Public Art Review

In 2007 Ian Banks was commissioned by Art & Architecture Journal working in conjunction with the US publication Public Art Review to write two articles for Issue# 37 – Fall/Winter 2007 Volume 19 Number 1 THE PRESENT STATE: England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The writing of both articles was co-funded by Arts Council England, under its Grants for the Arts funding programme. The articles were:

  • The Art of becoming Civil in Northern Ireland: Practice-Based Research at INTERFACE (Interview with Declan McGonagle, Director of INTERFACE, the Centre for Research in Art, Technologies and Design at the University of Ulster – page 40)
  • Artists Taking the Lead: Visionary Shift in U.K. Arts Policy or Just Cultural Spin? (page 50)

Public Art Review is a publication of FORECAST Public Artworks and is the main American magazine covering public art activities. A catalog of their past issues  dating from 1989 (and including this issueare) are available online through the University of Minnesota’s UMedia Archive.

Scroll down to read both articles.


 

   

The Art of Becoming Civil – Practice-Based Research of INTERFACE: the Centre for Research in Art, Technologies and Design at the University of Ulster

The origins of the term and use of ‘constructive ambiguity’ is widely attributed to Henry Kissinger. It refers to the political art of circumnavigating sensitivities through a deliberate ‘fudging’ of issues in order to advance a political purpose. Nowhere could its use be more true perhaps, than in the ever-complex and sensitive area of continuing Devolution in Northern Ireland. Here, in the Belfast Agreement,1 even the fundamental first section on ‘Constitutional Issues’ is seen as a masterpiece of such non-specificity – challenging all rules of legal drafting and testifying to its politically expedient nature. Thus it is that Irish Nationalists get their reference to the mutual consensus of “the people of the island of Ireland alone” whilst British Unionists get reference to the “consent of the majority” of the people of Northern Ireland. Each side knows that this is a ‘fudge’ but can live with it, and ‘sell’ it to their own constituents as victory – or at least not a defeat. The classic problem with constructive ambiguity, however well-meaning, is that it postpones real agreements until some future date, when ‘differences’ can be aired without prejudice.

Professor Declan McGonagle – Director of INTERFACE, 2 the Centre for Research in Art, Technologies and Design at the University of Ulster, believes that ‘power-sharing’ like this is also in a sense ‘power-splitting’ – essentially ‘divide and rule’, one might say. However, such compromise can also be used positively as a creative collaboration, when brokered after careful research and negotiation with all parties. Launched in November 2004, INTERFACE stands on a platform of such historic research excellence, but now concerns itself additionally with practice-based research exploring the healing of community tensions as well, including the creation of something McGonagle is calling a “new civil society”. INTERFACE is a new interactive ‘hybrid’, concerning itself now with research into both fine art and textiles, and as its very name implies, bridging the process between art and design, theory and practice as well as art and social space. McGonagle sees its fine art strand as having a contemporary link to the current ‘lived experience’ in Northern Ireland; whereas he sees the textiles dimension rooted very much within the cultural identity of the Province historically.

One of  INTERFACE’s recurring themes of investigation is for contemporary art to respond to the idea of social citizenship, and to increasingly explore the notion of our ‘public space’ as ‘civil space’. It is also a strand that has been woven through much of McGonagle’s work since both graduating from Belfast College of Art in 1976, and being appointed the first Organiser of the Orchard Gallery in Derry in 1978. As well as being curator at the Orchard Gallery, his subsequent practice also involved working at the ICA in London and the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. He was eventually short-listed for the Turner Prize in 1987 – to date, one of only two curators ever to have been – for ‘making the Orchard Gallery an international centre for the artist’. More recently, in 2004, McGonagle completed the Dublin City Arts Centre’s ‘Civil Arts Inquiry’, 3 which was a two year review to explore the bases on how the City Arts Centre had operated. Through a series of public consultations and discussion the Civil Arts Inquiry opened up further questions on the role of arts and culture in society.

