When working in Public Space, there is a healthy dose of skepticism directed towards art – in part because there is skepticism towards everything public, and in part because things that are not quantifiably functional are regarded with curiosity. What does art do? Since this question is akin to asking What does a library do? or What does design do? or What does travelling do? it’s often left poorly answered. But our favourite public art, the art that gets under our skin and changes the way we see the world, is art that unlocks unseen potentials of a place, reflecting the true nature of that space.
Even this, however, is a generalization, because what art ‘does’ changes dramatically from one place to the next; different cities, regions, and countries allow art different potentials. The same work can have dramatically different meanings depending on its cultural context (as seen with the recent Bowfort Towers in Calgary). Even the meaning of the same artwork can change dramatically over time (like we’re seeing with American civil war monuments) or when placed in relation to another object (like The Charging Bull and The Fearless Girl).
Above: CLOUD in Singapore (top left), Canberra, Australia (top right), Moscow, Russia, and Jerusalem, Israel (bottom)
Sometimes the most controversial works are the most loved decades later (Eiffel Tower). Public space is complex beyond any one person’s understanding, and public art participates in that complicated framework.
As artists, we’ve worked in many public spaces, and all come with different considerations, different fears, and different magic. Over the years, our work has been enthusiastically embraced by entire communities, and literally cursed by angry viewers. People have stolen parts of our artworks, and other people have volunteered to help us install on frozen lakes at -37° C (see below). We have been treated with great suspicion and unbelievable kindness, and the average between all these experiences somehow keeps us going, keeps us humble, keeps us aspiring to greater and more subtle things.
We’ve come to regard all responses in shared space as legitimate. When working in the public, the viewer gets to co-inform the meaning of an artwork, often not based on the artist’s research or anything that’s been written about the work, but on a more visceral intuition. And while the intangibility of this can be intimidating, we were told once that public art must be “strong enough to speak for itself.”
In developing a new artwork for Delta Garden, a designed site that already contains a considerable amount of magic, we put careful thought into the experience we anticipate for the public. Beginning conceptually, we worked backwards into the physical materials.
Many of our material experiments began with practical questions: how can we install the monuments? Will they withstand Calgary’s violent freeze/thaw cycles? Can they deal with a snow plow? Will people wearing heals be able to walk through the artwork? Do the monuments create problems for people with accessibility considerations? If the monuments are wet or covered in snow, will people slip on them? Will the shine of the sun off the brass create issues for people flying helicopters? (literally. Calgary Public Art commissioned a Glare Study. The answer in no).
We love art that changes over time, that allows the patina of wear to enhance (rather than detract from) the experience of that work. We love art that grows, art that evolves, and art that destroys itself. In the past, making temporary artworks has been enough to satisfy our interests in social space, but branching into ‘permanent’ work presents more challenging potentials, requiring more due diligence: TIME is a powerful variable, especially when combined with PUBLIC. The space for fear expands in tandem with the space for magic. And hopefully, like our past experiences, the swing back and forth between both will allow space for intensity, beauty, curiosity, and feeling.