Culture | Democratic, expressive, expensive

Public art provides fodder for a thousand Facebook albums

You’d think that The Daily’s reputation for art-snobbery would dissuade it from publishing, of all the things we don’t give a shit about, a piece on public art. But try to look at it the way my editors do: maybe it’s just one of those things you never knew you loved.

Sorry, that’s a load of shit. Public art, as it happens, isn’t anything most of us are interested in. And yet, were we to take the Museum of Fine Art’s word for it – as I did a couple weeks ago at the Public Art Symposium – we’d realize that public art is a lot more pervasive than we think.

For example, those two clashing rams right outside of Stuart Bio? The ones you have Facebook pictures of yourself straddling? That’s right: public art. And that searchlight circling above Montreal? Some might disagree, but Rafael Lozano-Hemmer – a clever, tech-obsessed public artist who resides in Montreal and spoke at the symposium – would characterize it the same way.

Considering his line of work, that doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. Billing himself as an electronic artist, his pieces tend to focus on the unlikely convergence of technology, art, and self-expression. Highlight piece Body Moves, for example, consisted of projecting the shadows of passers-by onto a building façade, the sizes of which were determined by the distance from the light projector. Anyone passing through would immediately find his silhouette projected, in monstrous proportions, onto that enormous white screen, along with those of other unwitting participants. Sure enough, city-dwellers caught on quickly, improvising strange forms of street-theatre, temporarily breaking free from what Lozano-Hemmer called the “increasingly homogenized urban condition.”

While one’s appreciation for Lozano-Hemmer’s broader agenda remains a function of taste, the sheer ingenuity of the artistic platform it put under city residents’ feet is harder to deny. Whichever way you look at it, his is an empowering form of art. One could imagine performance artists eventually making use of such an installation, obscuring its original meaning – and perhaps even expressing their own takes on municipal life, in all its communal and antagonistic glory. Art-enabling art, you could say.

But Lozano-Hemmer’s vision – democratic, expressive…expensive – seemed out of place at the symposium, whose by-and-for-public-artists focus struck me as somewhat of a missed opportunity. The other speakers – among them art historians, big-shot curators, and the incumbent Montreal mayor – seemed mostly interested in public art as urban ornaments, some of them going on at lengths about budgetary concerns while others masked shallow theorizing with elaborate diction.

As for Montreal’s public art development prospects, the symposium pointed to a promising future: private investments in such projects have been increasing, while the municipal government has decided to follow a Percent for Art program, dedicating one per cent of its public development expenditures on art.

But with respect to the artistic traditions it valued, the symposium seemed decidedly out of touch. For example, the presentation given by Lisa Graziose Corrin, former artistic lead of the Seattle Olympic sculpture park, was littered with Art History in-jokes and modernistic eyesores. There, as a boundless source of pride, was her subversion of the “plinth” as a guiding principle behind the park’s design. How fascinating.

Not to say that her heart was in the wrong place: as her presentation made clear, the Olympic Park’s design was upheld by startlingly inventive, democratic principles. Yet it’s not the intentions I’m indicting, but the highbrow cultural standards she seemed to impose on urban space. Given public art’s inbuilt audience – the general public – one would think it shouldn’t restrict itself to art-initiates.

Thankfully, the symposium’s Quebecois speakers seemed slightly more detached from that tradition, expressing their deep appreciation for Montreal’s unique heritage, which Mayor Gérald Tremblay promised would remain central in future public art projects. It was a reassuring thought, one that will hopefully prevent Montreal from importing artists’ visions wholesale, expecting the city to adapt to the art, and not the other way around.

In other words – post-modern worst-case-scenarios notwithstanding – the symposium gave ample reason to believe in our fair city’s artistic future. With Lozano-Hemmer’s democratic vision guiding the way, a more interactive, challenging public art landscape seems well within our reach. Just imagine the possibilities: unbridled self-expression, vibrant new venues for creative thought, and infinitely more opportunities for inane Facebook pictures. If that isn’t something to give a shit about, I don’t know what is.


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