Ask anyone on the street how they define public art and they will inevitably refer to it as a sculpture in a park or on the street. That’s been the definition of public art for quite some time.
In 1991, artist, educator and activist, Suzanne Lacy, proposed the term new genre public art to define work that engages the public but may not in fact end with a sculpture. She first coined the term in a public performance at the San Francisco Museum of Art and later in her book Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art. She defined it as art for activism, often created outside the typical art institution, and which the process had the artist engage directly with the public or audience in discussing and creating action around social and political issues. In her own words, new genre public art is “socially engaged, interactive art for diverse audiences with connections to identity politics and social activism.” (1)
Emerging out to the 1990s were these alternative definitions for public art such as contextual art, relational art, participatory art, dialogic art, community-based art, activist art, and the comprehensive new genre public art. Artists began moving from the art institutions into the realm of civic activism. Instead of reflecting social or political issues through metaphors in public art, new genre public art aimed to engage the regular citizen, specifically those from marginalized groups, in creating solutions for these issues.
Examples of this can be seen in the work of Mark Dion and his Chicago Urban Ecology Action Group. Dion, who believes that art and ecology can be fruitful partners in creating solutions for environmental conservation, along with a group of youth from two schools in Chicago, traveled to Belize to learn about the conservation initiatives the country was implementing. They then returned to Chicago and researched the work of different art and ecological initiatives in the area and how the issues of the Belize tropical ecosystem parallel to those of their own environment. This culminated in establishing an experimental field station that would be the site for future art/ecology experiments, guest speakers and future activities. It also acted as the base of operations for weekly community clean-up and restoration projects. (2)
One of Suzanne Lacy’s works, Silver Action, brings women from diverse political and socio-economic backgrounds to discuss the role that women played in political protests of our time. It explored issues that were relevant in British media at the time around aging. Workshops were held with women who participated in the miner’s strikes, disability, ecology and feminist movements. Four hundred women then participated in a five-hour performance split into three tableaux. Each hour one hundred women were seen conversing at small tables. (3)
New genre public art challenges the idea of commissioned public art. Does public art have to be sculptural when in fact the work is for the public? It also challenges the relationship between the viewer to the art piece. Is the relationship the viewer is having withe art the only relationship? And, finally, it challenges the possibility of perspectives. Is the art work suppose to mean only one thing — that which the artist intended it to be. Ultimately, new genre public art aims to engage the public in the creation of an art work that does not necessarily end with a sculptural or typically visual aesthetic and instead engage the public in bringing about change through art.
Knight, Cher Krause (2008). Public Art: theory, practice and populism. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4051-5559-5.
Architects have for long been known as professionals of creating buildings. From the sandstone buildings of Western Canada to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, architects have defined what our buildings look like. Many of these constructions have become icons of a city such as Toronto’s City Hall, the Olympic Stadium of Beijing or the Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona.
But, with in this field of architecture, there is a stream of architects that puts people at the centre of the build. They are rebellious with city building policy and often times buildings are deemed ‘illegal’. This practice often takes into account re-purposing old building material and self-building through a collective or community based approach.
This trend is also becoming popular among non-architect professionals as the portable home, or mini-homes, can now be designed, built, dismantled and re-built by anyone enticed into building their own portable home.
However, in the context of social art practices, guerrilla architecture, a term that’s used to describe this method of architecture, can create a purposeful approach to a communities needs when municipal laws or funding isn’t accessible.
Al Jazeera posted a case-study on urbanization and rebel architecture. Santiago Cirugeda, a Spanish architect based in Seville, decided to approach his practice in a way that is informed by the finical crisis hitting Spain. Using the fundamentals of re-purposed material and self-building, he is tackling the need for a community arts space, something that the local area residents have asked for, but in which there is limited to no funding. The space acts as a collaborative working space for several arts organizations and local artisans. The entire space has been built with re-purposed materials and the any hours of volunteers and members of these arts organizations. The space was initially an abandoned factory whose building wasn’t completed due to the economic crisis. It now acts as a vibrant and engaging cultural space for the community it is situated in.
Here is a link to the Al Jazeera report: http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/rebelarchitecture/2014/06/spain-guerrilla-architect-201462993348959830.html
After the tsunami hit Japan in 2011, many people became increasingly frustrated with the lack of support the government provided in rebuilding certain communities. A group of architects tackled this issue by rebuilding based on the needs of the area residents. This ground up solution worked with designers, educators and other experts to create short, medium and long term strategies for dealing with future disasters. ArchiAid, an organization, was formed to tackle this issue and consider the domestic and collectives spaces, both in current availability but also in resilience and need based re-design.
You can read more about ArchiAid and their relief and recovery work by architects at their website: http://archiaid.org/english/
The Tower of David is what one abandoned 48 story building in Caracas, Venezuala is known by. Building for this building began in 1990. But, when the economy slumped in 1994 the building was left unfinished. Squatters have continuously moved into since 2007, among them 1,200 families with children and extended family members. A make shift grocery store and tattoo parlour were organized and power and water were jerry-rigged up to the 22th floor. Although the building demonstrates a communities empowerment to build with what they have, the building has gained some bad attention through different sources. It was featured as the hot bed for drug lords and assassins in the American television show "Homeland" and some locals described it as the hot-bed for criminal activity in their area.
In 2014, the city aided in the transition of the tenants of the Tower of David to, what they called, more 'dignified' housing, as the building was sold and development began on it, again. Kudos to the the municipale government for finding housing for those displaced by this re-development.
The Caracas' Tower of David exemplifies a a way that empowerment occurs in community when architecture is left abandoned. Often times squatters do become the inhabitants of space and it's often times these squatters to establish these temporary communities while they have access to the building.
To read more about the Caracas' Tower of David check out this article by The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2014/04/squatters-in-venezuelas-45-story-tower-of-david/100721/
Also, a big thank you to my Architect friend Tim Smith for sending me that article.
I have to be clear, there is a difference in guerrilla architecture that turns an abandoned warehouse in downtown Toronto into a sparkling new lofts, versus, turning that abandoned warehouse into a space that meets the needs of the non-profit sector to have affordable rent in a location that is accessible to their clients. It really starts off by asking the community what they need. Then, transforming an existing piece of architecture into something that meets that need. Like many social art practices, it’s about engaging the community around the project and asking them what could come from the usage of a space.
Which begs the question, if the Eiffel Tower were in someway, in some post-apoaolytpic world, abandoned, what would the people use it for? What would the abandoned house at the end of your street corner become if the residents of your block were asked “What would make our community better other than just another house?”. We often look to architects to design the look of our neighbourhoods and communities or cities. But what would happen if the people in those communities proposed the ideas for urbanization and development that met the needs of that community; not just another suburban development that requires something being knocked down and something new being built.
Project Row House is a series of twenty-two shotgun houses in Houston, Texas that were restored in the 1990s. The houses are art studios for artists working in African-American themes along with housing for single mothers.
The project was started by Rick Lowe, who was approached by a group of high school students and asked him to create solutions to problems instead of creating work that tells the community what their problems are.
As of 2009 Project Row Houses now has 40 properties. Rick Lowe wants his public art initiative to change the way people look at black history.