Jeremy Leatinuu, 2009.
The public realm is an arena that holds countless opportunity for encounter, negotiation and comprise between its occupants. The culture of such social practice as a subject for enquiry has been a territory for many practitioners in different fields. This essay considers such contributions made by contemporary art in attempting to activate social consciousness. The artists exemplified in this text will depict various approaches undertaken while illuminating an enquiry as to whether art has its limitations in affecting social change.
In understanding the possibility of affecting social change we need to first understand who we are trying to address and the given social structure they occupy. According to Research Professor Lyn H Lofland the public realm occupies in which individuals unknown to each or only categorically known to one another (such as bus driver or customer) are able to function within co-presence of activity (Loftland 9). This leads to the variant levels of encounter and negotiation, one aspect that makes up the identity of social practice
The theory of “co-presence” Lofland suggests such activity being patterned, where occupants are fully aware of their own presence, movements and actions in relation to others, manufacturing conscious decisions to help them define their physical situation at any given time and to direct their own conduct of appropriate behaviour. To extend this thought we will examine three propositions made by Lofland: Cooperative motility – where individuals cooperate with each other while moving in the public realm, intent on not colliding with one another’s personal space. Civil inattention – when an individual simply acknowledges another’s presence through momentary eye contact, but does not commit to engaging with the other beyond this. Audience role prominence – individuals who enthusiastically assume the role as audience so not to become or be associated with spectacle (29-33).
Engaging with reality.
These terms will not only assist in understanding how social behaviour is influenced within the public realm but how such social practice can either be disturbed, altered or shifted by artistic interventions and approaches that require levels of audience participation. Such practice requiring audience involvement is certainly nothing new in the contemporary art world. With investigations or projects varying from political and social analyses, exemplified through public interventions that address and direct public participation. Artistic intentions and agendas vary in regard to why many artists traverse the white walls of the art gallery, and for Conceptual artist Adrian Piper the public realm is where an audience is always likely to be found.
In Catalysis IV (1970) Piper had dressed very conservatively while taking various modes of transport such as the bus, subway and the Empire State building elevator. She had altered her appearance slightly by filling the inside of her mouth with a large bath towel, resulting in the protrusion of her cheeks with the remainder of the cloth hanging down. While in Catalysis III (1970) she had draped white paint over a set of clothing she would later occupy. She had then applied a sign on the front and back of the shirt saying “WET PAINT”, giving caution to surrounding individuals while shopping at Macy’s for gloves and sunglasses (43). Piper’s Catalysis series often performed within the public realm, are an alternative to the gallery or art systems that would insinuate and prepare the viewer to be catalysed. By not overly defining herself to viewers as artwork she attempts to eliminate any chance of predetermined reaction, confronting the viewer with a broader, more powerful, and more ambiguous situation (45).
For Piper an artist cannot address issues of societal perceptions through discrete art forms or objects as a form of reflection, if one is attempting to in fact activate a societal conscious shift or awareness (Piper 42). One needs to target and address their audience accordingly, in which Piper engages and confronts those whose social comfort requires her to conform to stereotyped social categories. For My Calling (Card) #1 (for Dinners and Cocktail Parties) (1986-1990) Piper had two by three inch business cards made that would be handed out on occasions when someone unguardedly let slip a racist remark in her presence. (Piper 220) The card would read:
Dear Friend, I am black. I am sure you did not realize this when you made/laughed at/agreed with that racist remark. In the past, I have attempted to alert white people to my racial identity in advance. Unfortunately, this invariably causes them to react to me as pushy, manipulative, or socially inappropriate. Therefore, my policy is to assume that white people do not make these remarks, even when they believe there are no black people present, and to distribute this card when they do. I regret any discomfort my presence is causing you, just as I am sure you regret the discomfort your racism is causing me. Sincerely yours, Adrian Margaret Smith Piper. (220)
This approach is more confrontational, more direct, more personal and subjectively more successful comparative to Piper’s previous works discussed. It holds all aspects mentioned as the encounter and exchange in possible dialogue is on an individualistic basis, presenting a greater opportunity to shift social behaviour and perception through self-reflection, opposed to persuading or addressing a collective audience. The cards became the catalyst that allowed Piper to express her anger in a semiprivate context, therein establishing possible dialogue between herself and the individual without disrupting the group as a whole (220).
