Public Art as Public Authorship: Jochen Gerz’s Future Monument

Citizens, Consultation and Representation

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Citizens, Consultation and Representation.
The relation between the public and art in public space is a question we have only begun to explore. The following points are relevant:

  1. Defining the public, and then defining what the public need, is impossible for an artist without responding to general conceptions that are already a part of political discourse of class, economics, ethnic identity and cultural education. Public Authorship, however, appeals to no pre-conception of the ‘public’; any conception of what the public is, emerges through dialogue and conversation over a significant period of time.

  2. Public Authorship is about creating dialogue beginning with people talking, telling their story – it is about stories or narratives, the self-presentation of people through acts of memory. Public Authorship does not (like ‘avant-garde) attempt to construct a site of symbolic oppositions –‘confrontational aesthetics’(interrupting public space; upsetting public expectations, and hoping in time this upset will re-educate the viewing public). This strategy, arguably, only to works (or works effectively) within institutional contexts designated for that task. Public Authorship does not work within designated spaces of art institutions, but through them and around them. It creates discursive spaces within which conceptions and expectations are talked through in everyday language, not institution-specific aesthetic terminology.

Hence Public Authorship is where ‘the publicthrough dialogue; and thus where the artist creates through dialogue. The ‘artistic contentthe works is not their source of significance; the aesthetics of the work, however, are affective, and are affective because form is integrated with text and text symbolically inserts itself into a future dialogue. Future Monumentis not an object whose meaning issues from a single ‘authorspeaks in one unified voice. The artist has a different function. If the public is the author, the artist becomes more of a transcriber, translator or orchestrator of a site of meaning. He does not have controlof the meanings that cross and emerge from the work, but he does have to secure their continuity.The creativity is as much in the process of developing dialogue as it is in the reading of the work after it has been placed in situ. For four years Gerz has located and interacted with all possible sectors, groups, societies, associations and clubs that make up Coventry’s ‘public’. Meetings, both official and non-official, have been held, whereby Gerz explains his project and invites response. Gerz has used student groups to liase with each group and with individuals, recording their responses, often in the form of their own conceptions of art, articulating their own cultural history and even personal life-story.

Public consultationhas become an important part of conventional Public Artprojects; it is carried out usually by representation, i.e. a committee is set up who consults all interested parties like local associations and councillors, and who avail the commissioning body of their expertise. A consensus or part-consensus decision is then made. Often, extensive public consultation is avoided as (a) it is high cost, involving advertisements and public information mechanisms like surveys or questionnaires, and even then it is difficult to get a representative set of figures; and (b) paradoxically, the very process of consultation itself provokes unnecessary or irrational opposition. A high visibility consultation process can lend the work as a vehicle for a socially symbolic protest against local authorities, or the artworld, and thus the work’s powers of aesthetic signification will be overridden by social signification, producing meanings that might have little to do with the actual work in question.
‘Consultationa communication strategy is usually differentiated from PR (public relations strategy). In a high profile Public Art project, however, the two can become one: as the commissioning body is usually a public body, like the City Council, the consultation process becomes an act of public relations. For bodies like a City Council usually understand more than most the way art becomes socially symbolic; a high profile Public Art project will become inseparable from their perpetual need to maintain their own corporate profile (a convincing self-presentation of themselves as ‘in the public interest’).
Most commissioning bodies, like Coventry City Council’s Phoenix Initiative, promoted its commissioned Public Artas (a) celebration of local cultural life; (b) raising the cultural and thus economic profile of the area; (c) the work of famous or respected artists; and (d) involving local residents. Public Authorship does not subvert these functions. But it is not public consultation or PR as normally conceived by a Public Artproject as it does not involve the usualstrategies of communication, or their claims of validation. It does not mediate ‘opinionresponse (which is always abstract) but requiresparticipation. There is no official sociological survey, polling of public opinion in the usual ways. It is done largely through information in public places and the artist and assistants working directly with the recipients of that information.
Public Authorship does not attempt to represent the interests of a coherent public, but consciously invests itself in the social symbolic function of Public Art, the realm of public response. Public is not about art so much as the public capacity for response to art; it uses the response facility art maintains in public spaces in order to register the presence of ‘the publicpublic space. And in doing this, it does not ‘representpublic but symbolically mediates the difference between (a) What the public is (as a sociologically defined mass); and (b) Who the public are(as interrelated individuals each with their own history and identity).
Most Public Artprojects will first undertake some research in order to gauge the appropriateness of a particular artwork in a particular location. The research strategies and information gathering strategies employed are commonly public polls, street polls, interviews and questionnaires. Warwick students attempted the latter with arts professionals and community workers within the West Midlands area. Below is a brief summary of their comments:

  1. All art professionals and community workers consulted were positive and were convinced that Jochen Gerz’s Future Monumentproject contributed to the welfare of the community.