McGonagle firmly believes that public art in Northern Ireland must now begin “moving beyond the physical aesthetic”, and leave behind an obsession with the notion of ‘permanence’. He believes that major public art budgets are too often controlled by large public procurement funds, and that curatorial vision needs to be shifted back to the cultural organisations or a “professionalised arts unit”. The irony, he says, is that often “Roads Services have more to say on public art spending” than arts professionals. With ambitions of Belfast City Council and the ‘Department of Social Development’ to spend £400,000 for example, on ‘roundabout art’ for the Broadway Junction, as main gateway to the City from the South, this could become a dangerous norm if left unchallenged. Of course the constantly rolling National Percent for Art Schemes 4 seen throughout the Irish Republic are a constant reminder to the Province of this regeneration-led public art approach, although McGonagle maintains that some Percent for Art projects – like those commissioned by Ballymun Regeneration as part of the ‘Breaking Ground’ 5 programme – can facilitate very “creative interventions” of artists and craftspersons.

The problem McGonagle believes is that “we behave as if we have a consensus over what the term ‘public’ means” and thinks that this is a huge oversimplification. Undoubtedly, like much of the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland has quite some way to go on this cultural journey. However, whilst programmes like Belfast City Centre’s ‘Public Realm Improvement Strategy’ with its Action Plan of ‘Belfast: Streets Ahead’ 6 are undoubtedly engaging and visionary, they are still not perhaps exploring the degree of civil considerations that INTERFACE aspires to – although perhaps Belfast’s recently launched ‘Integrated Cultural Strategy’ 7 will help in this regard. Such integration is important, as McGonagle believes public art should not be driven by any one single agenda. He believes that there are very few models to look at currently with a meaningful degree of true collaboration, and feels that this is the key to success. As an example, he cites the recent Arts Council England publication ‘Art of Negotiation’ 8 and its exploration of 8 artist-led collaborative projects at different sites across England. Arts Council of Northern Ireland also articulates its own policy through a Public Art Handbook, 9 published in 2005 by Paul Harron the Architecture & Public Art Officer. This also supports a dedicated Public Art Programme, designed to aid the commissioning of new art for public places throughout Northern Ireland, and funded out of the National Lottery Programme.

So where does INTERFACE’s ambition for a new civil society fit into all this? When setting out his vision for the research unit at his launch speech in June 2006, McGonagle quoted A C Grayling 10 – Professor of Philosopher at Birkbeck College – speaking in Dublin in 2003 on Ancient Greece – where “society valued the warrior as the person who could protect society”. Grayling outlined the moment of shift in that social context where the civilian or ‘civil man’ began to become valued. Nowhere is this better showcased than in the 3-year Arts Council Northern Ireland funding scheme ‘Re-Imaging Communities’, a programme to help all communities in urban and rural areas focus on positive ways to express what culture means to them artistically and creatively. As a result, in West Belfast, it has helped engage a transformation of the mural tradition into something more civil, 11 effectively mirroring that same shift from warrior tradition to civilian tradition that Grayling alluded to. In Greece this shift was assisted by the artform of culture – in particular theatre – where the collective of the chorus began to gain a more influential voice. McGonagle believes that this provides a powerful metaphor for Northern Ireland as well. As a result, and following representations by community organisations and the Department for Social Development’s Belfast Regeneration Office has since commissioned INTERFACE to research and develop an over-arching Public Arts Strategy for this highly complex part of the city. INTERFACE also join the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, who have been working here since 1988, in the slow ‘incremental practice’ of helping the development of the thriving, unique community of West Belfast – the largest designated area of social need in Northern Ireland, and also containing a growing number of hard-to-reach migrant workers to boot. Parallel to this, Channel 4’s Big Art Project 12 is also currently working with the community in North Belfast, around the Waterworks Park, to create a series of new artworks in the park, based on negotiation with the communities who live there. Community representatives proposed the park as a setting for art interventions as part of a longer term community driven reclamation of the park as a shared ‘civil’ space. The Big Art Project sees itself as helping to raise the difficult but important question of: “can art build bridges?”

