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From All-Embracing to Ephemeral: The Art of Public Interventions
Erkki Huhtamo
author's bio
Erkki Huhtamo is an associate professor at the UCLA Department of Design/Media Arts. He holds a PhD from the University of Turku, Finland, and is the author of numerous works on media archaeology and media arts, published in 12 languages. His recent publications include Mariosophy: The Culture of Electronic Games (2002), and articles in Future Cinema: The Cinematic Imaginary After Film (2004), Handbook of Computer Game Studies (2005) and Allegories of Communication (2005). He has written and directed three series for Finnish national television. He has served as curator of several international media art exhibitions, and as a member of many media festival juries and organization committees worldwide, including ISEA 2004, the ICC Biennale (Tokyo), the Interactive Media Festival (Los Angeles) and Portraits in Cyberspace (the MIT Media Lab).

Breaking out of the gallery, bridging “art” and “life”, invading the public sphere — these have been abiding goals in avant garde art practices for nearly a century: Marinetti publishing the first Futurist manifesto on the front page of Le Figaro (1909) and dreaming of aerial theatre performed by aeroplanes; John Heartfield placing his political photo-montages on the front page of the A-I-Z or pasting his posters on city walls; the Surrealists staging subversive actions on the streets of Paris; László Moholy-Nagy envisioning giant “city light spectacles” to be observed from airships. After the Second World War, the dérives of the Situationists, the Fluxus happenings, the Sky Art events organized by Otto Piene, and the public, often ephemeral interventions by conceptual artists like Joseph Kossuth and Daniel Buren helped redefine and reclaim urban spaces. More recently, these efforts have been continued by critical artists like Jenny Holzer, Barbara Krueger, Krzysztof Wodiczko and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, to name just a few of the most significant.

While this list — incomplete as it is — may serve to highlight the extent of the phenomenon, it does not do justice to the diversity of the strategies and approaches used by the artists. The scale ranges from the all-embracing to the ephemeral. For every Utopian dreaming of altering reality itself through the power of “the total work of art”, there have been Dada-minded nihilists performing little (but not insignificant) artistic pranks in the streets and market squares. There have also been those whose attitudes could be best described as tactical: using art as a weapon to challenge the “automated” perceptions of unsuspecting passers-by, forcing them to see urban reality in a new way. The famous artificial palm tree erected in the center of Warsaw by Joanna Rajkowska was such a tactical action. Not only did it challenge the local inhabitants to take a pro-or-con stand, thus enhancing discourse and communication; it also raised, through controversy, much larger issues about geo-politics, economies and private/public aesthetic sensibilities. Its echoes reverberated in the media as well, and it eventually attained international notoriety.

As this example demonstrates, the public space is no longer defined as just a physical space; more and more often the term refers to artificial electronic and digital spaces, from radio and television to the Internet.  (John Heartfield grasped this as early as the 1920s, albeit in the context of the dominant media of the time: the press). Mediated spaces have become intertwined with both the public and the private in intricate ways. In a sense, radio and television extend the public space to the living room – a concept well understood in Nazi Germany, where Goebbels promoted the installation of a Volksempfänger (a cheap mass-produced radio) in every home as the most effective channel for Nazi propaganda. Since then, devices like radios and televisions have become more “invisible”: they are so common now that we don’t always notice them anymore. Their presence is taken for granted; indeed, their absence from a home would be more striking. The here-and-now of the media has become an obsession for many of us — we feel compelled to stay on-line, to know what is happening. Of course, the ‘reality’ disseminated by the media is not the same as reality itself, although detecting its biases and coding can sometimes be difficult. The media pretend to be in the service of objectivity and transparency — they do their best to hide their “seams”.

This is one point at which the artist has to step in. Unconstrained by the orthodoxies and policies of the dominant media, the artist is free to read and manipulate their messages in highly idiosyncratic ways. Whether it is Józef Robakowski (Art is Power!, 1985) re-representing televised reality as an endless military parade


hypnotically repeated ad absurdum to a soundtrack by Laibach with its ambiguous references to fascism, or Zygmunt Rutka presenting, in his Retransmission (1979-83), condensed rapid-fire coverage of Polish television “reality” during a period of political transition, artists are interfering with the transparency and socially sanctioned “objectivity” of the television medium. At the same time, the television flow is re-defined as source material for new artistic constructions. Of course, there is little hope that the artists will actually get their works broadcast by the same medium they scrutinize. They operate from the standpoint of an outsider — and potentially an intruder. Although it limits their potential audience, this marginality can also be an asset, particularly when operating within a political culture, where the mass media are more or less directly controlled by the state. The artist claims the right to read and re-interpret the images and sounds in ways that cross and blur any party lines. Public images and sounds are co-opted in defense of the right to private meanings and unconstrained creativity.

