The New Rules of Public Art (NOW), or The New Situations of Situations

This blog post reflect some draft writing from my PhD research.  The focus here is on Situations; particularly some of their publications and projects in the UK and further afield.  The central argument I attempt to make is that Situations' work often directly or indirectly derives from culture- or arts-led regeneration and that this links the organisation to instrumentalism and to gentrification.  Situations are, of course, careful to avoid these perspectives...

I have written about Situations twice previously on this blog: first in Fools Gold – is #FolkestoneGold ‘participatory art’?; and second in The New (un)Rules of Public ArtBoth posts are from 2014 but remain relevant to my perspectives today.

The New Rules of Public Art (NOW), or The New Situations of Situations

Futurefarmers, Flatbread Society, Oslo, 2013. Photo: Max McClure

Bristol-based Situations - an arts organisation funded by Arts Council England as part of its National Portfolio - describes itself as ‘an arts organisation dedicated to commissioning and producing compelling and imaginative new forms of public art’ that help ‘artists to make extraordinary ideas happen in unusual and surprising places, directly engaging in people’s lives and offering alternative ways in which to see, hear and connect to each other’ (Situations, 2016a).  It envisions artists as ‘charismatic agents of change’ (ibid.).  In 2013, Situations published The New Rules of Public Art[1].  The twelve rules mix expansive practice with artist-led sentiment.  So, for example, it suggests public art can: ‘take any form or mode of encounter’; be temporal; create ‘uncertainty’ and ‘the potential for unforeseen things to happen’; interrupt; help see place ‘through an outsider’s eyes’; and ‘imagine alternative ways of living’ (Situations, 2013a).  But, per the ‘New Rules’, public art can also, problematically, I argue, create communities with placemaking able to create ‘unusual places’ when the ‘charismatic agents’ - artists - lead (ibid.).  The focus on artist-led interventions seems to reproduce what Graham and Vass describe as the ‘the bubble of art’, conversing within this bubble (2014, p. 14).  I argue, following Graham and Vass, that Situations’ approach to public art production reflects a preoccupation with art-based ideas in which artists are ‘not accountable for producing consequence in the political field to which they refer in their Art’: a simulation of political, cultural and institutional critique in which artists are only accountable for their Art; a practice in which artists take creative risks whilst avoiding social and political critiques (ibid.).  Perhaps Situations derives its approach from the neo-avant-garde rather than the revolutionary avant-gardism of the Situationist International, reflecting, as John Roberts contests, ‘a general desire to be free of revolutionary pathos altogether, as if the gap between the actual and the ideal was an unnecessary and fussy excrescence on the legacy of the avant-garde’ (2010, p. 721).  It would also seem that Situations’ interventions in ‘the social’ emanate from a position of aesthetic form and artistic innovation; from, as Shannon Jackson wrote, ‘a formal questioning of artistic form and its embedded support systems’ that collapse acts of ‘installation, curating, and spectating’ into ‘material’ for Public Art projects with infinitely extensible boundaries (2011a, p. 44).