  2. Interviewees were split as to whether a local artist would have been more suitable working in close contact with the community.

  3. Interviewees were split as to whether the public needed be directly involved in determining the shape of the outcome (the work of art).

  4. There was no suspicion on their part that Gerz was costing the community money that would better be spent elsewhere (the most common motive for public suspicion of Public Art).

On the second of these points it occurred to many of us that Jochen as an ‘outsider’foreign national – had an advantage. Artists as well as art works can function on the level of the social symbolic. An outsider does not easily function this way mediators of the interests or values of the State, the local authorities, the national or local art world. Perhaps Public Authorship is by its nature internationalist, where the mediator of public response is itself strategically indefinable: the ‘international’ is still unrepresentable in terms of public experience (as opposed to political ideology).

Another question emerged: all the individuals consulted used the concept of ‘communityas the validation for the project. On this subject it occurred to us that Public Authorship research through dialogue: actively searching for micro-communities and their members an interrogation of the concept of ‘communitythe way the concept is used to validate all kinds of public decision making:

  1. In society there are often only disparate local ‘groupsassociations rather than unified communities or a seamless agglomeration of communities.

  2. There is no simple ‘white’ versus ethnic minority divide: social make up and social dynamics are more complex than the simple categories used by politicians or media.

  3. Community projects, while invigorating for their locale, often remain tied to that locale, and on the level of social symbolism can become entrenched in the already established minority identity of that community. Public Authorship creates a dialogue where social differences do not become social boundaries,or socially defining factors in one’s identity, but points of viewor perspectives from which to speak (or ‘positionsa dialogue process). Rather than ‘securing’s identity, identity can be re-created through the dialogic projection of memory in public space.

  4. Public Authorship, in making ART the site of social dialogue, and not politics or social issues, defuses potential social aggression and further disunity. The main concern of the City Council was that in identifying contemporary racial groups in the context of historical conflicts and enmity, racial tension would be inflamed. No such tension has materialised.

One art worker interviewed made the observation that in her experience the quality of a Public Art project is not the objective values of artistic creativity embodied in the object, but the process and development of the project itself. Public Authorship redefines Public Art as development and process, and not the production of super valuable objects. At the same time, it is lead by an internationally recognised artist, and therefore maintains a general appeal to the kinds of cultural significancecultivated in the artworld. This significance is strategically useful for Public Authorship in maintaining political leverage over the institutions that govern public space. For most process-oriented art or developmental art projects, on the level of social symbolism, can be confined to a role of social therapy.

When questioned, The Director of the Phoenix Initiative, Chris Beck, stated that the public was not directly involved in commissioning the artists and planning the Public Art scheme. He offered four reasons why this was:

  • Some artists assume the right to produce work without public advice, ideas or opinions, and work best that way.

  • Artists generally don’t like to think they are directly responding to ‘the publichave to accommodate public reaction in their work.

  • Public Artshould risk bad reaction: provocative art is better than bland art.

  • Art needs controversy and diversity, and these only come when an artist has the freedom from public contributions.

These comments display a refreshingly progressive attitude towards Public Art projects. They can be placed within the following rationale: the artist is a member of the general public and on the level of social symbolism embodies the freedom of expression accorded to every citizen; in so expressing a socially unrestrained freedom the artist creates a vision of creative originality. Art is validated by its ability to stimulate, and original stimulating work if provocative –is itself symbolic of the diversity of culture and of hope for the human capacity for vision and thus cultural or social transformation.

This is a traditional liberal humanist position, and has indeed allowed many artists be free from the dictates of the authorities or public opinion, which can water down their creative vision for the work of art. Does it, however, embody a conception of an artist that is now questionable? Does it conceive of the artist as the individual autonomous creative figure, accountable to no one but his or her own unique vision. Isn’t there a model of an artistthat responds directly to the public in some way and maintains their artistic individuality? The Future Monumentproject, while not consciously opposing other models of artistic creativity, is a critique of the ‘unique voluntarist artist:

  • It suggests that artists are ultimately accountable in some way to the public when they exhibit in public spaces.

  • It suggests that an art object should not just be ‘art gallery art outdoors’, but should embody something of public experience.

  • It suggests that the artist should be in contact with the public. Artistic production in a post-bourgeois era is still centred upon the socially reticent creative individual. The Director echoed a common problem with Public Artartists: they can be unaware of the nature of the public in that locale, and can be reluctant to face them in public meetings or consultations.

