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.
We often hear about International Development projects overseas. I’m based Canada. North America. A western nation. And part of a group of Allie nations that won World War II, which initiated this ‘era of development’ many people call the second half of the 20th century. With this new sense of There was a new sense of globalization, rooted in colonial history, working to keep World War three from kicking off.
We found ourselves, suddenlty, in two camps: ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’. And of course the bar was set to a Western standard of living.
Moreover, when the Cold War happened, we found ourselves stacked depending on your level of buddy-buddy with the United States of America. USA, UK and allies as “First World” nations. Soviet Union, China and allies as “Second World”. And, most of those that were left were lumped into the “Third World” standing.
Today, International Development agencies work to ‘develop’ these ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘second’ world’ or ‘third world’ issues. There are a number of growing videos, memes, hashtags and other social media references to first world issues. Like, “My I phone is not the newest anymore” or “I don’t know what shoes to war today”. But, seriously, although we find humour in these small things, the truth is, we do have problems as a western nation. But we assume that we know best when it comes to the development of other countries.
Enter Ghana Think Tank.
Ghana Think Tank, an international collective, flips this power dynamic on it’s head by developing the first world by having third world ideas be implemented in our developed nations.On their site they state:
“Ghana ThinkTank’s innovative approach to public art reveals blind spots between otherwise disconnected cultures, challenges assumptions about who is “needy,” and turns the idea of expertise on its head by asking people in the “third world” to solve problems of people in the “first world.” This process helps people overcome their own stereotypes while being exposed to the stereotypes that other cultures have about them.”
Their work has been most recently featured in the Venice Biennial of Architecture, the National Museum of Wales, Hong Kong/ Shenzhen Biennial of Architecture and Urbanism and the Global Contemporary at ZKM in Germany.
Examples of their work include asking a Moroccan think tank to figure out a way for a newly developing plot of land in Detroit could create a better sense of community but also provide affordable housing in an already gentrified neighbourhood . The project is inspired by the Islamic term Riad: a communal housing around a central courtyard. This came out of a long discussion on social isolation and segregated communities when it comes to USA architecture.
They are also working on a project looking at issues pertaining to the USA and Mexican border.
Ghana Think Tank challenges me to look at the social powers that be internationally. The expectation that just cause we won the war, we know best when it comes to developent.
You can find out more about them by visiting their website. http://www.ghanathinktank.org/#welcome