A strong sense of consideration towards identifying and understanding the type of social structures and social behaviour occupying within a given situation is more than implicit in the works discussed. It exemplifies that audience participation on a social and political level differentiates and stretches the term “audience participation” on many levels. The investigation towards alienation, indifference, racial and gendered issues that Piper seeks to engage with do not propose answers or solutions to these topics. They attempt to keep the inquiry on track and to keep the participants honest about the compromises and ambivalence implicit in their varying situations.
Engaging with reality II.
Lucy Orta, Urban Life.
An individual who extends the levels initiated in this discussion is artist Lucy Orta, whose artistic production engages with social and political issues of marginality. She perceives the public realm as an opportunity to engage with ‘real life’ situations, with the realisation that fabricated objects cannot just represent reality, but should in fact have an important active role, to be “reactive and function as catalysts” (Bourriaud 8-9). This being implicit in Nexus Architecture (1993-2004) a series of interventions consisting of wearable garments, some of which have the ability to link or zip together several people by attachable tubes. They attempt to visibly address and aide the social conditions that condemn individuals to an existence on the margins of society; disaster victims, political refugees, the elderly, the invisible, the poor and the socially disenfranchised (Quinn 1) by fabricating the solace and security of a community (2). Orta expresses:
I utilised the street in an investigative manner, questioning the individual’s right to occupy public space rather than becoming subsumed by the architecture. By reclaiming public space, these projects sought to empower marginalised individuals and render them more visible. (Pinto 14)
Orta’s prototypical objects hint towards hypothetical aspirations of “what could be” in light of what is happening right now, a need for dialogue to reveal the “skin of indifference”, to expose the ruptures soothed by unawareness and indifference. With regard to the works explored thus far we can discern that there are pronounced commonalities occupying both Piper and Orta’s practice; social and politically active in their artistic approach, addressing an audience through self-reflection and using the public realm to produce direct dialogue with events occupying reality. Both exhibit intentions of bringing about social consciousness through discourse or to ensure that such discourse remains active for positive progression or improvement.
Is anyone really listening?
A question arises as to whether certain non-functional works today, indirectly turn out to be more “useful” than those specifically aimed at social efficiency (Bourriaud 9). In response Orta declares her own projects having varying levels of effectiveness depending on the audience addressed. She claims that the fabric tubes in Nexus Architecture were a metaphor for creating a social alliance (9-13). However to forge unfamiliar relationships appear not so convincing as the large-scale public picnics and open-air dinners Orta has assisted in organising. 70 x 7 The Meal Project (2001)in the French rural of Dieuze consisted of a 300 metre long table running down the main street, creating a micro-community gathering and discussion forum to house dialogue between all demographic, social and religious groups to share a meal that the whole town had prepared (14).
In her essay Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics Claire Bishop queries the notion of modeling situations that encourage a “community-as-togetherness” (Bishop 54). She critically examines Rirkrit Tiravanija’s cooking pieces as claiming they produce interpersonal relations and never clearly addressing the political aspects of the work (68). In comparison it could be argued that Orta’s open-air dinners or picnics are differential in the matter of where they take place, this being the partial angle Bishop forms her argument from. If we momentarily examine this fundamental difference we see that Tiravanija has and continues to place his work within the art gallery. Orta on the other hand directs her intentions towards constructing an atmosphere on the grounds of an existing community.
