What's public art, anyway?

Bo Madestrand, bomad@algonet.se Copyright, 1996


The Monument

The Marble Entertainer

It's hardly possible for someone to become more of a public figure than Michael Jackson. Twelve year-olds the whole universe over quiver when they hear his name. But that's not enough for Wacko Jacko. He wants to become immortal, a peer among the Olympian gods. He is not content with being a monument to himself, he wants to become one; to become rigid, to be eternalized. Styrofoam will do fine, marble even better, but best of all would be bronze. And why not. After the fall of communism, there are so many empty pedestals to occupy. In Prague, for example, where Stalin himself recently had to give up his place for the petrified Michael Jackson.
Marble decomposes slower than silicon.

Iron Man

On Thursday, the 22nd of August 1991, furious crowds in Moscow succeeded in toppling the 16 ton statue of "Iron Felix" Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the feared secret police. It was a political symbolic action, but it was at the same time the definitive deathblow to a notion of monumentality which has been increasingly undermined in the twentieth century. The Russian population could no longer swallow a rhetoric which was dictated from above and whose content was considered to have had its run. It was not an isolated phenomenon.
When the Berlin Wall fell in September 1989, an almost incomprehensible rage was directed against the raw concrete. The violent breaking down of the wall showed that it was not only a physical barrier; it had also become a surface of projection for the divided city's collective anger. The events which led to the massacre in Tiananmen Square in Peking in the same year began with university students tearing down a statue of Mao. As a counterimage, they put up a copy of the Statue of Liberty in New York. A provocation which had terrible repercussions - the army, not content with mowing down the new statue, also crushed everything which got in the way of the tanks.

Rock Music

The statue got me high
The statue got me high
A monument of granite sent a beam into my eye
The statue made me die
The statue made me die
It took my hand, it killed me, and it threw me to the sky

The stone it called to me
(And now I see the things the stone has shown to me)
A rock that spoke a word
(an animated mineral it can be heard)

And though I once preferred a human being's company
they pale before the monolith that towers over me

- They Might Be Giants: "The Statue Got Me High"

From the Cannon in the Square to the Corporate Bauble

The history of public art was for a long time synonymous with the monument's. From the Pyramid of Cheops to August Rodin's sculpture of Balzac, public art's most important task was recollect the past: important battles, acquisitions for the nation-state's territory, and outstanding individuals. It was a highly serious undertaking. Irony and monumentality do not mix easily. As the twentieth century progressed, it became more and more clear that monumentality had had its day in the public sphere. It is at this moment that the term "public art" is coined. Late modernism's monuments became increasingly more abstract; embodiments of superindividual ideas or the vision of the artist. The client was no longer the honored leader but the state and, increasingly, private companies. The cannon in the square was replaced by the corporate bauble.
And now public irony is born; Claes Oldenburg's gigantic bats and lollipops hit up and sucked down, not the other way around as the norm had dictated up till then.
Exit the monument.


The Public Space

Public Art in Search of a New Public

After modernism, after the monument. Public art blossoms for about 20 years. Every small town has its own stone or steel lump in the square.
Like the old monumental art, it is loved -- by graffiti artists and pigeons. But hardly by the public.
Today more and more critical voices are also beginning to be raised against contemporary public art. In the debate around public art the interest has shifted from "art" to "public." Who is it that decides, really? Modernist as well as postmodernist monuments are still based on the idea that the artist's integrity is of more value than the public's. Democracy and public ornamentation do not mix so easily. But in the past fifteen years we have also become acquainted with a new kind of public art where the artists aim to cooperate at the local level with the intended public.
The issue here is often "the other;" this politically-oriented art has as its explicit goal the representation of society's and art's minority groups - immigrants, women, gays, and so on.
Out of necessity, this art renounces all claims to permanence, grandeur, and the rhetoric of high culture. Street life is fast, its language constantly changing.
But there is a catch; the new public art also chooses to work along the well-worn paths of the public sphere - primarily in the city's many squares, these symbolically and historically charged spaces.
Public art must look for new public spaces.