In this sense Józef Robakowski’s extraordinary video works have truly earned their place in an anthology dealing with media art and the public space. Robakowski’s intensely personal and even obsessive explorations of the relationship between the self, the camera and the surroundings form an investigation of the reverse side of the public sphere: the realm of the private. At the same time they are meta-works about the video medium itself. Here again it probably makes sense to read these works against the background of a repressive society that offers only a limited number of “moulds” for the artist. Robakowski rejects them all by turning the video camera into a medium for self-scrutiny and for pseudo-numerical, minimalistic observations of carefully selected fragments of reality. In this way the artist marks out his territory beyond the officially sanctioned values of art and culture. While the outside hardly exists in most of these works, From My Window (1978-85) provides a medi(t)ation on the relationship between the private and the public from a deliberately voyeuristic perspective. For an extended period of time Robakowski recorded, from his window, events in front of the apartment building he lives in. By providing the banal everyday events on an unremarkable street and parking lot with a rather subdued commentary, Robakowski’s narrative fragments link private lives with changes in the broader environment. With a combination of resignation and humor, the artist positions himself as an outsider, a peeping Tom — but one whose life intersects with those he documents. The tiny figures in the anonymous cityscape gain identities. Of course, by peeping at the bystanders Robakowski also reenacts — in a highly ambiguous way — the use of surveillance cameras within the society.

LOCK UP MANDELA! Wspólnota Leeeżeć

Events can, of course, also be organized within the public space itself.  Even a concert of experimental music played at a railway station transforms the everyday environment, for a while at least. By making the place strange (in the sense of Sklovski’s ostranenie), the event may induce the random spectators to abandon — at least for a moment — their normal routines, to shed their social masks. The sight of two black-faced figures, lying on the street, eating fruit and demanding the jailing of Nelson Mandela, sends a much more provocative message, inevitably eliciting baffled comments and even insults. In situations like this the artists expose themselves to spontaneous reactions and even rage. They are operating outside the “safe haven” of the art institution, where even subversive acts can be labeled “art”. Out in the public space it is not essential for the passers-by to see the event as art; it is more important that such events can function as catalysts for the re-examination of the givens of the urban experience, as well as of the limits of public permissiveness. Climbing on top of a fire engine (brought to the site by a false fire alarm) and removing its equipment inevitably engenders public intervention, while an artist dressed as a human taxi and “parked” at a taxi stand is more likely to arouse laughter than outrage. In either case, the codes for “appropriate” behaviour within the public space have been put on trial by the artist. The work includes the comments made by passers-by, as well as any interventions on the part of the authorities.

Last but not least, the public space can be “measured” by artists who make the results of their explorations available for others as documentation. A model for this kind of activity is provided by the dérives of the Situationists. The outcomes of their wanderings — the “psycho-geographies” — were

WE LIKE IT A LOT Grupa Azorro

subjective and personalized mappings of city spaces reclaimed by the artists through their actions. When the Azorro Group (We Like It a Lot, 2001) decides to visit all the art galleries in the city, they are in fact drawing a psycho-geographical map with their feet. Their absurdly affirmative comments (“yes, I really liked it, “it was really good”, etc.), poke fun at the offerings of the established institution of the gallery and at the toothlessness of art speak, used by both the general public and professional critics. At the same time, the action posits the artists themselves as outsiders. In another work (Is the Artist Allowed to Do Everything?, 2002) the group again wanders through the city, stopping at green lights, walking at reds, spitting on cars from a bridge and drawing mustaches on pictures of Andy Warhol (on posters announcing his exhibition). These interventions could be dismissed as mere ephemeral pranks by a group of nihilists who have failed to make a mark in society or in the art world. But in their negation of both established values and critical opposition to them, the group manages to sketch an undefined  third way, clearly akin to Dadaism.

These examples have hardly exhausted the repertoire of possible artistic interventions in public spaces. The viability of such interventions clearly depends on the successful choice of strategy, target and technology. It also depends on the far-from-stable definition of public space itself, which is endlessly metamorphosing, due in large part to the impact of new media. The public space is, to say the least, becoming more and more complex. While operating in “traditional” physical urban spaces may be relatively easy — as long as the authorities or the public don’t interfere — the new hybrid mediated and physical environments can be much more demanding. Julia Scher has done some interesting critical work on public surveillance systems.  Janet Cardiff has “measured” public spaces with her audio-walks. In his celebrated Relational Architecture projects, such as Displaced Emperors (1997), Vectorial Elevation (2000) and Body Movies (2001), Rafael Lozano-Hemmer has given us convincing examples of how to bridge the Internet and physical locations on a simultaneously massive and intimate scale. Krzysztof Wodiczko’s “critical vehicles” have questioned the political and economic structure of urban spaces by giving voices to immigrants and the homeless. The ambiguous messages displayed in public spaces by Jenny Holzer have questioned the premises of these places in a simultaneously critical and poetic manner. The list will, and needs to, continue.

Los Angeles, October 2004

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