1. About public space
The first question to be asked is basic and, nevertheless, its answer is complex: where exactly is the public space located, in a situation of physical exteriority? Its location seems vague; however, we can make a cartography of references to place us. In the most literal sense of its meaning, public spaces are the areas left empty in the urban landscape or limited by architecture. Public space implies a distinction from the mere urbane plane. If the public space is faced as more than a mere plane, it has to be constantly injected with collective energies in the whole possible spectrum of its manifestations — political, economical, social, as well as artistic. The fourth dimension of public space is its use.
Reality, however, doesn’t always reflect this; the emptying and desertification of the "urban" centre, carried out in the last years – paradigmatic image of our time - transformed the previously existent relationship. Urban par excellence, synonym of freedom, central objective of continuous generations of people looking for their integration in the cosmopolitan universe of the city, a kind of beacon for all those who escaped from the rurality and its isolation, the public space is suffering accentuated degradation. We can speak of a form of bankruptcy of the urban public space as privileged place of sociability, due to the successive doses of urbanistic mistakes and, above all, to the idea of insecurity that, presented as an unalterable situation, transforms the streets and the urban centres in organs disconnected from the social life necessary to its revitalization.
With the growth of insecurity and the alternative offered of a new social attitude brought by the shopping centres emerging in the peripheries or, if we wish, in the old peripheries of the cities, we are witnessing a migration of the public from the streets to the inside of those shopping centres, transferring the activities that were previously experienced and lived in the public space from the centre to the surrounding areas. The construction of these huge shopping centres serves yet as border lines between centres devoid of the living activities of its inhabitants and a periphery built on the image of accelerated consumption. The “new urban centralities” are thus situated in the old peripheries, in a paradoxical exchange of protagonism that is still suffering a profound mutation.
Maybe it’s time to rethink the very notion of public space. Contemporary public space demands new forms of intersubjectivity, even virtual, and above all, a vision that can add an understanding according to these new premises, not the adoption of nostalgic postures about a past that will not be repeated. This constatation is determinant to move towards a new and educated improvement in the use of public space.
2. About “Public Art”
Along with these changes, public squares have been filled with pieces of public art - not the squares in the urban centres, as those are occupied for centuries, but in surrounding areas and always with rehabilitation purposes.
We must, however, outline the kitsch component of most of the proposed interventions. We have, therefore, an attitude of illusion of existence and filling of the public space with the pernicious proliferation of a sort of market of decorative works of art that stand as visible records of all the established complicities between the political power and the “artists”, in the sense of a cultural “democratization” of the public space. The sadly celebrated artistic works in the roundabouts illustrate the very worse of the sort of work we are talking about.
The artist can never forget the specificities of the exterior and its intrinsic quality of space to be enjoyed. The emphasis on the formal component and consequent inadequacy to the public whole transfigures the art, supposedly public, in an empty materialization of objects invading that same space. There is already a long history of polemic stories, placements and even demolitions of artistic objects installed in the public space.
Perhaps the paradigmatic case of Richard Serra and his “Tilted arc” (Fig. 1) helped the repositioning of artists once their work abandons the “white cube” and goes outside. His controversial installation, that would later be demolished, shows an evident lack of research, in sociological terms, about the atmosphere where the piece was going to be installed. The site specific atmosphere claimed by the artist was reduced to a spatial research, where other levels of research were fundamental. The decisive problem rests, perhaps, in an initial genesis that provokes, even if unconsciously, the disrespect for the public space.
An art accustomed to inhabit the “white cube”, inside the museological space, raises various questions when confronted with the external contamination of the public space where, above all, the expectations of meaning that provide the necessary justifications for its existence in the museum don't exist. New parameters ask for new solutions and new approaches to the problems; art in the streets should and can exist but it will tend to be completely redefined and reordered. The French artist Daniel Buren (Fig. 2) — a frequent visitor of the streets and of the public space with his pieces — refers that art, if it wants to come out to the streets, has to step down from its pedestal and be on the same level of the people that populate them. Art in the public space has to contaminate and let itself be contaminated not only by the intimate relation it maintains with its involving space (site specific art) but, also, with the other great components of that same space. The intervention potentialities are completely different.
This is perhaps the most interesting advice of street interventions: the provocation and imposition reconduct art to its specific domain and an absolutely undelayable need of contact with reality is constantly called for…a paradox that, if we want, can be logically resolved.
3. about art in the public space
Maintaining a cataloguing mistake - "public art" – for a specific form of contemporary art as well as its necessary conceptual validation, may, of course, cause many different reactions.We have already seen that under the label “public art” are produced interventions that, even looked from various points of view, are mostly uninteresting. Evidently, other possibilities of intervention exist and coexist regardless of these, maybe in a parallel and exiled way, but they are not demanding the statute of “public art”, probably fairly.
The initiative of the sculptural projects in the German city of Münster (Fig. 3) appears as a case of success. Its broad periodicity (just every 10 years) grants the pieces, more than anything, a rare protagonism in our days; on the other hand, and more importantly, the relation that the pieces installed in the public space maintain with the city is rather intense. The city is transformed into a kind of a wide site specific territory during the summer months, once a decade, and welcomes the pieces with the inherent ease of a relationship that is of intrinsic collaboration.
Some of the pieces have an ephemeral life while others, as the famous case of Michael Asher’s (Fig. 4) roulotte, still remain in the city since the first event in 1977. But this is an isolated case of success. Perhaps the biggest lesson that can be learned from it is the rigour of the choices as well as their adaptation with the complex universe of the public space. Besides these considerations, another fundamental one: the expectations of meaning of who visits Münster or of who lives there depend entirely of the relationship with the pieces scattered around the city and this surely is the secret of the initiative.
In a more interventional aspect, we should point out the artistic experimentations carried out by artists and collaborative groups in the streets of the cities. On the individual level, it is mandatory to refer the example of Polish artist Krystoff Wodiszko and his interventions, in collaboration with the most legitimate inhabitants of the public space (the homeless vehicles (Fig. 5)) as well as his projections in public buildings (Fig. 6).
And, more recently, the street works produced by Thomas Hirschhorn (the altars and the monuments (Fig. 7 e Fig. 8)) and also collaborative pieces with the suburban populations of great cities. In what respect collaborative works, we must outline the historical work of groups such as the Guerrilla Girls, Group Material (Fig. 9), or Women Action Coalition in the streets of New York, during the last decades of the XX century. In our days, interventions by groups such as Billboard Liberation Front (Fig. 10) update the situationist détournement in the outdoors of American cities. These are some of the concepts to remember in these new forms of artistic intervention in contemporary public space: culture jamming, adbusting, subvertising and flash mobs (Anglo-Saxon terms applied to public spaces, especially in the United Estates).