Urban art: reflecting on the reART:theURBAN conference (Zurich – October 2012)

MacGhillie by Knowbotiq – conference attendant taking part in the performance

How can we define urban art? Art that is performed in urban spaces? Art that questions, challenges and addresses urban issues? Or art that originates in the city and is distinctively urban? It is perhaps all of the above, but more importantly, urban art is about encounter. Performative and embodied encounter. It is about participation. It is also about uncertainty, awareness, reflection. It can trigger political action, social interaction, or play. Or it can just sit in the background, waiting for someone to wear it (see video above), trip on it (see video below), pick it up or sit on it.

Its outcome is contingent on the unpredictable agency of the city and the subjectivity of participants, who might interpret it in significantly different ways than envisioned by the artists or the institutions that have commissioned it. By moving outside of the controlled environment of art galleries and museums, it is subject to performative ‘failures’, although, as Judith Butler puts it, performance must fail, as the failures of performance can bring new affordances.

The reART:theURBAN conference showcased and discussed the many facets of urban art, including its discrepancies, missed potentials, contradictions and failures. During the open plenary, Charles Landry pondered why there is so much red public art around the world. Is it because it needs to make a point by ‘shouting out’ its purpose by standing out against the chaotic backdrop of the city? Can urban art not make its point discretely? After Landry’s talk, Erik Swyngedou highlighted the contradictions in the employment of urban art as a promotional tool for cities that market themselves as creative/sustainable/eco cities.

Swyngedou’s warning call can be seen here:

He replies to the question: “How can we bring divergent approaches to the table?” by arguing that it forces us to mistakenly think that we can actually all come together and agree in the city. Instead, we must understand the city’s most important quality as being exactly the ability to cater for an assemblage of individuals with divergent opinions, desires and ways of living. IN this case it is worth pondering the following question: how does the city support the development of the commons through urban art without succumbing to the rhetoric of the ‘cultural city’?

Rimini Protokoll’s 100% Zurich, performed during the conference, attempts to sketch out such commons in a two hour performance: 100 citizens on stage representing a statistical selection of the population of Zurich take part in a staged performance that shines a torch on the city through a lens that highlights its people and their ways of living rather than the infrastructure fabric. These ‘experts of the everyday’ tell their individual and collective stories, opinions and wishes through a semi-rehearsed performance, while multiple questions are posed to the 100 members, who scramble around the circular stage (that doubles as a sort of giant whiteboard filmed from above) to indicate statistically their answers. At one point, the narrative states: “We are a body with 100 heads”. This statement summarises the role of the city as a stage for a commons through dissensus, according to Swyngedou’s argument.

Slavoj Zizek’s keynote lecture – When Art is Dangerous – also questioned the totalitarian aim of the cultural city rhetoric. During his entertaining and engaging talk, Zizek elaborated on the ‘poetic military complex’. He argues that “authentic poetry, authentic art is used in crimes of poetic military ideology”. He referred to the justification of crimes against humanity through the use of poetic rhetoric – from Hitler via Karadzic to contemporary African dictators. The poetic military complex. These crimes, according to Zizek, are perpetrated through the use of language as a totalitarian weapon. Instead, he argues, “language should be tortured to tell the truth” so that poetry can be redeemed. He mentioned as an example Eisenstein and his ‘torturing of language through montage’.

I think Zizek’s point must be taken seriously especially when the focus on technology as effect/technique/theme in urban art foregrounds spectacle and an action/interaction effect molded on cybernetic predictability that affects participation, the important role of embodiment and reflection. It is a refreshing challenge to the myth of unimpeded information flows that help us find our way in the ‘concrete jungle’, (think Robocop, Minority Report, Google glasses…), or, as Katherine Hayles puts it, the belief that, in our posthuman condition, the body is redundant. Zizek’s point sheds a light on the need to be less prescriptive on the outcomes of urban art and forgo the rhetoric of cultural city in favour of a multiplicity of participatory modes and of foregrounding embodiment.

A better understanding of the multiple ways in which participants engage with urban art helps to overcome the urge to categorise it and pre-define its outcome as political, leisure, social. While many projects might have a specific agenda to start of with, the outcome is always unpredictable. I agree with Hilke Berger’s argument in her presentation about participation during here talk at the conference: “citizens attach their own value to things”.

A work of urban art can be interpreted in many different way by participants. During his inspiring and innovative presentation, artist Manos Tsangaris argued that “the urban is inside of us”, and that “if art says: I have to do this for x-reason, it fails”. According to him, we must focus on the punctum, the ‘leaping point’. Or in other words, we must pay close attention to sudden moments of displacement, of social potential, of renewal of what the term ‘urban’ stands for.

One of the highlights of the conference for me was taking part in a workshop on Urban Games ran by Jakob La Cour and Sebastian Quack. Through an iteration process, we adapted and played two ‘urban games’: Surveillance Roulette and Tetris Smuggling. Surveillance Roulette consisted of a typical roulette game where, instead of gambling on numbers, participants bet on the future actions of selected passers-by entering the designated space. In Tetris Smuggling, two competing teams had to recruit passers-by smuggle physical representations of the pieces of the famous electronic game into a designated security space and attach the pieces to a magnetic surface while avoiding two security guards patrolling the space.

Both games are remarkably simple, cheap to reproduce (no digital devices involved) and cleverly draw in passers-by into the game playing by reinterpreting traditional games (roulette and Tetris) and situating them in an unfamiliar space (transport hubs, bars) in a simple but challenging way. They raised questions about participation. Some participants felt uncomfortable engaging strangers to ‘smuggle’ pieces of Tetris past the ‘security personnel’ (a participant with a bright green safety vest). Passers-by were drawn into both games with unexpected results. During the enactment of the Surveillance Roulette game, many passers-by realised they were being observed and were puzzled by the excitement on the table inside the conferences bar where participants were assembled around the improvised roulette table. Sebastian and Jakob argues that urban games can “make you more aware of other participants” and to “observe and learn more about space”.

One of the important outcomes of these games is to allow adults to engage with urban space in a playful way, outside of everyday life routines. But they also fulfill other important roles, and therefore categorising them simply as playful interactions does not do them full justice. Through rule discussion, play and post-game analysis, the potential of embodied participation and reflection triggers disagreements that must be worked out through a democratic process. Therefore a temporary commons emerges through participatory dissensus.

La Cour and Quack’s workshop summarises what I liked most about the reART:the URBAN conference: it reassures me of the importance of participation in the creative re-appropriation of everyday urban spaces where the outcome is open, rather than an attempt to narrow the focus of urban art towards pre-defined categories (social, political, cultural, play) or prescriptive outcomes.

This, I think is an approach that can help us avoid the use of art, in Zizek’s words towards “providing an aesthetic screen to make us blind and indifferent”.

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