Situations is no stranger to using art as a form of regeneration.  For example, it co-produced Wonders of Weston together with Field Art Projects[2] in 2010 that formed part of the national Sea Change initiative (2008-2010) and managed by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE 1999 – 2011) on behalf of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport: ‘a programme of temporary and permanently-sited artworks’ which aimed to ‘use culture to make a difference to seaside resorts, contributing to sustainable, social and economic regeneration’ (Situations, 2010a).  Situations also commissioned The Future Farmers[3] to work on the Flatbread Society project in Bjørvika, Oslo’s waterfront area and a site of contested redevelopment and regeneration[4].  Part of the broader Slow Space[5] commission for which Situations ‘were asked to devise a new curatorial vision for this major site of regeneration on Oslo’s waterfront’ (Situations, 2016b), Flatbread Society was ‘linked to regeneration’ (Situations, 2010b) and promised ‘a new approach to working with artists in sites of regeneration’ (Situations, 2013b).  Interestingly, Bjørvika is described as ‘Norway’s largest urban development project’[6] (Bjørvika Utvikling, 2016).  Regeneration in Bjørvika began in 2008 when the Oslo Opera House opened, complete with eight specially commissioned public art works, including The Other Wall by Olafur Eliasson (Gardiner, 2015).  Doherty described the marble roof of the new opera house as ‘a space free from commercial activity in which to think, to slow down, to congregate, to self-organise’ (Situations, 2016b).  This would appear to somewhat ignore the significance of its role as the centre point for the Bjørvika redevelopment project, however.  Karen Gardiner described how Oslo’s Fjord City regeneration area was funded by Norway’s oil economy and how the boom in public art resulted from the country’s ‘percent-for-art’ programme that requires that ‘between 0.5 and 1.5 percent of the budget of every government building project be set aside for art projects’ (ibid.).  Public Art Norway (KORO) manage the percent-for-art funds and commission artists and consultants but the projects are ‘implemented within the framework of different schemes for government institutions’ (ibid.).  Joar Skrede, however, revealed how the Fjord City regeneration project was contested primarily around concerns about sustainability, public-private partnerships, property density and a lack of planned affordable accommodation (Skrede, 2013).

Folkestone Digs, image courtesy of Situations, 2014.

The organisation also produced Folkestone Digs for the 2014 Folkestone Triennial with artist Michael Sailstorfer in which he hid thirty pieces of gold under the sand of the town’s Outer Harbour beach[7].  The Folkestone Triennial is described as ‘the flagship project of the Creative Foundation[8], an independent visionary arts charity dedicated to enabling the regeneration of the seaside town of Folkestone, in Kent, through creative activity’ (Folkestone Triennial, 2016).  Since their inception in 2002, the Creative Foundation have ‘transformed the old town of Folkestone into a Creative Quarter populated by artists and home to creative industries and a university’ (Creative Foundation, 2016).  Situations are also producing The Tale, a project funded by Arts Council England and described by them as seeking to both develop ‘artists’ skills in working in the public space’ and support ‘the regeneration of Torbay’ (Situations, 2015).  Encounters Arts[9] are one of the delivery partners for The Tale.

In 2015, Situations founding director, Claire Doherty, edited Out of Time, Out of Place – a book about public art that sought to ‘contribute to the increasingly urgent efforts to redefine conventional ideas of where, how and when public art takes place’ (Doherty, 2015, p. 7).  It is notable that Doherty’s comments do not talk about people, about individual people who may experience or be affected by these interventions.  It is beyond the scope of this thesis to explore the book’s many short texts in detail but there is a clear theme that runs throughout: one of artists overcoming ‘local resistance’[10] (Doherty, 2015, p. 11).  For example, Alfredo Jaar’s Skoghall Konsthall (2000) is described as ‘an appropriate precursor’ to the forty projects written about in the book (ibid.) because:

The local authority extended its invitation to Jaar because he was internationally renowned for his work – and the invitation was bound to the hope that the artist would address a need within the town itself: that the public artwork might move the town from the periphery to the centre of Swedish national consciousness; that it might address the absence of cultural provision; that it might (in the commissioner’s eyes at least) act as a symbol of the town’s progressive, contemporary credentials to rival those of Gothenberg or Stockholm (ibid., my italics).