  • It demonstrates that creativity can involve collective activity: public dialogue is a form of collective expression, and Public Authorship can introduce many waysin which groups of people can be active during the changes in the aesthetic shape of their urban environment.

We have considered the way Public Artcan signify meaning on the level of social symbolism; there is a sense in which it also signifies on the level of cultural symbolism, with regard to that sector of the ‘publicas the ‘artworld’. Public Authorship as outlined above, configures a series of alternative criteria for the construction of Public Art; these criteria , responsibility, social involvement, etc. convincing. However, they create a paradigm that is neither possible, practical nor desirable in many Public Artsituations. Gerz himself does not consider Public Authorship functioning as ‘artworld, or claim that Public Authorship is a paradigm to which all Public Artprojects must conform. Yet, Public Authorship does operate on the level of cultural symbolism and stand as paradigmatic more genuine relation between the process of Public Artmaking and the public interest. In doing this it does stand as critique of existing models of Public Art, and unwittingly becomesa mediator of socially symbolic antagonism against ‘art world.

The Director of the Phoenix Initiative stated that out of 50,000pre-paid postcards sent out asking the people of Coventry for their ideas and perspectives only 480 people replied; and only a small fraction of the public turned out to the first two major public meetings held. Public Authorship suggests that public events and PR exercises like these, while certainly important in themselves, hardly touch the general public. The Director of the project also noted that people are usually only interested in a Public Artor regeneration project after the fact – after it is already constructed. It is only then response is forthcoming, and often this is in the form of complaints. Public Authorship would obviate this initial knee-jerk reaction by (a) long periods of community work and (b) not representing the work of one artist whose life bears no relation to the lives of the people whose city it is.
In a Phoenix Initiative survey ascertaining what the public desire most from a regeneration project (such as better parks, better buildings, squares, fountains, etc.) only 4% of responses stated that Public Artwas a significant component of this change in their urban environment (the lowest of thirteen categories of desired outcomes).
Public Authorship addresses this to some degree:

  • In dealing with topics and issues that cannot be denied as to their public importance and social issues, ethical issues and issues of identity resists public apathy. Gerz’s ongoing work has maintained a consistent profile in Coventry’s Press.

  • It takes art outside the orbit (both physically and discursively) of the art gallery institution, obviating the usual cultural barriers between art and the public.

  • It shows how the concept of art can be expanded into areas that do not require specialist language or expertise, but without descending into populist rhetoric or art historical clichés.

Warwick students conducted their own survey of 100 Coventry people on the subject of Public Art. The process of conducting a small consultation project was instructive: there are major caveats every step of the way in collating information about public ‘views’, opinion and reaction (not least the way ‘informed viewpoint’, ‘opinion‘reaction’ offer very different categories of data). And then there are factors affecting the responses of the public, which range from the time of year the consultation takes place, the place, the method by which a person is solicited, and purely ‘chancelike an averse reaction to the appearance of the interviewer!

The 100 people interviewed were solicited randomly, but selected so as to achieve a numerical balance of age and gender. Over 73% of people consulted claimed to be ‘awarePublic Artin the city centre. Despite substantial media attention, and attempts by the Phoenix Initiative and City Council to promote awareness of the impending urban changes, only a third of interviewees were aware of the current Public Artcommissions as part of the regeneration. 80% considered statues the most appropriate form of Public Art; and about the same percentage considered ‘increasing the attractiveness of the environmentmost important function of Public Art. 33% agreed that Public Artwas not awarded enough public funding; 43% said funding was adequate; 23% stated it was too generous. Interestingly, the responses were very similar in all age groups.
Reproducing the full empirical data of the student research consultation would be of little use here. According to strict sociological data collation methods, the survey (like many used in the process of public consultation) do not supply an objective and comprehensive view; they supply an ‘informed impression’. The survey was an important exercise in experiencing the difficulty of standard methods of consultation, and the challenge all public organisations face when in need of some objective gauge of the public mind.
A conventional consultation process in a Public Artproject would put a high priority on single votes and consent of individuals through polling. And of course, a petition is a way of gaining credibility when complaining about Public Art. Public Authorship may seek the acknowledgement of the public through the return of a questionnaire, but the validity of the project does not rest upon getting votes or a proportion of the population’s support. For the general Public, individual votes are seen as the mark of democracy process of political representation truly functioning. However, votes themselves are part of a complex political process of communication, and can also be the vehicle of prejudice and the worse kinds of populism, which does not work in the public interest. Public Authorship promotes political dialogue without political factions or parties, and promotes public interaction without populism.

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