Following The New Earthwork: Art, Action, Agency, published last year by ISC Press, Artists Reclaim the Commons makes the case for art as a driving force behind efforts to reimagine human relationships and the built environment. Far from advocating any one genre of public art, this book features a range of project types, from innovative campus programs and biennials to participatory performances and political protests. Art can take to the streets in any number of ways—regardless of approach, the selected projects all share a willingness to work outside of and/or across discrete public art typologies, using institutional frameworks at will, for instance, or blending high-profile status with small-scale, local activism.
Artists Reclaim the Commons brings together a wide selection of public art projects from the U.S. and Europe to Argentina, Brazil, and India, featuring artists such as Jochen Gerz, Rick Lowe, Conflict Kitchen, Khoj, Thomas Hirschhorn, Krzysztof Wodiczko, and Jeremy Deller. New essays devoted to questions of ethics and social engagement address current debates, while new interviews with curators Mary Jane Jacob, Julie Courtney, and Nato Thompson, among others, and artists Pope.L, Oliver Ressler, Santiago Sierra, and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer offer unique insights into the creative/intellectual processes behind their public visions.
Artists Reclaim the Commons demonstrates how art can effectively impact life beyond the confines of the gallery or museum. In many ways, this book continues the direction taken in The New Earthwork: Art, Action, Agency, but in this case, we have widened the focus to examine art in the public arena, beyond percent for art. As important as such government-sponsored commissions have been for the growth of public art over the last half century, percent-for-art programs are not, and should not be, the sole support structure for artists working in the public realm. Intended to instill and preserve civic norms, in addition to adding an aesthetic veneer to buildings, plazas, and government facilities, these projects represent only the official face of a field with the potential to contribute to public dialogue and public life in myriad other ways. As inhabitants of a world facing ever greater homogenization, privatization, and surveillance, we also need a public art of experimentation, questioning, and even dissent, one that challenges the public realm as usual and offers the promise of imaginative, if not always literal, liberation. This book features a selection of just those kinds of projects, across a wide spectrum of models and definitions of public art.
Discussions of public space, whether physical or virtual, presuppose a zone open to all and belonging to none‚ a place of social, intellectual, and political exchange characterized by freedom of movement and expression. More often than not, however, what passes for the public realm today is, in fact, cleverly disguised private property. Like the traditional commons, these are spaces bounded by behavioral codes (unwritten, but tacitly understood and rigorously enforced), with public use (by the right people) tolerated within limits, as long as it conforms to acceptable standards and as long as it pleases the owners to allow it. In recent years, we have witnessed an updated, 21st-century version of enclosure, with rights of assembly increasingly restricted, public libraries and support structures closed, public lands repurposed, and digital access closely monitored. Mitt Romney’s dismissal of 47% of the U.S. population is just the latest iteration of 18th-century social controls dividing “us and the poor who work for us.”
The works gathered here, initiated by nonprofits, independent curators, and individual artists and groups around the world, endeavor to assert the rights of liberty and creativity against the privatization of public life. Some projects take an overt approach, occupying neighborhoods, back streets, and vacant lots, even attempting to re-make entire towns; some function more implicitly by opening alternative spaces of imagination that subvert ordinary interactions and assumptions; some use the past as a tool for understanding the present and future; and others attempt to redress specific social inequities and political injustices.
Regardless of strategy or duration, these projects demonstrate an expanded role for art in the public sphere, creating a genuinely open, cultural commons where everyone
is welcome. By shaping new kinds of spaces and establishing new kinds of relationships (between individuals, between groups, and between people and their surroundings), they enable us to escape the world as received, shake off the familiar, try on different personas, and think through the minds of others. This is not the same as a utopian remaking of society: change can remain personal or it can spark from one individual to another. The goal is to destroy the collective delusion that the world we know—the world as presented to us through commercial, media, and economic interests—is the best of all possible worlds. By creating places where tensions converge in unexpected configurations, public art can help us see past the illusion. It may even offer solutions and improve lives, but ultimately, accountability lies beyond its scope. Public art is not going to relieve urban blight, eliminate violence, redistribute wealth, or curb the police state by itself, but it can insert doubt and defy rote expectations. It can inspire us all—viewers, direct participants, or casual passersby—to re-evaluate what we mean by quality of life, to reassess what we think we know, and to reconsider how we choose to live with ourselves and each other. In the world of art, critique, pleasure, and insight can come together to reimagine and forge new modes of public life.
By Twylene Moyer