You Can’t Control Public Sphere -

Gathering Knowledge, Setting Up Frameworks and Co-Creating Content in Nordic Context

Fika — what I love most in Swedish conferences: atmosphere and excessive amount of coffee and snacks.

Researching Public Art conferencein in the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm, organized by Statens konstråd / Public Art Agency Sweden invited researchers, artists, curators and professionals from relating fields to participate in mapping, developing and discussing current issues around the understanding of art in the public realm and the public realm itself. During the two intensive conference days participants not only dived into the interdisciplinary discussion and research surrounding current matters in public art, but also aimed to articulate new research questions, methods and make possible gaps in research and discussion visible.

The conference included talks, lectures, presentations, panel discussions and workshops with different initiatives. The most important thing, again, was probably that it created a platform for the participants to discuss current issues, to share knowledge, to network, to inspire and be inspired. And, also, to try to think together what is missing and how do we put these things in action: if we try to think about inclusion, exclusion, cultural heritage and who does it belong to, belonging, sharing, facilitating, we also need to be aware of who the “we” is and what do we mean with these concepts. We need to clarify our intensions and be aware of the vocabulary we use, as research is a political thing. We can’t think of public art (or any art) without considering questions of sustainability, ecology and inclusion. Maybe we also need to redefine what do “public” and “private” mean, as the private, today, is not so private anymore, and maybe public is not so public, but often commercially controlled. Public art is one way of keeping the space public.

Temporalities — Permanency and Art / Artists and Collective Memories

Working group Temporalities — Permanency and Art / Artists and Collective Memoriesdiscussed topics like re-inventing monuments, temporal interventions, whose perspectives are considered in public memories and how not everything is as fixed as we think, as monuments, their meaning, relevance and function change over time. One of the noteworthy observations in the group was about permanence and temporality — that we need something permanent to do something temporal, and permanent does not mean that something stays the same forever. Monuments and their meanings change over time, they reveal tensions rooted in history and they reveal the constructed nature of narratives. This is evident if we consider for example the history of intervention art, and how most of the artistic interventions were reactions to some already existing, i.e. permanent, artworks or phenomena, or how many of the interventions in public space use existing structures as starting points. What is interesting is how relevant these notions are in the context of funding and facilitating art today, when more and more funding is target is directed to short term projects and flexible agents, while also the long-term projects and some permanency are needed for to create long-term effects.

Long-term or permanent practice and understanding of concepts is also needed when dichotomies and hierarchies are reconstructed: permanent is not the same thing as forever, but it does take time to renew structures. Grand narratives must be challenged, but are we only replacing them with ostensible democratic temporal solutions? Are artworks creating collective memories, or collective amnesia? Public memories tend to be short, and an important question is the role of public art and how it can affect these memories, create collectives and knowledge. How do we work with collective memories in relation to decolonizing practices? Permanent practice is needed when exploring these questions and reconstructing structures. One way to support it would be basic income, other important step (especially in Finland) to support small and medium size institutions.

Shifts in Notions of Art, Artistic and Curatorial Practices, Roles and Methods and Who Benefits?

Working group Shifts in Notions of Art, Artistic and Curatorial Practices, Roles and Methods and Who Benefits?continued with questioning the idea of grand narratives, stating that there is not for example one modernism but several different modernisms and that different goals lead to different canons and different ways of organizing collectives. Today flexibility as such is seen as a value and artists are expected to be flexible, always in the front row finding new locations, new ways of thinking and “innovating” (as the business language is adopted to the discourse for to make it sound more attractive), moving from place to another, from project to another. This is also a question of agencies: today it is not enough to merely be an artist, but one needs to wear multiple hats all the time and be a producer, a researcher, a curator, an educator and so on. Compensation rarely corresponds the competence and responsibilities. This flexibility is a blessing and a curse, as it takes a lot of time and effort to be flexible all the time, and it (at least in Finland) has become a way for the state to target funding to short term project instead of committing to long-term cooperation. So again: temporality needs permanence.

While working in the realm of public art we need to ask ourselves what do we want the public art to do: not only who is the intended audience, who is recipient or who is the art made for (is art specifically ever made for someone? Or should it be?), but also what is urgent for me, and who benefits from my work? We need to reflect our intentions and be aware of what we bring into the context, but also intentions behind funding art: if art is making urban areas attractive, who benefits from this? This awareness will help us defining and strengthening artists competence and their special skills, which then will help in mediating them further.

“The Challenge of the future is to create trust”

Trust was mentioned as one of the major challenges of the future. Trust is also significant when working in public space — If you are working in public space, you need to be able to create trust. This trust is created through awareness and understanding. Working in public sphere one needs to be aware of the different power relations, different visible and invisible issues: infrastructure, structure, class, norms, equality, inequality, dichotomies, hierarchies, what subject positions are made possible and what are impossible and invisible, groups and who defines these groups. Who can occupy spaces and what kind of spaces? Public art means visible marks in public space and it can indicate who is accepted and who is not. So even if public art is a possibility to form collectivity beyond the nation state, we have to be aware of the structures we are working within and art’s responsibility.

One of the notions made in working groups was a remark on guilt — working with art is working with guilt, and public art is a possibility for societies to work with guilt imbedded in history. Public art can’t be separated from its archive, and this archive constitutes our cultural heritages. Hence it is important how this archive is created. Especially today when many public art projects are temporal we need to pay attention to documentation — how do we document and how do we mediate what was done and what was achieved when doing so, what methods are required and is the documentation telling narratives it is intended to?

Thinking with, through and in art

Art is not something that is separate from the world and from the state, and the state, as Nazem Tahvilzadeh pointed out, “is a troublesome creature”. Art is lived through in society. Understanding of this is better in Sweden than in Finland, which makes it inspiring to sit in the same table with the local actors, but also frustrating to notice time after time how far behind we are. It is hard to start discussing curator’s fees in different public art projects, as we have very little of those projects and even more rarely with curators working in them. There is a huge need for an agency like Statens konstråd that would act as an umbrella organization for contemporary and public art together with the city, architects and urban planners. Soon to be published report Public Art Research Report brings different perspectives together and hopefully will increase understanding of the field also in Finland. Public art is not a neutral structure and we need more research and discussion around it, and about what it does, how it comes to be, how is it done, who is behind it and how is it financed.

Researching Public Art, 11–12 October 2018

Nordic conference with the aim of inspiring new research in the expanded field of public art

The Royal Institute of Art

Stockholm, Sweden

Thank you Frame Contemporary Art Finland for supporting my participation!

Artists, art critic, curator and feminist working for a better world and PhD about the uncanny, everyday and community in Aalto University