance to tackle unruly issues and new subjects (a vacuum), or produces a critical “rush to judgment” of egregious oversight (an indignity).

Community-informed, institutionally based public art generally does not seek or find closure. Projects are frequently dispersed, decentralized, and discursive. Much of it is unmistakably unwieldy, but rather than dismiss challenging, even courageous art, it is important to ask questions about process and result. What kind of administrative support and critical environment are required to support and challenge new work? Can an illumination of process embedded in content enable us to make meaningful connections between good intentions and good effects?

Public art continues to summon new concepts of the artist and new ways of working. But public art fails when it misunderstands its intrinsic connection to all art. And criticism misleads when it neglects to recognize its history or its speculative role in new contexts. Opinions must be points of departure rather than final destinations. Public artists must begin with clear objectives and accept that outcomes must remain open, unforced. Critics must avoid being smitten with good intentions or blinded by good effects. Perhaps for all of us who share a critical commitment to public art, the best effect is better process.

Patricia C. Phillips is a critic, a curator, and an educator.

1 Patricia C. Phillips, “Invest in the Future: Patronize the Living Artist,” in Jan Brand, Catelijne De Muynck, and Jouke Kleerebezem, Allocations. 1992, pp. 9-20.