Whither the Public Art Domain?
Indeed. Whither the role of public art and the space in which it is freely accessible to the public? To what end does this domain reinforce the public consciousness surrounding art and its (higher) purpose?
The public art space and public space are mostly interchangeable concepts with the latter occupying an historical canon of philosophical, political, and cultural texts and exchanges that formulated their conception as much as their preservation, if not outright defense. Both share common adherents to openness and accessibility carved out of de rigueur non-discriminatory tenants such as race, ethnic, gender and socio-economic equality. Well, at least these items persist in more consistent terms in Western industrialized nations. But whereas the public space exemplifies the corresponding rights of non-discriminatory gathering the public art domain exists as the permanent physical grounds for the proliferation of ideas and, accordingly, all responses to them.
Larger urban centres particularly typify the weight of competing ideologies from corporate entities and their corresponding private properties – whose presence generally hints at the generation of wealth and a city’s cultural prowess – and public art domains for the free exchange of ideas. This balancing act is always present, for even in the case of corporate sponsorship and government investment in these sites it is recognized that the invitation of artists into public art domains means the potential for ideas that run inimical to the status quo of corporations and all of their ancillary functions and outlooks.
When it works the public art domain is fluent and accountable to everyone. It is a place where perhaps the otherwise sometimes contemptible, seemingly ceaseless debate about What is art? and the decorative art vs. fine art is suppressed by an authentic article of ideas and discourse surrounding them.
Like elsewhere Vancouver offers examples of public art spaces that are both permanent and transitory. Let’s consider two of them.
One of the most recent additions to this landscape is W2 located in the new Woodwards redevelopment in the downtown eastside (DTES) in Vancouver, though admittedly on its more western side that has witnessed an impressive structural and cultural rejuvenation in the last five years. The sense of the awe-inspiring reach towards the public in the modern age comes through in a statement: “W2 connects people and ideas through its globally networked community media arts centre in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.” Utilizing visual art, literature, in-house radio and television media, and music, and with a prospect for justice, social inclusion, redress, and cross cultural dialogue, W2 essentially acts as a foundation for connection. Its “connecting” apparatus is the public art domain that sees “technology, training, means of production, and channels for distribution.” Placing art and ideas within the reach of people, for both promotion by artists-thinkers and its reception, W2′s permanent place in Vancouver encourages a democratic, accessible journey towards connection with the currents of our time shared by everyone and not just those found in mainstream media (MSM) and other normal channels of information.
Established public art galleries also move beyond their bricks and mortar enterprise and onto the streets where a citizenry that is perhaps not accustomed to being regular patrons of its institution can now observe their artists in public spaces. In the case of the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) the movement from beyond its walls and into the urban environment offers provides art encounters to the public. The programme, entitled offsite, seeks to capture the attention of the city’s residents with public art installations that hover with a sense of largesse over the street. Artists with global recognition such as Ken Lum, Elspeth Pratt, and Heather and Ivan Morison have had their public art installed at the corner of West Georgia and Thurlow streets (incidentally on the same grounds as the new 5-star Shangri-la Hotel) since 2009 at VAG’s offsite initiative. Lum’s regionally historical squatter “mudshack” cabins contrast dramatically with Vancouver’s overwhelming sense of urban aesthetic progress in the 21st century; Pratt’s large-scale sculpture as architectural forms invariably reinforce artistic permanence in cities; and the Morisons’ blackened, hollowed out edifice seems to consider the possibility of historical ruins or a suggestion of a future existence that turned apocalyptic. Each exists on this section of land in the middle of the city’s financial and high-end condo district.
Vancouver’s public art domains, both from the hands of the people as much as satellites of long-established cultural institutions, move beyond the art-as-destination subjects with predetermined viewing methodologies into striking apparatuses of ideas. Freely flowing ideas at that. These public art spaces are readily accessible, even perhaps unavoidable. Once observed the art presented becomes not only the presentation of an idea but also the exchange ideas amongst the public, thus informing a commonality of healthy discourse in the greater public consciousness. This is a triumph in the rendering of art and the consequences of its communication and experience.