Public space, can you draw a line around it?

Art is arrogant, we like to keep it that way
2003, Humobisten

I’d like to be the devils’ advocate for a moment and partly defend the impopular opinion of the mayor of Stockholm regarding a stricter policy towards public art (see this post by Po Hagström). It raises the question of how (or whether) public expressions need to be regulated and if freedom of speech has limits. We all agree that you cannot beat up someone if you don’t like their opinion, but what is graffiti in that regard? Illegal damage of property? Or freedom of expression?

I don’t think you can simply dismiss the mayors’ statement that public art must be banned if there is no permission. First, since it is public art, it automatically implies that it is subject to public discussion and interpretation. The latter implies that not everyone will agree with its meaning, quality or aesthetics. Second, when you make art for a general public, you cannot demand them to automatically agree with its legitimacy either. In particular graffiti, which does ‘damage’ someone elses’ property, is arguable in that regard. As such, the mayor must be criticised as well, because public commissioned works (legitimate according to the mayor), deal with the same problems of interpretation and public legitimacy. Who is he (or the city) to say what is good for the public or not?

Now I don’t want to be a hard-liner and state that subversive expressions in public space should be banned. As much as I disagree with damage of property, it’s with same passion that I love the dynamics that public art (including graffiti, poster art etc) brings to the street. Therefore the question: how can artists deal with this delicacy?

I’d like to consult history and point out two notorious public works that hopelessly failed and radically changed the attitude of contemporary art towards public space.
First example is the Tilted Arc of Richard Serra, which was removed late 80s after years of court trials and petitions signed by people living and working around the art work. In the end, the reasons for its removal were the fact that it completely paralysed a public square by dividing it in half, second, because a majority of people living around it found it ugly. It proved that artists’ arrogance and ignorance towards their audience will be answered likewise.


Second example is the famous project House by Rachel Whiteread, which won the famous Turner Prize. Despite its effort to issue economic problems in the neighbourhood it was placed, it didn’t receive the same honours in the area. It was severely vandalised and inhabitants of the neighbourhood protested and demanded the art piece to be taken down (a petition signed by 3.500 inhabitants!). This work proved that despite good intentions, artists can still be wrong and that agency (to speak on behalf of a community) requires delicacy.


For a more succesful example I’d like to stay in Sweden and point out the project SUPERCITY, by Superflex, which was carried out in Karlskrona. Superflex built a 3-D digital copy of the city that citizens of Karlskrona could inhabit and alter by creating an avatar. Simultaneously a projection of Karlskrona2 was projected in the city main square. It’s an example of how to create works that discuss in an unbiased, democratic, open-ended way all aspects of the city, be it subversive, peaceful, violent, conservative or progressive.

I realise this doesn’t provide a perfect answer to the problems raised in this post and the previous one by Po Hagström, in particular the fact that politicians exercise control and regulation through abandoning subversive expressions in public space (and replace it with commercial and profitable ones). Therefore I must agree that a certain amount of activism must be carried out to counter this development, in order to claim public space when it’s not ‘public’ anymore. On the other hand, this post is a modest attempt to point out that a certain affection towards audience and public issues is required from the side of the artist as well.

1 Response to “Public space, can you draw a line around it?”



  1. 1 A Buffalo in Omaha and the Pleasures of Misinterpretation. « Trackback on July 3, 2008 at 10:44 pm

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