Art in the Public Space

Art and Design in the public space

Art’s central position in the public space is a distinctive trait typical of urban space projects in Denmark. In this part of the world the public space is often left in the hands of a motley crew of architects, landscape architects and artists. A distinguished and excellent tradition that can give rise to quite unique public spaces. And to special forms of interplay between architecture, landscaping and art. The prerequisite for this is co-operation.
All collaborative efforts require great openness and consummate professionalism: not, as is sometimes claimed, that those involved abandon their specific professional positions in favour of a neutral, undetermined common point of departure.
Productive disagreement is demanding. But it yields the best results. You will often find that the fields of art and architecture clash. The two professions have very different traditions for how to work and how to co-operate. Such disparities in working methods and the objectives underpinning one’s work can be a powerful driving force in a project.

The main difference between the two professions and how they interact with the public space is, roughly speaking, this: architecture and urban space design aims to solve problems, to accommodate, to help and to ease. Art, by contrast, has a long-established tradition for doing virtually the exact opposite. We expect a work of art to raise questions and prompt discussion, even to provoke. In successful collaborations these two traditions complement each other. The result is projects that accommodate, resolve problems, and ease our way while also prompting new thoughts and different forms of behaviour; it may even provoke some.

There is every reason to rejoice in this.
One of the main currents seen in art these years has been that artists adopt working methods that increasingly resemble the social and behavioural theories and patterns that are used in architecture to govern spaces. Such adaptation often takes place at the cost of that which is specific to realm of art, i.e. to the detriment of the distinctive language of art and its special interaction with the world.
The boundaries between the two professions become blurred when both use the same programming tools from behavioural science and social science. Contrasts and clashes in the dialogue that cuts across the differences between the two professions are replaced by consensus.
When art abandons its fringe position and its efforts to give this fringe position a central place in society, a kind of normality often sneaks its way in. A certain consensus. This will have a visible impact on the works.
And suddenly art may no longer be far removed from design. The boundaries blur and may eventually disappear. There would be nothing wrong with this per se if not for the fact that art abandons its own position in favour of architecture’s, but without gaining any greater influence on the overall feel of the project, and without preserving the aspect of transgression and transcendence that is the hallmark of art. Art becomes at risk of disappearing, fading into design. And with such a disappearance, transcendence is lost.

Viewed from the other side of the table, the field of art is opened up and made accessible to the architect insofar as the artistic discourse becomes almost identical with the architectural discourse. Art can become invisible; the architect may feel that he himself can draw and execute the art that will hold a central position within the architecture; a position where it really ought to offer new, startling perspectives on its architectural setting.
A strange Golem arises when the visual arts are weakened in collaborations of this kind: A design object scaled like a sculpture, but without the disquieting feel, the challenge that a sculptural work of art always carries within. We see an art-like object, devoid of depth and duality and incapable of staging true interplay between two professions: between problem-solving, behaviour-adjusting architecture and design and art’s radical openness and insistence on challenging the world around it – including the architectural setting of which it is part.
Examples of such shifts can be found in two places in Copenhagen. One is a sculptural pool at the Islands Brygges Metro station.
The other is the near-complete water feature at Kultorvet in central Copenhagen.

Both projects present us with sculptural, artistic devices and the close connection to the human scale that characterises art, but the overall mode of expression is subdued, muted; entirely cleansed of noise and turmoil. A designed interlude. A friendly pause for thought.

Blog entry at January 2013