One perceivable concern with constructing communal spaces within the gallery space is the potential that exclusivity will occur, with participants requiring prior knowledge of such an event. This would leave open to insinuations of how public the event really is. As individuals who become participants are most likely to derive specifically from the art scene (Bishop 67-68). In response to such claims Liam Gillick contests by announcing that a diverse group of local people participated in the work, further noting “the work was used by locals as a venue to hang out and somewhere to sleep” (Gillick 105). It would be difficult to discern who would be correct in this manner, since Tiravanija’s cooking pieces have taken place in various countries having variant possibilities as to who attended. The focus would shift then, not towards suggesting exclusivity during the event (opening night), but rather the level of collective involvement in producing such an event. Bourriaud stresses, “the purpose is not conviviality, but the product of this conviviality” (83). This draws skepticism and highlights the fundamental difference between Orta and Tiravanija’s works – it is not the space proposed, the food cooked or the individual who consumes and engages in dialogue with another but rather a shared collective that assists in constructing such an event to transpire. Orta’s open-air dinners were organised by a mass collective, an existing community. If value or focus should be placed on the “product of” conviviality, then it would seem significant to consider the approach taken by Orta in order to transcend the current proposal.
Classifying himself as a ‘judgmental observer of the world’ (Wright 92) French artist Pierre Huyghe’s recent interests towards the concepts of “celebration” both in a festive and ritual sense. This will provide an alternative perspective for examination with regard to influencing acts of collective experience. In the exhibition Streamside Day Follies (2003) Huyghe provides a setting of five murals concealed by five artificial walls within the gallery space. Slowly migrating towards the main space, the walls eventually reveal the mural drawings. A temporary pavilion is constructed once all walls meet, in which a short fictional film is projected. The opening scenes depict a young family’s relocation to a progressing community, hypothetically located in the Hudson Valley (Tang 39). Eventuating in an inaugural celebration of music, feast and costume parade that would call for a communal identity (Baker 86).
The act of “celebration” reflects a general consensus due to a common concern or interest and according to Hugyhe the project of Streamside Day Follies was to manufacture a situation in order to create a platform for further possibility (85). In such that inventing a celebration makes visible the fundamentals of such an event, one that highlights a common factor residing in the community and could potentially manifest overtime into an annual event (85). Bourriaud suggests “it seems more pressing to invent possible relations with our neighbours in the present than to bet on happier tomorrows” (Bourriaud 2002:45). Hugyhe’s reiterating such concern by expressing the importance “to think about the relationship we have with the present… not some rainbow future” (Wright 92) seems to be the most common denominator implicit in the recent works discussed.
The concern with such perception, not only displays a shift from socially and politically driven performances as implied by Piper’s works but also reveals the concern that Bishop’s essay was attempting to address – “to mobilise a critique on the claim that relational art is a politicised mode of artistic practice” (Bishop 107).
During an interview with Huyghe, George Baker asks the question whether the art of the 1990s operates within an artistic discourse, to displace a model of politics and critique. A concept that seemed very central to advanced art in the 1980s. Baker further questions whether “relational aesthetics” is a reformulation of a political project, avoiding the term political, or a realisation that false political claims for artistic practices were made in the 1980s (Baker 99). Huyghe replies:
Your last point is key… It is obviously difficult to define oneself after a postmodern period where we all became extremely self-conscious and aware about the consequences of our actions. This is why conclusions should be suspended but the tension should remain… A false claiming of the political… is a huge problem when the “political” becomes a subject for art… it is a practice that is political, not the subject or the content of art. (99)
Hugyhe further suggests that it is crucial to understand that the shift in artistic attitude has occurred from the “former economy of industrial products to an economy of service”. Pointing towards human relations directly being involved in such economy (100). He is not specific though as to whether “relational aesthetics” regards itself interior or exterior to the term “political”. Huyghe does however raise a key argument that artists with the likes of Piper would agree on. To affect political change one cannot paint ‘racism’ and pin it to the wall, one needs to transcend beyond such restraints and take affirmative political action. Piper suggests:
Striking exhibitions, picketing galleries and museums…All this is to say that I can become politically conscious by studying the implications of my societal status and the products of my activity, just like any other job. And like everyone else, I can effect political change only through specifically political activity. (Piper 41)
There is still uncertainty as to whether the shift in artistic attitude has in fact improved or altered social perception. What we are left with are various distinguishable forms of approaches based on intention and possibility. One from a more direct and confrontational approach as exemplified through Piper’s performance pieces and Orta’s architecturally fashioned objects. Through to the experiences of homogeneity and collectivity as implicit in Huyghe’s Streamside Day Follies, to Tiravanija’s cooking pieces and Orta’s open-air dinner projects.