Doherty described Jaar’s work as being ‘one of resistance but, importantly, an act of resistance complicit with the commissioners’ (ibid.).  A contradictory statement.  A clear intention to use art to bring a town from ‘the periphery’ to ‘the centre’.  Jaar’s ‘resistance’ was deliberately ‘provocative’ because, in his opinion, ‘he understood how the dramatic image of burning could act as a cipher of public art as an event beyond Skoghall through the media and the field of art’ (ibid., my italics).  An act, perhaps, of validation rather than validation.  Doherty describes the work as recognising ‘the artist’s potential to contribute to place-making’; that proposed ‘public art as a gathering point and catalyst for change’; that ‘the fleeting moment might be more valuable that the permanent, static public sculpture’; that created a temporal community; that intervened ‘within the economic systems that sustain the social order of a place’; that used ‘media as a distribution mechanism for a remote audience’ (ibid., pp. 11-12).  A spectacle that, whilst denied by Doherty (ibid., p. 12), seems unavoidable, for this is the world in which artists create ‘geological and physical displacements’ (although it seems that Doherty is not referring to displacement in the sense of people being displaced from their homes); where artists conjure ‘mirages that enter the social imagination, setting in motion quiet infections that fundamentally remake place and space’ – that somehow suggest ‘utopian urban futures’ (ibid., p. 13, my italics).  Doherty notes how public art has ‘changed over the past decade’ primarily because curators and commissioners have increasingly shunned (although new art citadels remain incredibly high on many agendas) ‘permanent outcomes’, preferring instead ‘dispersed interventions or cumulative, curated programmes that evolve over space and time’ (ibid., my italics).  But she also acknowledges the emergence of ‘durational programmes’ that frequently require ‘the charismatic agency of the artist to sustain them’ (ibid., p. 14, my italics).

Doherty notes that ‘social engagement in the visual arts … appeared to polarize between antagonism and collaboration’ and suggests that Shannon Jackson’s Social Works (2011) ‘provides one of the clearest definitions’ of how this debate is framed[11] (ibid., my italics).  This seems to be a rather odd reading of Jackson because she is at pains to explode the dominance of visual arts thinking within the field of social practice art[12].  She goes on to claim that Out of Time, Out of Place expounds ‘the potential of public art to expose and respond to the encroachment of corporate interests on public space, to the diminishing opportunities for social cohesion and freedom of speech, and to the invisibility of the displaced and dispossessed in public life’ (ibid., p. 15).  Although it is arguable if any of the forty examples given in the book address these issues.  It is also clear that many of Doherty’s own organisation’s commissions are enmeshed within corporate, state and Art World interests.  Doherty’s narrative is about artists: how they ‘create the capacity for creative illusion’ and act ‘as both insider and outsider’ (ibid.).

Perhaps most relevant to our discussions here is how the book describes Folkestone Digs by Michael Sailstorfer.  The intervention ‘began with a press announcement’ that generated a huge search of the beach by hundreds of ‘treasure-hunters’ (Fite-Wassilak & Doherty, 2015, p. 103).  For the authors, the work ‘played upon the tension between the carnival-like atmosphere of the hunt and the avaricious desire for wealth’ as well as generating ‘a social experience’, rather than ‘individual gratification’ because many of the treasure-hunters ‘came as a group’ (ibid.).  But what was this ‘social experience’?  Group gratification?  The collective capitalist dream played out on a beach in Kent?  The authors describe how the tide ‘constantly … remade’ the ‘site’, with ‘shifting sands’ making the search for gold ‘extremely difficult’, revealing the ‘true plot’: the hunters’ ‘motivations’, ‘unexpected encounters’ and ideas about ‘what art could be’ (ibid.).  And, whilst the intervention seemed temporal, some pieces of gold still lie undiscovered, existing ‘through collective memory’ (ibid.).

Interestingly, Doherty, when introducing a section entitled Disorientation, proposed that Miwon Kwon’s (2000) ‘aesthetics of the wrong place’ resembled ‘the playful, psychogeographical nature of the Situationist dérive’ (2015, pp. 126-127).  Quoting Debord, she limits her description of the dérive as ‘one or more persons during a certain period dropping their relations, their work and leisure activities … letting themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there’ (Debord, 1956).  It is perhaps telling that Doherty does not associate this key Situationist practice with its radical avant-garde roots deeply steeped in the revolutionary Marxism of the period.  Debord’s words, sitting as they do in this text, seem depoliticised, empty.  She does note, however, that, unlike the dérive, the works she described were ‘carefully planned and organized, often commissioned as part of a broader cultural programme’; structured to enable ‘the artist to destabilize our sense of time and place’ (ibid., p. 127).  So, one could argue, the works discussed by Doherty have very little in common with the Situationist dérive.  Similarly, Doherty categorises Futurefarmers’ Flatbread Society project (2013 – ongoing) as reflecting public art’s sense of ‘modelled’ occupation, which resulted from ‘commissioning processes, outreach programmes or as part of larger-scale urban developments’ (ibid., p. 156).  It would seem, in the case of Flatbread Society, to perhaps result from a combination of all three.

