The Power of Public Space
Throughout the 1960s, emerging trends in art movements in Britain and America seemed to share a common pursuit towards transcending the boundaries of the picture frame. With works such as the Land Art of Robert Smithson (Figure 1) and Christo and Jean Claude (Figure 2) embracing the physical environment as their canvas, at the same time conceptual art stripped the value of the art away from the object itself, described as ‘dematerialising the object’ (Lippard, 1997). These artists resisted the commodification of the art object, propelling their artwork into the public domain. In post-WWII Britain, the Festival of Britain and the installation of sculpture in the reconstructed areas of London included sculptures by highly esteemed artists who were commissioned by the London County Council in order to instil a sense of community into the fractured hearts of post-war Londoners (Jolivette, 2008). These movements resist the institutionalisation and exclusivity of artworks by positioning the artwork within the public domain, and resist notions of art ownership by autonomising art outside of the museum/gallery space (Lippard, 1997). I aim to consider resistance of the limitations posed by the picture frame and how this resistance has resulted in an embrace of public spaces. In considering the power of public space, in this brief essay I aim to reveal how positive utilisation can liberate individuals, construct communities and initiate conversation. This topic is inspired by my week’s placement at the Research and Cultural Collections department within the University of Birmingham, and a distinguished lecture for the Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences department.
My interest in the power possessed by public spaces was first sparked by a lecture given by Rosie Stanbury, the Head of Public Programmes at the Wellcome Collection. Rosie’s lecture, titled ‘Unexpected connections: Different disciplines in public space’, uncovered the beauty of the anonymity and freedom that public space facilitates. Rosie argued that public spaces force you to look upwards and forge a relationship with your physical environment, however she stresses that technology possesses the power to threaten human connections with the public sphere. Mobile phones have disrupted our relationships with our physical environments by giving the individual the illusion that they are within a private space, described by Rosie as a ‘bubble’, despite being physically present in the public domain. The Wellcome Collection’s approach to liberating individuals within public spaces was embodied for me in one of the events described by Rosie, their Open Platform programme held in the Wellcome Collection library. The Open Platform programme entails planned pop-up events within the public space of the library that were not advertised or promoted beyond the collection staff. Thus visitors to the library were entirely surprised when they were approached and invited to partake in an hour long workshop, activity, or event and were able to immerse themselves within the temporality of this public interaction. The disparate members of the public who were united as the audience to the pop-up event thus shared an instantaneous connection with one another. Rosie discussed how the audience members felt liberated by the anonymity and spontaneity of the events, with individuals forging connections with strangers and embracing this opportunity of escapism.
The Wellcome Collection’s Open Platform programme embodies a deconstruction of some of the structures and expectations of human behaviour inflicted on individuals by structures of etiquette and modern society. The enthrallment of strangers within the public sphere bursts the private ‘bubbles’ that we construct around ourselves when functioning in modern society, whether this is through an intense relationship with our mobile phones or the steely masks we wear while travelling on public transport. The scope for connection, conversation and broadened horizons starts once those bubbles of perceptions are burst and we are forced to look up.
One of the projects which I have been working on during my time at the Research and Cultural Collections department has been the Sculpture Commission as part of the Arts and Science Festival. Not only does the commission implore the public to form opinions and engage with their physical environment, bringing art directly into the public domain, but the festival also challenges disciplinary boundaries, opening up conversations and forging bridges between the Arts and the Sciences. For me, the implementation of public art focused around these themes, and the use of a public vote to elect the winning artist, acts as a symbolic representation of the conversations that need to take place between such disciplines within the academic sphere. The UK education system forces students to compartmentalise disciplines, viewing the Arts and Sciences as distinctive, disparate spheres of thought, methodology and knowledge. While of course there are differences between academic practices within each realm of study, the compulsion to define ourselves by one or the other potentially limits the scope for conversations between disciplines and embracing aspects and methodologies of alternate disciplines to form hybrid ideas, arguments and solutions to issues. The installation of public art challenges the histories of elitism and institutionalisation within the art world, inviting all members of the public to engage with and form opinions on the artworks even if they have no prior knowledge within the disciplines of Visual Arts or Art History. The Arts and Science Festival not only promotes conversations between the public and the art world, but also communicates scientific theories through art with contributions to the Sculpture Commission exploring the topics of technology, biodiversity, medicine and climate change. Thus, the projects embodying the use of arts communication translate contemporary issues or scientific theories to a wider audience.
My week with Research and Cultural Collections has opened my eyes to the power of public space and the capacity for public art to deconstruct boundaries. I look forward to seeing the Sculpture Commission unfold, and tuning into the conversations catalysed by this vital implementation of art within the public sphere and the challenging of disciplinary boundaries.
Find out more about the Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences department at the University of Birmingham by following @LANS_unibham on Twitter and Instagram or following this link.
Jolivette, C. 2008. ‘London pride: 1951 and figurative sculpture at the South Bank Exhibition’, The Sculpture Journal 17.2, p. 23-36.
Lippard, L. 1997. Six years : the dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press).
Figure 1 – Spiral Jetty, 1970, Robert Smithson, 1550×15’, Art (c) Estate of Robert Smithson / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, https://library-artstor-org.ezproxyd.bham.ac.uk/#/asset/ARTSTOR_103_41822000497790
Figure 2 – Valley Curtain, 1970, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Photo: Wolfgang Volz, Rifle, Colorado, https://christojeanneclaude.net/projects/valley-curtain