McGonagle certainly believe it can, and thinks the same questions of bonding and bridging civil space are also exercising the body politic generally. INTERFACE’s intention is to produce a user friendly working document which will set out clear mechanisms, opportunities and processes for Public Arts programming across these areas of the city, with a high level of community involvement. It is intended also to link new public arts programming to parallel activity in the City Centre and Laganside, and will take full account of other overlapping strategies, supporting community development, arts provision, economic and social regeneration. The preparation of this strategic working document, and its subsequent implementation in the context of existing programmes, has the potential to provide communities with a means to raise the pure quality and extent of public arts provision. It will create new ways of working and developing art in context to enhance environment and quality of life over time, and also begin to create opportunities for active participation of communities in the process. The Strategy document is due to be completed in  2007, and will then form the basis for the development of Public Arts initiatives in the medium and long-term development of West Belfast and Greater Shankill areas.

Alluding to Joseph Beuys’ most famous phrase, McGonagle believes that “everyone is an artist”. Beuys talked of art as a true social organism which had an “evolutionary-revolutionary” power to dismantle and then rebuild, and so it can be on the Shankill and Falls Roads where McGonagle hopes for a required “shift in society and shift in culture”. To aid this he visualises a “permanent programme of temporary projects” and the idea of the “City as a Gallery”. Crucial however, is his central idea of the artist as negotiator as well as producer, forming a ‘new deal’, between artist and society. In this aim, technology is not an end in itself, but a means to helping achieve larger social and civil goals, through which creative industries are prized not just for their economic potential but for their values of engagement and participation. The power to “connect communities of interest to communities of place” McGonagle calls it, whilst being “placed locally but connected globally.”

INTERFACE has tuned into an opportunistic moment of change in both academic and broader contexts of Northern Ireland. McGonagle sees it as being the potential catalyst for a “seismic shift” in the inherited assumptions of values which underpin the nature and meaning of art and practice more broadly. He believes that these assumptions have depended historically on a separation of the ‘artist’ from ‘society’ and that this separation of “arts-aesthetic responsibility” from its “ethical, social and moral responsibility” needs to be liberated from the publics mind. He believes that there is no better place to explore such ambitious aims than in a post-conflict Northern Ireland, although the scale of the task at hand, as well as the length and intensity of peoples memories can never be over estimated here – as the trials and tribulations during the establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly following the Belfast Agreement testify to.

In that respect, McGonagle quotes Sir Nicholas Fenn, the ex British Joint Chairman of Encounter 13 – the independent organisation established by British and Irish governments to “contribute to the improvement of relations” – as once saying that ‘the Irish remember too much… and the English not enough”. Indeed, perhaps the big mistake of any engaged cultural strategy here is trying to cover too much ground too soon, and to attempt to provide all the finished solutions over night. In that regard, perhaps a more fluid organic policy of ‘creative ambiguity’ or artistic licence is needed to buy the much-needed time to rigorously research, explore and engage with the complex social issues and deep-rooted historical scars that places like West Belfast hold. INTERFACE certainly has the potential to build on its innovative programmes of action research, but no doubt does not expect quick wins in turning ‘public space’ into ‘civil space’ overnight. McGonagle talks of a much-needed “art of negotiation” here, and accepts and embraces the complexities by making reference to a poignant popular saying in the Province: “if you are not confused, then you don’t understand”.

Architect Ian Banks is the Director of Atoll Ltd, a collaborative art + architecture practice.  He is also the part-time Consultant Director of Public Realm at Beam, the Yorkshire-based centre for art and architecture – www.atoll-uk.com  +  www.beam.uk.net. The writing of this article has been co-funded by Arts Council England, under its Grants for the Arts funding programme – www.artscouncil.org.uk.

Notes:

  • The Belfast Agreement – also known as the Good Friday Agreement or Stormont Agreement – was reached in Belfast in April 1998. It set out the plan for devolved government in Northern Ireland on a “stable and inclusive basis”. The Agreement proposed an inter-connected group of institutions drawn from three ‘strands’ dealing with relationships to internal affairs, the Republic of Ireland and mainland Britain respectively. The resulting power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly, was established as part of this Belfast Agreement in November 2003, but had been variously dissolved or suspended since – until Devolution was finally restored to the Assembly on 8 May 2007.
  • Quoted launch Speech by Professor Declan McGonagle is included as the Foreword to the publication ‘INTERFACE Research in Art Technologies and Design – Report No. 1: 11/04 – 05/06 – Editor Sarah Pierce. Published by INTERFACE, University of Ulster 2006 – 120 Pages: ISBN 978-1-905902-00-2

