A great fan of art in public space, or what is called ‘art on commission’ in Flanders, is something I will never become. In debates and panel discussions about what is by now a widely institutionalized undertaking, I belong steadfastly to the camp of the sceptics. This is not only because of the fact that I have seldom come across an interesting art project in public space. Primarily, I harbour a fundamental distrust of the premises of art that has been given the mission of adding to the design, furnishing or decoration of public space.
Please do not immediately take me wrong: I do not claim that only architects and urban planners should decide on the form and the appearance of public space. Design studios are to be admired when they allow artists, as well as sociologists, historians or economists to pull up a chair at their tables. What concerns me is not the question of whether artists can contribute to the design of public space – of course they can – but the question of what art – as art – has to contribute to ‘designed’ public space, for there is not much art that does that unselfishly.
While the sociological, historical, or economic knowledge and insights that constitute the driving forces behind an urban design are seldom or never explained, the artistic contributions must always be distinguished, set apart. When the art does not do that itself, by means of its material form, then the distinction is made public in a different way, by way of a publication or otherwise that explains that there is something special or something ‘more’ to this street, this city square or this building. But does public space actually ask for such ‘artistic surplus’? Who actually asks for it?
A well-known apologist recently gave me the shocking answer that there are simply so many things in public space that we never asked for. It took me a while before I could put my finger on why that statement made me so indignant. The answer dawned on me when I was confronted with the results of an artistic project engaged with public space, in this case along the Zuidas in Amsterdam. It concerned a proposal by Lieven de Boeck, a Belgian artist who has for several years investigated the borderline between the private and public domain.
As a project for his residency as a visiting artist at the Virtual Museum Zuidas in Amsterdam, De Boeck tried to convince the Zuidas planning bureau to make him the legal owner of a small patch of public space on the Zuidas. The surface would have the shape of the first letter of the artist’s personal alphabet, comprising only .44 m2 – just enough space for two people to kiss one another. On the site itself, there would be nothing to see and nothing happening. The site would only exist as a mark of private property on the cadastral land register of the Zuidas public space.
De Boeck’s project involuntarily reminded me of Gordon Matta-Clark’s Reality Properties: Fake Estates (1973). While the small urban parcels that Matta-Clark purchased amounted to the leftovers in the rigid urban planning order of New York, De Boeck aimed to introduce some minor formal noise into the faultless master plan of the Zuidas. Together with a lawyer and a notary, the artist investigated the legal possibilities of the project, and just when everything formally seemed to come together, the proposal was rejected – at the highest level of the planning bureau. The explanation that the artist received by e-mail was both shocking and revealing. The planning bureau found that De Boeck’s project ‘would only reach a limited public’, while the planning bureau was of the opinion that the art projects in which it participated ‘have to be for a broad public and be very easily accessible’.
It would undoubtedly have been wonderful if the project had been realized, but that is not what really matters. Even after the rejection, De Boeck’s poetically subversive proposal succeeds in its intentions. The reactions that this utterly harmless project has provoked indeed not only point out the small-mindedness of the vision that a planning bureau such as that of the Zuidas has of art, but primarily the patronizing way in which such organizations view public space in general. It is at that very level that the decisions are made about what ends up in public space, from the office towers to the street tiles, from the signposting to commercial advertising. The paltry character of the Zuidas and its public space abundantly demonstrate that, to date, there has been no creative vision whatsoever.
Shouldn’t it be that this deficiency in fact proves how desperately art is needed? I think not. Commissioning art to inject critical imagination into public space testifies of a both patronizing and romanticizing idea of art. Even more gauche is the standing order for art to critically intervene if things go fundamentally wrong – to offer a counterweight for all those things that we supposedly never asked for. It is like taking a peppermint for a cold. It becomes truly pathetic when people consider it necessary to make the result of that awareness public and visible in that same public space, as a work of art.
The institutionalization of art’s demand for attention and the voluntary involvement of the viewers – both of which thus far determine our art experience –require a regime of to publicness that cannot simply be imposed upon the streets. In public space, it is the regime of (social) traffic and its requisite legislation that applies. That regime demands first and foremost an infrastructure that is liveable. More than that, it deserves a material frame that supports, delimits, empowers, as well as generates freedom.
The critical faculty and willingness of policymakers to shape that public space, to arrange it and use it inventively, is disheartening. The bleak appearance and grim conditions at the Zuidas teach us that all too often, administrative pragmatism and economic expediency will win out. In other words, there is still a great deal left be done. Yet art is certainly not the first to be put at work.
Wouter Davidts is Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam.
At the invitation of the Vrije Universiteit, Lieven de Boeck spent five months as artist-in-residence at the Virtual Museum Zuidas in Amsterdam, for the project Free Space Zuidas AIR. The theme of the residency was critical reflection about the Zuidas and its public space.