The following article first featured in October 2003’s issue 3 of ‘Prospect NW’, the monthly magazine for RIBA NW, published by the Carnyx Group. The features were part of a monthly series of ‘introductions to public art’ written by Ian Banks, the (then) Public Art & Architecture Officer for Arts Council England NW. Ian produced a total of 24 articles for Prospect NW, spanning from May 2003 to December 2005. Content varied according to artform and whatever pertinent public art news was current at that time. All 24 Prospect NW articles are available as a free pdf download off the self-publishing platform Lulu.
This article explores the rapidly growing movement towards more transient interventions and live street arts being used in festivals and other placemaking to animate our public realm and culturally engage communities.
Transient Installation: Cultivation of a new public art form
To quote from the public art funding guidelines, reproduced within Public Art Northwest circulated in last months issue: “Public art encompasses all the art forms, including the visual arts, performance, music, video and new media. The only prime requirements are that projects or events are publicly accessible and site specific, designed for a particular place at a particular time”.
As such, a new breed of temporary street-art is increasingly being used by commissioning bodies, expanding the boundaries of the urban public art form – often within the scope of major cultural festivals or other participatory arts events. Because of their transitory nature and often comparatively low budget, such projects are often afforded much greater freedom to respond to their respective sites, events and communities – often given less restrictive and politicised briefs than for permanent equivalents. The major benefit of such work is that it is immediate yet ultimately reversible, often whetting the civic appetite to pave the way for bigger physical (and permanent) works to follow.
This has been the case with the various installations created for Liverpool Biennial in late 2003. Of these, and featured in last months Prospect NW, the most notable was probably artist Tatsurou Bashi’s Villa Victoria. This was the installation to create an elevated and fully working one-bedroom hotel around the Queen Victoria Monument in Derby Square – and which included the 15m statue leering over the double bed! As reviewer Neal Brown wrote in Public Art Northwest recently, it was “a subversive counterpoint to the past imperial embarrassments from which Liverpool still suffers. It was the next best thing to being the intruder who broke into the Queen’s bedroom at Buckingham Palace. Villa was that good.”
Another classic example of the genre was also seen this July at the Manchester Live festival – scheduled to take place over the same dates as the Commonwealth Games in 2002. The idea behind the programme for the summer was to enable ‘transformation’ of the City, in various ways.
As one part of this much bigger event, Albert Square was transformed literally overnight into a living, working French farm with around a dozen people busy working the land and tending to the livestock, greenhouses and neat rows of fruits, vines and vegetables. The actual farm and workers were the creation of Le Phun a Toulouse based performance company who specialise in shows that connect the countryside with urban environments and cities. Called The Seedlings Revenge, it was a 24 hour-a-day production, but lasting only several days, that saw the countryside looking to reclaim the city centre – as it has already done on farms in places like Paris.
The philosophy of Le Phun (Pour un Humour Universellement Nécèssaire – For a Universally Necessary Humor) is that it “always deeply interferes in the city. It spreads among the city’s physical parameters in order to form one body with it and to take up its rhythm, its history and its nature”.
Fifteen years of similar intervention back up Le Phun track record in its willingness to continue to make a whole artistic genre out of street arts – and to create a sense of theatre for exploring new ideas and questioning preconception about public space.
It is therefore a great pity that such a vision, scale and quality for temporary installation is not often available (or affordable) to the more modest communities based on the fringes of our bigger metropolitan sub-regions – including many of the northwest’s deprived rural and coastal towns. The benefit of adopting such a temporary approach is that it can sometimes be used to explore extremely difficult or sensitive issues through cutting edge approaches, which can then act as a catalyst to help ‘seed’ over what previously was perhaps culturally ‘barren ground’ – creating new audiences and appetites for arts and culture for both civic and public alike.
As public art increasingly overlaps into the related disciplines of community architecture, urban design and regeneration, the resultant collaborations though not necessarily resulting in physical pieces of work can still, nevertheless, begin to engage with physical spaces, buildings around it as well as the communities that cohabit them.
It is precisely this important area of work that Arts Council England: North West in conjunction with Northwest Development Agency are increasingly focusing on in their joint programme for design review of the built environment. The strategic partnership is looking to help facilitate and finance regeneration through both innovative public art strategy development and through proactive commissioning of an adventurous programme of intervention. Indeed, the public art funding guidelines state that funding stakeholders even “recognise that some strong proposals may go against the grain and wishes to encourage originality and breadth of vision”.
In short, as the strap-line to all current NWDA publications state: englandsnorthwest – be inspired.