Web Links

  1. www.nio.gov.uk/the-agreement
  2. www.interface.ulster.ac.uk
  3. www.cityarts.ie
  4. www.arts-sport-tourism.gov.ie
  5. www.breakingground.ie
  6. www.belfaststreetsaheadni.gov.uk
  7. http://www.belfastcity.gov.uk/culture
  8. www.arts.org.uk/publications
  9. www.artscouncil-ni.org
  10. www.acgrayling.com
  11. www.newbelfastarts.org/gallery/reimage.html
  12. www.channel4.com/bigart
  13. http://www.british-irish-encounter.com

  

Artists Taking the Lead – Visionary shift in UK arts policy or just cultural Spin?

By Ian Banks

Public art has often been used for political ends. Its greatest expression was in a widespread use by the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution, leading eventually to a policy to install a public art of heroes and artists in every village of the new Soviet Union. Lenin himself apparently insisted that art in a revolutionary society should be temporary and avoid the creation of ‘hero cults’. The resulting Constructivist movement also dismissed ‘pure’ art in favour of an art used more as an instrument for social purposes – specifically the construction of a socialist system. The subsequent emergence of monumental sculpture in the Soviet Union came after the rise of Stalin.

Public art in the UK is currently at a much more benign cultural and political watershed – in the paradox of being torn between the cultural poles of ‘art for arts sake’ and a ‘target-driven arts’ agendas. Tantalisingly, in an age of subsidised arts spending cuts seen elsewhere, public art commissioning budgets appear to be getting bigger, more diverse and of higher profile. This is due no doubt to its funding patrons being drawn from ever wider of the arts and culture centre, although as a result, the conditional ‘small-print’ enforcing it is becoming increasingly political and economic in its terms. The burgeoning physical regeneration seen in Tony Blair’s Britain over the last 10 years has been a major feature here – including the political fall-out from the respective devolutions of power to Scottish, Welsh and most recently, Northern Irish Assemblies. The result has been a demand for iconic statement of varying scales, marking independent political freedoms and setting aspirations for future economic prosperity – be they country, province, region or urban centre based. This has been typified in England in the extreme recently, by The Northern Way’s 1 £4.5 million fast-track investment in public art – for the largely regional marketing and tourism aims of the North West, Yorkshire and North East Regional Development Agencies. Regional marketing and tourism also seems to be the driver for Landmark Wales, 2 a programme to attempt to harness £18m of public art funding into key ‘entry’ and ‘transitional’ points throughout Wales – potentially funded out of the Big Lottery Living Landmarks 3 programme. At the other end of the cultural spectrum, the grass-roots social agendas of New Labour’s Sustainable Communities plan has also tasked the arts to engage difficult-to-reach groups, and to help create that elusive elixir of ‘Liveability’ and ‘Place-making’ – that good design and architecture apparently seems incapable of achieving on their own. Independent public art think-tank Ixia 4 certainly believes that public art can add value to the public realm, and that quality is achieved through a greater understanding of it. It is an understanding that is certainly improving through the committed work of such organisations, although it still has a long way to go.

With the recent replacement of Tony Blair by Gordon Brown as Prime Minister, it will be interesting to see if this political shift has an immediate bearing on any cultural funding strategies within the UK – or indeed whether they can be sustained beyond the next General Election due in 2009/10. Newly appointed Culture Secretary James Purnell 5 certainly seems to think so, and has just vowed to release arts organisations from the pressure of what he has called “crude targets” to look at how the government can empower “artists and organisations to be the best”. Speaking recently at the National Portrait Gallery, Purnell spoke of an “open, iconoclastic culture” being a precondition for a modernising, tolerant country. “I see cultural policy as a pyramid – with participation the foundation, education the way up and excellence the apex” he said. Purnell also stated that Labour’s past insistence on using targets to widen access has resulted in a “dumbing down” of the arts. Therefore, with the Olympics due in London in 2012, 6 he believes that the UK now has its best chance in a generation to showcase to the world its truly unique cultural ambition and quality.