The collective experience.
The shift artistic focus towards the ‘economy of service’ as suggested by Hugyhe provides a range of artistic practices to take form through various approaches over the two past decades. This being the concern Bourriaud attempts to capture in his text “relational aesthetics” which he lists advocates who work in this manner. One individual not mentioned in this text however is Mexican-Canadian artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. In describing his public installation Lozano-Hemmer prefers to categorise them with the term “Relational architecture”. These projects often attempt to establish interface between electronics, mechanics, architecture and the human body; to “transmogrify the experience of the city and its building by means of the ludic interaction of the audience with an apparently false construct” (Lozano-Hemmer 2007:118).
In Body Movies (2001) an orchestration of projectors, robotic rollers, computerised tracking screens, mirrors, and thousands of interchangeable photographic portraits previously taken on the streets of the host city, are projected on the facades of proposed building(s). Portraits are only made visible through the shadows of the passers-by, with silhouettes variant in measurement dependant on the individual’s proximity to the light source positioned on the ground. The attempt here is to interrupt convention, routine, and the predominant narratives of power that buildings represent by evoking a sense of intimacy and complicity where participants are invited to occupy new narratives of urban-representation (75).
In Under Scan (2006) similar technological orchestration is evident. Video-portraits of public members taken using the same processes as seen in Body Movies are projected onto the ground revealed only by the shadow of the passer-by. However as video-portraits, they no longer remain static. As activation is made through the casted shadows of the bystander, the individuals composed in the video-portraits react through personal attitudes and gestures that acknowledge their viewer. As the projected individual moves their body and turns their head, they directly engage with the pedestrian, returning the gaze and establishing eye contact (33).
As like most of the artists discussed in Bourriaud’s text Lozano-Hemmer also finds the concept of “people meeting, sharing an experience and coming together” attractive (Lozano-Hemmer 2002:49). However contrary to the embracement of situations that occupy a sense of “conviviality” or “celebration”, Lozano-Hemmer rejects the “notion of community and the collective when it comes to acts of interpretation or perception” (Lozano-Hemmer 2007:147). Further distinguishing himself by expressing:
I think that we have seen truly disheartening agendas produced in the name of collectivity…I like the concept of the connective…because it joins realities without a pre-programmed approach…this concept doesn’t convert realities into homogeneity. (147)
Lozano-Hemmer’s rejections towards acts of perception that undertake the label of “collectivity” provide an entry point for examining how his work differentiates from the artists recently discussed. Such dissimilarity is distinguishable in his emphasis of establishing relationships between a number of elements – technology, architecture and the human body – variant of course in experience for each individual participant. In Under Scan and Body Movies one can interpret the concept of collectivity being implied through a collection of experiences endured by the participant, yet there is no sense of “community” between these individuals. The fact that these projects operate over a number of days opens the opportunity for individuals to participate and establish relationships on their own terms. In analysing Lozano-Hemmer’s Under Scan, writer Cuauhtemoc Medina seems to capture much of the intentions implicit in the art practices explored within this essay:
The whole cybernetic operation of the installation is aimed at provoking a moment of telepresence, where someone’s smile, obscene sign or gesture of begging finally meets another person’s emotional state. It is as…if validating the state of social alienation we have learned to live with, as total strangers. (117-118)
Human encounter, social relations, political agendas, collectivity, celebrations and community seem to be key concerns for the artists discussed in this essay. From addressing and engaging an audience as a by-product of social and political marginalisation, through to modeling situations that present potential in establishing conversation over a hot plate of food. The shift of artistic attitudes towards social change over the past two decades according to both Huyghe and Bourriaud is a response towards providing a “service”. The core of such service directs encouragement to move between the categories we may occupy as implicit in the propositions made by Loftland. To forge relationships and learn how to connect with one another again, it’s a service that requires patience, only limited to art of participation.
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