Art changes diversion into attention.
The public domain is the space in our minds we share with others.
Within a meaningful space, there is very little room for obscurity.
This leads me to the following conclusions statements, actually about art in public space:
Art in public space focuses our view to the specifics and distracts from the generic aspects of a place.
Art in public space is understood on the basis of what we, as individuals, share in public.
Art in public space always has a meaning related to that space.
I confess: most of what is formulated in these statements relates to definitions of terms, which today rather show signs of semantic erosion. To quote Hans van Houwelingen, to whom these considerations and conclusions are largely applicable they have been essentially inspired by his work: “art in public space is dubitable, even the very notion of public space should be questioned.” Why, if we were to think along for a moment with this lament by Hans van Houwelingen from 1991, would that be the case.
From Van Houwelingen’s texts and work emerge the contours of his doubt, and the questions he poses himself as an artist committed to the quality of the public domain: Can there be mention of ‘public space’ at all if we see the world increasingly as a puzzle of disparate, partly overlapping and frequently conflicting private domains? Can there be meaningful space when everybody is free to interpret and experience that meaning without bothering too much about the significance others, using the same space, may project onto it? What is the meaning of ‘public’ when it is merely defined as the sum total of a random amount of individuals? And can art still be meaningful when it is only allowed to represent the common divider of our desires because otherwise it won’t be understood, nor accepted by the atomised collective? What, in short, can art express if its space has to limit itself to consensus? Hans van Houwelingen answers the last question with an unequivocal: nothing.
On the other hand: Art which ventures into public space takes part in public life, which means that it primarily engages with public matters and less with individual ones; the Benjaminian ‘diversion’ is not completely neutralised by the concentration the work demands, but in public space it can also not be too arrogantly sure of undivided attention. The work is, in sum, not ‘autonomous’ anymore as soon as it wants to meaningfully enter public space: it has become a discourse, a dialogue, a proposal to the space, to public life; the work of art not only communicates with itself anymore.
The artwork in public space serves two, at times conflicting, masters: art and the public domain. Consequently, the challenge faced by artists who want to anchor their work in public space is: to root the individual in the public domain; to engage in the debate between individual and collective; to relate personal significance to the public meaning of a place; to regard the work as ‘social statement’ in stead of ‘private expression’.
That is what makes art in public space ‘applied art’ in the best sense of the term:
the application of general values to a specific expression;
an individual message socially directed at fellow users of public space;
a design that expresses a proper point of view on the basis of an insight into its collective sources;
a work that activates the potential of a space and its users;
a personal reply to a common question, which suggests meaningful answers vis-a-vis the significance of a space.
Art in public space is idiosyncrasy applied to the public domain and generated from an analysis of its social and cultural environment. Designed from the awareness that the artist in public space is a medium at the service of public cultural interest. The quality of his work is essentially defined by the measure in which he succeeds, to use an antiquated phrase from the 1960s, in ‘making the personal politic’. If these insights and requirements have been met, art in public space can meet its original aim, and that of her patrons:
To uplift citizens.
This essay appeared as the introduction to "STIFF, Hans van Houwelingen vs. Public Art", Artimo, Amsterdam 2004. It is an adapted version of a presentation during the symposium ‘Public Interference’, organised by SKOR in the NAI, Rotterdam, 13 November 2002.