Peter Hewitt, Chief Executive of Arts Council England, has welcomed the new Secretary of State’s vision. Arts Council England also believe that the findings from its own recent Arts Debate 7 programme – the first large scale enquiry into how people in England define, engage with and value art and public investment in art – will provide a invaluable insight into how to realise such a cultural aspiration. Of the four governing Arts Councils of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, each have their own cultural aims and objectives of course, but all will be drawn together inexorably as a result of the build-up to the 2012 London Olympics. In reality, that is both negatively through country-wide arts funding cuts enforced to pay for Olympic overspends; and positively through centrally-funded shared cultural programmes. As part of this, the London Organising Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games has recently announced a formal role for the funded arts sector in a Cultural Olympiad.8 As such, all four Arts Council’s will be asked to support something called Artists Taking the Lead, through which artists will be challenged to lead a celebration of the excellence, diversity, innovation and internationalism of the arts across the UK. As a part of this, twelve artists’ commissions – presumably public art in some form – will be “responding to and celebrating our local and national cultural life in each of the nine English regions and in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales” and will create “great art in iconic and unexpected places”. Each commission will encourage collaboration across art forms, aspire to a legacy beyond 2012, and have the creative energy of children, young people and communities at its heart.

Culture Minister James Purnell’s belief in an “open iconoclastic culture” speaks the right language of course in opposing generally accepted beliefs and traditions, but is this his governments genuine ambition or is it yet more political ‘spin’ to attempt to buy into a fourth Labour term? Ironically it is the ‘spin’ of regional marketing and tourism agencies that often provides the most relaxed brief and the least conditional terms of public art engagement. The only rub with this comes with the fact that often the ‘hero cult’ that celebrity artists bring to big iconic art works can become something of an obsession to these uninitiated commissioners.

The rise in alternative public art approaches must be embraced to move things forward of course. Huge opportunities exist to push at these boundaries, and the Cultural Olympiad if scoped and funded innovatively could provide a much needed impetus here. For example, use of more temporary and integrated projects throughout the country could be considered – both on a macro and micro scale, and everywhere in between. Major projects with the ambition of Liverpool Biennial’s public art programme; 9 NVA’s Storr Project 10 and Half Life; 11 Artangel’s Margate Exodus; 12 and Royal de Luxe’s Sultans Elephant 13 could provide the ultimate example of challenging public art engagement on a mass-populist scale – whilst at grass roots level, integrated networks of public art initiatives like Channel 4’s Big Art Project, 14 could also show that socially-driven art agendas can deliver quality, challenge and meaning without artistic compromise. A debate in alternative public art policy and approaches must be enabled to help move these things forward. In the 4-year interim between Liverpool Capital of Culture in 2008 15 and London 2012 huge opportunities exist to push at these boundaries, through programmes like Artists taking the Lead and the Cultural Olympiad. It is therefore essential that the Governments Comprehensive Spending Review 16 and budget settlements of the devolved regions – all to be announced later in 2007 – be set up adequately to engage, inform and realise this vision. The pressure is therefore on for the four UK Arts Councils to consult and collaborate with each other to ensure that effective lobbying takes place. A generosity of funding, along with a genuinely innovative vision, could create a softer yet more challenging cultural antidote to a post-Angel and post-Blair Britain that, in public realm terms, has become somewhat obsessed with littering the country with the political statements of iconic gateways. So bring on a new cultural revolution in public art – and let us genuinely see artists placed at the lead in this cathartic process!

Architect Ian Banks is the Director of Atoll Ltd, a collaborative art + architecture practice.  He is also the part-time Consultant Director of Public Realm at Beam, the Yorkshire-based centre for art and architecture – www.atoll-uk.com  +  www.beam.uk.net.

The writing of this article has been co-funded by Arts Council England, under its Grants for the Arts funding programme – www.artscouncil.org.uk.

Web Links

  1. thenorthernway.co.uk
  2. landmarkwales.org
  3. biglotteryfund.org.uk
  4. ixia-info.com
  5. culture.gov.uk
  6. london2012.org
  7. arts.org.uk/artsdebate/index.php
  8. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6226550.stm
  9. biennial.com
  10. nva.org.uk
  11. halflife.org.uk
  12. margateexodus.org.uk
  13. thesultanselephant.com
  14. channel4.com/culture/microsites/B/bigart
  15. liverpool08.com
  16. www.hm-treasury.gov.uk

Categories: Writing

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