The Expanded Public Space

In their endeavor to stretch the boundaries of the public sphere, today's artists constantly seek out new spaces and forums for their art. Public space grows steadily in ever-wider circles from its given center: the square in front of town hall. The earth artists chose nature as their arena. At the end of the 60s, they tackled the conflicting elements; stone, earth, water, air, fire. Inaccessibility and impermanence were their battle cries. The sharp edge of their actions was aimed at the stilted art scene; at the white cube of the gallery, and the aura of dignified bourgeoisie values which surrounded art institutions. Only it is a shame that no one ever saw their grand open-air installations. Except in galleries and in books in the form of reproductions, videos, and signed prints. It is all very well being radical up to a certain point, but the rent has to be paid too. The gallery system survived.
Since then we have seen a great number of other examples of art reaching out beyond the routine avenues. Not only in real public space (in the unknown nooks and crannies of the crumbling urban space) but also in extended space: the mass-mediated public sphere of television, radio, newspapers, music, film,.... Public life today still takes place in the square in front of the town hall, but the square has grown, has become a global square. CNN Square, if one will. Everyone watches, but many fewer participate.


The Internet

The Web Square

In their hunt for new public spaces, artists have now called at cyberspace.
How much more public than the Internet can something really be? One hundred million potential visitors is more than any square, any other medium, and, above all, any gallery could ever hope for.
Internet is accessible for a tremendous number of people. A small elite, no doubt, but nevertheless enormously larger than the normal museum and gallery public.
Only one objection: Like in any town most of these potential visitors are going to just walk by. Just like in the gallery, the artist can sit there and look out like a puppy in the window. Hello? Does anyone see me? But no, in cyberspace no one can hear you scream either.

Art on the Web

Internet art does not really look like other art. It cannot. Maybe does not want to either. To begin with, it is limited by the properties of the screen: one-dimensional, rectangular, and seldom larger than 17 inches. Bad resolution and dubious color rendition.
The Net itself also imposes further limits: Slow downloading is the most obvious. Sometimes you do not even get to the pages you want to see. (And how do you find the stuff?) Not everyone has the same browser. Finesses which work for one viewer crash the system of another. But there are advantages too. Accessibility is one. And interactivity - a strong word, but many artists make "networks" which are at least partially determined by the viewer's choice. From a theoretical-ideological perspective, Net art is unique. There is no original, no physical object. The artwork is lying completely electronically stored on some server, but can be seen in identical form wherever and whenever. It cannot be sold. It can hardly be exhibited. It is only there for those who look it up.
In return any one can store it on his hard disk, work on it, look at it, and print it out. Current copyright laws certainly apply, but it is exceedingly difficult to claim ownership once you have let out a work into the electronic stream. Most people see this as a freedom.

[a:t] on the Web

And so to the object of this text. [a:t] is many things at the same time; a collaborative project between artists and companies, a mail conference, a fresh attempt to present art on the Net, a social experiment with dozens of participants from the elite of the Scandinavian art world, an idealistic gesture in an electronic information tornado. An exhibition, an approach. An impressive manifestation; a new track for contemporary art to follow.
[a:t] shows us new possibilities for how Net art can look.
The limitations of the Net have been transformed into strengths, several of the artworks you can see here were made with a rudimentary technique - which shows that the medium may influence the message but that the message is nevertheless much more important.
This is no celebration of technology. Artists today use the means on offer, without sentimentality or exaggerated enthusiasm in the face of the new.
They often use the techniques in the wrong way. The result seldom becomes what was expected, but rather turns into something else, something unpredictable in the good sense of the word.
[a:t] is an experiment in these unpredictabilities, and the artists have been unusually successful guinea pigs. The result: public art. Untied to business hours and geographical location.