Where is Public Space?

Ed Woodham of Art in Odd Places giving me stink-eye, and then...
Maureen Connor videoing fellow panelist Woodham as he utters the phrase that will, for me, define the day:

If you have to push a door to get inside, it’s not public.

LOS ANGELES, February 25 — The final day of CAA had two simultaneous panels that I was really interested in:
Mobile Art: The Aesthetics of Mobile Network Culture in Place Making, Part II
Art in the Public Realm: Activism & Interventions

So I decided to switch between them every 15-20 mins and sort of sample/remix both.

I’ve been worried since before the once noble Google brought the authoritarian spectre of the nymwars to our virtual doorsteps, that the “fun & easy” spaces of Web2.0 are funneling millions of people who live, physically, in Western liberal democracies, into virtual authoritarian nation-states. I’ve been deeply troubled by the statement that if you don’t like the TOS of Facebook or Google+ or any other space, that you don’t have to use it. Yes, I have free speech in a public park. Yes, my speech is more restricted in a shopping mall or on a Web2.0 platform. If a place like Facebook or iPhone apps become the dominant place of communication, if they become the pseudo-public place where the ears are, then to say I have free speech in the park where few are, but not on Facebook where many are, well, that isn’t really very much free speech at all, is it?

When Ed Woodham said, “If you have to push a door to get inside, it’s not public.” I was immediately inspired. He so simply and concisely, defined a place of art, culture, and communitcation that is so different from the White Cube, and which feels so compelling to me now. But I immediately thought about all those people in the shopping mall. The irony of a film like The Matrix is that Morpheus & Co. have been forced into The Matrix and the’re desperately trying to get out. But with physical places like the shopping mall or virtual ones like Facebook, you don’t see mall owners kidnapping people from the park and taking them to the mall against their will. The truth is we want to shop at the mall. We want to make clever status updates on Facebook.

Panelists on Saturday, the 4th & final day of CAA 2012

Richard Stallman famously spoke of “Free Beer & Free Speech,” suggesting that while we like to get free beer, that free speech is essential to our very way of life. The sad reality, as I see it, is that most people really don’t care about free speech, or take it for granted, but we really, really want that free beer. In his remarkable piece Google Adwords Happening Christophe Bruno showed (among other things) that in 2002 the Adwords cost / day for “free” was US$7,569.23 and the cost / day of “freedom” was US$1.88. We vote with our clicks, and it was clear, we really, really value “free” (as in beer) and we don’t care so much about “freedom” (as in speech)

So when Woodham said, “If you have to push a door to get inside, it’s not public.” I knew he was offering a powerful idea. But I also knew that I was concerned about that enormous public behind the door of the white cube, behind the door of the shopping mall, behind the door of Facebook, behind the door of Steve Jobs (formerly) curated iPhone apps. I immediately raised my hand. The microphone didn’t happen to make its way to me, but it didn’t matter, the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd audience speakers ALL brought up issues of The Mall. We were all grappling with the nature and place of contemporary public.

And then my chunk of time in Art in the Public Realm was up and it was time to shuttle from Room 515A back over to room 406A for another chunk of time with Mobile Network Culture & Place Making.

Serendipitously enough, some thread of the discussion came with me. The Mobile Computers were discussing the inherent elitism of expensive electronics. Talk about having to “push a door,” with Augmented Reality (AR) the art doesn’t even exist if you don’t own a device and download whatever it needs. One audience member offered that whenever he requests funding for a project he always includes money for devices so that anyone can check one out and view the installation. That’s certainly a good move, but the room still waffled on this affluent notion of 1st-worlders playing with their toys. One person offered, “We keep talking about taking the art out of the white box, but aren’t we just doing the same thing we did in the white box?”

John Craig Freeman (right) rebuts the "elitism of the phone" argument

As if to offer a bookend response to Woodham’s “door,” John Craig Freeman riposted the discussion:

I don’t get it. The phone isn’t the door, it’s the collapsing of the door.

Another panelist offered that there are more cell phones in India than people. That the last time she was there her cab driver had 3 cell phones, at least one of which was smart phone.

So there it was, no, the cell phone isn’t “100% Public” but it’s pretty ubiquitous and pretty accessible. In fact it’s inclusive beyond the privileged realms where art so often is experienced. Perhaps even the “Public Park” isn’t in a fully meaningful way “100% Public.”

Where is Public Space in the 21st century? It is still in the park. It is still in the town square. But in the 21st century perhaps artists also need to carve public space out of increasingly privatized physical and virtual spaces. Perhaps this will sometimes be done in partnership with private space stewards. Perhaps other times in more guerrilla-style actions like flashmobs or Occupying Facebook. Freeman pointed out that a remarkable aspect of AR is that you can “install” work in space without permission. That you can install an AR Goddess of Democracy in physical Tiananmen Square, and further that other artists and activists can place that virtual Goddess of Democracy object in physical Tahrir Square.

What is clear for me is that for the full 4 days of CAA, from the first Collaboratives & Collectives panel on Wednesday, to these panels today, the idea of art as an accessible experience rather than a scarce object has had tremendous primacy.

List of my blog posts from CAA
Wednesday: ARTspace: Contemporary Collaboratives & Collectives
• Thursday: Public Art Dialog: Public Art in the Virtual Sphere (blog post coming shortly!)

Mobile Art: The Aesthetics of Mobile Network Culture in Place Making, Part II

Hana Iverson, website (detail)

Hana Iverson, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Mimi Sheller, blog homepage (detail)

Mimi Sheller, Drexel University


Christiane Robbins, Jetztzeit Home Page (detail)

I-5 Passing / 52 Food Marts Project
Christiane Robbins, Jetztzeit

Martha Ladly, "Mobile Nation"

Narration in Hybrid Mobile Environments
Martha Ladly, Ontario College of Art & Design

Jenny Marketou, "Red Eyed Sky Walkers"

Silver (Gateways): Being Here & Everywhere Now
Jenny Marketou, independent artist

Sarah Drury, eVokability

Mechanics of Place: Textures of Tophane
Sarah Drury, Temple University

John Craig Freeman, "American Plutocracy"

MainfestAR: An Augmented Reality Manifesto
John Craig Freeman, Emerson College


Art in the Public Realm: Activism & Interventions

Jacki Apple's Website Homepage (detail)

Jacki Apple, Art Center College of Design

Timothy Nolan, "Layer"

Tim Nolan, independent artist

Conrad Gleber, "My Alaska, Too"

Conrad Gleber, LaSalle University


Photo of Maureen Connor by Amanda Means

Maureen Connor, The Institute for Wishful Thinking & Queens College, City University of New York

Maureen Connor: What is an artist exactly? I think we have a myth of autonomy. Is making objects for a white cube autonomy? I think it’s a myth. The role of an artist is not to withdraw. How can an artist have a [vital] presence? How can an artist have a role in policy?

Marisa Jahn, "Ticketing Jessica Lappin"

Marisa Jahn, REV and People’s Production House

Ed Woodham / Art in Odd Places, 2010 / Paul Notzold's TXTual Healing

Ed Woodham, Art in Odd Places

Jenny Brown, "Leaf Selling Event"

Jenny Brown, University of Sydney

As a virtual public artist my work invites avatar communities to express their identity, explore their culture, and demand their civil rights.

3 thoughts on “Where is Public Space?

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