Written for the Art and Architecture Journal.
Architecture cannot be considered as a foil on which to hang pictures. That is the error of the past. A state of collaboration must be established.
As a collaborative art practice between an artists and an architect, we saw over the last 7 years a shift from the traditional aspect of 'public art' as stand alone objects towards an increased degree of openness in how people understand artists' potential participation in projects. The role of the artist is widening to become involved in a process rather than producer of a product. This is a role increasingly important for art as much as for the development of a creative thinking about the built environment in cities of every scale.
Today this acceptance of involving artists in our environment on a more in depth or even collaborative basis is widespread and even perhaps fashionable. Through percent for art schemes, numerous public art strategies, and structures like CABE's Project, the door is open for artists to work in the 'public realm' in a more integrated way. More and more public art commissions invite artists at the early stages of a process. The first step to begin Léger's 'state of collaboration' is underway. However this attitude has sometimes the tendency to be reduced to a label and the commissioners are not always aware of the reasons to involve an artist in this way, nor in the structure needed to allow these type of projects to take place meaningfully.
Councils and other commissioning bodies see —or hear about— the value of having artists involved in the public realm and in design teams early in the process. They know that to be a 'competitive city' they are expected to commission an artist in new developments, regenerations, or to work on redefining the identity of an area. But they rarely know what it implies, nor why or even if they would need it. Despite the accepted ambition there is still very often a gap between the aspiration and the realisation of what it really means to work with an artist in this way. Because of this lack of understanding, once the artist is engaged the commissioning body often reverts to the preconception of the Artist, a producer of nice objects or ornaments and the integrated involvement becomes another label.
Public art, if we want to stick to this term, should be able to question a situation and not just decorate. How valuable is it to always make objects in spaces, do all roundabouts and public spaces need a sculpture? How do these objects contribute to either the viewer or their environment? Public space is not a place for the artwork to inhabit or to occupy, it is always a place to share. Of course different artists bring different perspectives and we are only speaking of what we believe in, but the skill of an artist should be more than mere aesthetic, it brings a conceptual and emotional level to a situation. A work in the public space always perturbs an existing situation and questions its own identity as an artwork. The artist is not here to provide a service but to allow a situation to be considered differently and sometimes inform its coming about.
A public artwork should bring questions, intrigue and interest for the public as well as for the contemporary art world. All too often it is neither.
The point is whether art plays an active creative role or merely 'reflects'. If it's only the latter, then it is no more than child's play. And there are other toys around, stronger ones.
In order to generates a meaningful role for the artist in the public realm rather than superfluous decorators — even if some decorations are pleasant —, the early involvement of the artist in the process is essential, but it needs to happen in a professional and informed manner.
The ideal situation is not achieved, not because of a lack of ambition or buy in from all parties in the practise of engaging an artist in this manner, but because of a lack of knowledge in how to facilitate and mediate this engagement. It is not uncommon to find a person commissioning or managing artists being ill informed in contemporary art practice, let alone in how to enable a process of integration or collaboration.
Artists bring a set of skills in the process, as part of a broad discussion concerning the forms, workings, uses and make, if appropriate, an intervention in the fabric of the place. Idea based involvement in the process brings a unique opportunity to alter the traditional product.
Following this approach, we know how it starts but never how it will finish, as J.L. Borges said, "the truth is of much less importance than the roads that lead me to it".
There is no preconceived outcome and that is the richness of this process. This unknown —will there be anything physical to point at and quantify— is one of the hardest point to come to terms within structures and institutions where the actors of the public realm are used to defined and predictable products. This practise is at the opposite of projects where the whole process is about realising a product determined from the outset, following the previously used technical and financial criteria.
But the current situation means artists have to justify their participation from the outset and in effect layout the ground rules of their engagement as they go instead of using the skills they ve been commissioned for in the first place.
The result unfortunately is all too often reverting to the familiar and populist approach for the artist and the safe ground for the commissioner of simplistic outcomes to fit within the supposedly accepted taste.
We are still a long way from accepting artists as valid participants in the debate for their thinking.
Sometimes we wondered if there shouldn't be visits to commissioners similar to the home visits taking place when you are about to adopt a dog from the kennel. During the visit, they check if you have a fenced garden, if you have children under 5, if you are fit to look after the dog, if you earn enough to be able to take care of it, ... They make sure this is the right match between the family and the dog. An artist is not just for Christmas.
Earlier on in our practice we always had the inclination that any structure can be turned around and a meaningful project could come out of most opportunities. We twisted and expanded limited briefs set by developers, took on commissions with no project managers, initiated an international conference about the changing role of artists in the built environment, etc. Whilst each of these experiences were valuable and productive, they take away from the real opportunity to be part of constructive discussions and work on a mutually accepted level with the rest of the actors of the built environment.
Now, contemporary art is one of the last areas where experimentation is still possible. It s the only way through which the realization of freedom is possible. I think that art is a very serious thing. Artists create certain models of possible solutions, but they don t provide ready recipes and answers to the questions bothering people. They re very ambiguous and force people to answer the important questions on their own.