It would seem, therefore, that because many of Situations’ projects are inherently linked to broader regeneration and redevelopment initiatives, the organisation is well-versed in utilising what Rosalyn Deutsche describes as ‘the presence of “the aesthetic”’ to legitimise the ‘profoundly authoritarian, technocratic mechanisms’ that transform cities in the service of ‘capital accumulation and state control’ (1992, p. 37).  For, whilst notions of ‘the public’ and ‘art’ often reciprocate notions of ‘universality, openness, [and] inclusion’, the combination of the two words effectively doubles the democratic façade (ibid.).  I would argue that adding the imperative ‘Now’ to the term Public Art, as Doherty does in her book, conveys a clear sense of both immediacy and authority that belies any claims for democracy.  It is therefore unsurprising that Situations has grown in stature not just in the UK but also internationally.

 

[1] To read The New Rules of Public Art (Situations, 2013a) in full, see https://publicartnow.com/2013/12/12/the-new-rules-of-public-art.

[2] See http://www.situations.org.uk/projects/wonders-weston-weston-super-mare-2010.

[3] See http://www.futurefarmers.com.

[4] For more information about this major urban regeneration project, see http://www.bjorvikautvikling.no/english.

[5] See http://www.situations.org.uk/projects/slow-space-bjorvika-2010-17 and http://slowspace.no.

[6] Bjørvika is part of the Fjord City urban regeneration project in one of Europe’s fastest growing cities, Oslo (Skrede, 2016, p. 419).

[7] For more information about Folkestone Digs, see http://www.situations.org.uk/projects/michael-sailstorfer-folkestone-digs, http://www.situations.org.uk/gold-struck-folkestone-triennial and http://www.situations.org.uk/folkestone-digs-film.

[8] For more information about the Creative Foundation, see http://www.creativefoundation.org.uk/about-us.

[9] Encounters Arts are discussed in more detail in a subsequent section.

[10] In this case local people were, when faced with Alfredo Jaar’s proposal to build a paper museum in Skoghall, Sweden then burn it to the ground, unhappy about the plan, ‘particularly around the wastage of materials’.  Nevertheless, the artist ‘succeeded in persuading the company and the town’s authorities’ to go ahead with the ‘work of public art’ (Doherty, 2015, p. 11, my italics).

[11] Doherty quotes the following passage from Social Works: ‘For those who measure a work’s success on its degree of community “self-definition”, its efficacy is measured in its outreach strategies, its means for providing access, the representational demographics of its participants, and its identifiable social outcomes.  Such critical barometers also worry the mediating role of the artist, about whether an artistic vision enables or neutralizes community voices.  But other critical frameworks question the concept of artist-as-community-helpmate on different terms; indeed, for some, a critical barometer starts by questioning the concept of community on which such work relies’ (Jackson, 2011a, p. 44).

[12] See, for instance, the brief discussion about Shannon Jackson’s disdain for the dominance of the aesthetic form within ‘the social’ in the first paragraph of this section.  Instead, she suggests that the ‘social turn’ may have more ‘weight and traction when it provokes an awareness of our enmeshment in systems of support, be they systems of labor, immigration, urban planning, or environmental degradation’ (ibid., p. 45).  This is not to suggest that I support Jackson’s notion of social practice as a form of ‘infrastructural avowal’ but it serves to illustrate how Situations might use misleading references out of context in attempts to legitimise their public art practice.