TRANSFERT Art in urban space

Martin Conrads




The concept of site specificity, which is again cropping up in the 1990s Public Art, used to refer to a participatory practice that localised communicative requirements and real-space access aesthetically – via sculpture, feinting, politics, campaigning, elevation etc. In the mid-1990s, there began to be discussions about and Net.culture, which led to a partial revaluation of the concept. The new approach attempted to link itself both to (web)sitedness and also to the techno-aesthetic specifics of dislocated scenes. The terms place and non-place acquired a new meaning on the Net, since a site can in principle be set up wherever a domain can be called up, in other words, everywhere. Communicative demands and realspace access coincide in website-specificity at the point where the protocol can locate the server. Thus real space is made abstract with respect to its access.

Understanding the city as a network of options emerging at random, which one can choose to either accept or reject when considering an exhibition which focuses on urban space, seems compatible with the above-mentioned logical structure. When applied to a work of art in the public domain, the sudden emerging of options, just like the fleeting process of disappearance, is as much a part of this logical structure as if the work were to slip slowly away over the horizons of attention, or if a silent failure to notice a subtle situative transformation that cannot be defined as a change had occurred. Coming to terms productively with elements found ready-placed means transferring, at least in the form of a suggestion, the methods of economy and marketing that have escalated and been found present on the Net, and applying them to reflection within urban space ; the use of media by city-dwellers is now increasing much more rapidly than their critical acquisition of public space in urban contexts.

The organisation, production and reproduction of temporary art in urban spaces draws structurally on an emancipatory and regulatory concept for publicity on one hand, and on Fluxus, DADA, performance, Ambient and Land Art on the other. New Genre Public Art is getting older and has lately found itself entering in its reflective phase. It is reacting with urban space and its inhabitants in a field in which hope that it will be accepted is being replaced by hope that it will be noticed.

“In the late 20th century everything about art seems to have become changeable, only its formal and institutional surroundings have not, so that the sole appearance of a work no longer allows us to decide whether it can count as art or not”1. Stefan Heidenreich’s assumption now seems to apply to exhibitions in urban space as well, but for other reasons than those that apply to institutions : ever since the 1980s when discourse about the sign shifted from theory into urban practice, reactions of surprise, subversion, disturbance or disorientation caused by publicly placed art have become mainly a question of form and aesthetics, not of offence or insightful appearance. As in the case of graffiti, the 1990s have drawn quite different conclusions from what initially appeared an uncontrolled symbolic exchange of urban drawing technique. The Parisian Space Invaders made of little mosaic stones applied to the walls of buildings, even the “6es” that are painted on every corner in Berlin, not to mention the clothes on the high street – they now all have their own URLs and thus also emerge digitally beyond their concrete existence. Beyond practice is the market. From the anonymous tag to institutionalised urban guerilla marketing, public space is changing into the market place of the new, in which art is unable to locate any form of avant-garde progress.

Among other things, Site-Specific Art quite often brings about a systematically comprehensible advantage in that it frequently take these constructions of publicity, expectation, circulation and transience as its subject, but routinely anchors them only internally, in other words within the art system. “The shift to a horizontal way of working is consistent with the ethnographic turn in art and criticism : one selects a site, enters its culture and learns its language, conceives and presents a project, only to move to the next site where the cycle is repeated. (...) Today, as artists follow horizontal lines of working, the vertical lines sometimes appear to be lost.”2

In so outlining a horizontal practice that leaps from trope to trope, from site to site,
Hal Foster sets it against a vertical practice that confronts the form of the medium or genre used “diachronically”. In this case, diachronic would not just mean going back to the urban space as a stock of material, but rather include use, consumption, fabrication, production and reproduction of urban space and its periphery in one’s quest for possible tropes.


“The ornament is not part of the thinking of the masses that bring it into being. However linear it may be, no line penetrates from the mass particles to the figure as a whole. It is like aerial photographs of landscapes and cities in that it does not grow from the inside of conditions but appears above them.”3

What Siegfried Kracauer wrote in 1927 about events with “international validity” and “aesthetic finality” is far from valid three quarters of a century later : the masses are actively participating in drawing the map and are perfectly aware of their ornamental quality : every summer, usually only for a weekend, masses of artists, curators, critics, visitors, chance passers-by as well as those who become part of the before-mentioned by following them in their footprints, outline some city or another with their ornament.

The mass of travelers, the dynamics of the works of art and the permanence of the urban space must react to one another. Camouflage, mimicry, matters of course, aliases,
minimalization are all themes that at this point and after pure simulation can (still) cause astonishment and through which art can detach itself from the mass of ornamentation without losing its connections with both the ornament and the mass.

But temporary art in the urban space has the advantage that it need react neither to the conditions of the White Cube nor to the established practice routine of a spatial situation.
Temporary art can move back and forth, creating different assemblages than it would in the gallery. It plays with the authenticity of the open market in the square, while art in the White Cube is still coming to terms with the originality of an interior.

In doing this at the point where the city is increasingly manifesting itself as a market, temporary art must now restructure itself : with the help of image marketing and massive commodification tendencies in previously irrelevant areas, the city is turning itself into the glocal-coloured satellite of a neo-economic mass awareness focused on ornament only. Mass and public still remain – caught as they are in the double-bind of Special Interest and now consumerist Xs4all – the subject of any urban discourse, and the subject of the market par excellence. But here is where mass could be replaced with prosumer.

Where art, market, time and city intersect, voids are created which are meant to be
neutralised by compensation from the ornament to the image as a whole. Jesko Fezer and Axel Wieder analyse the instrumentalisation of a dichotomy that intensifies with the continuing cooperation of market and public : “Overemphasis on the public devalues privacy, which can no longer let itself be thought of as a political sphere within a positive-negative argument. But public affairs need this sphere as a starting-point in order to be able to act, and this ability demands the location of privacy, where the soreness of want can be felt, where distance becomes open to experience and approaches the desire for autonomy. (…) Where the public sphere is staged in the interest of profit maximisation, privacy does not get a way unscathed.”4

In this way, the public as a topos of art in the urban space seems more than ever bound to privacy – the actual target of urban marketing. Additionally, as Simon Seikh remarks5, according to strategies of Land Art and Site Specific Art in the 1970s, and to the writings of Michel Foucault (Heterotopias) and Michel de Certeau (Art of practice), there is the fact that politically committed projects for handling public urban space were often running behind, and sometimes even catching up with a theatricalisation and marketing of the same.


And so the challenge for artists and curators, faced with the constant changes occurring in practically any possible urban space, is to analyse the current radical change in the concept of and access to public space and to use that change in an artistic way, so that it becomes possible to criticise the awareness of time with regard to its form. The distinction that Diedrich Diedrichsen suggests between “atmosphere” and “situation” would be a reason to consider addressing both artistic and curatorial actions situatively : “Atmosphere is located and strategically sealed within the situation. ”Now we have to act, spontaneously or after a planned fashion, politically or individually and anarchically. This is where the sovereign subject, the fully trained collective, turns out to be. The situation is more than a boring standard; it requires skilful handling and foresight in surveying data. But in principle it is intelligible; nothing remains concealed or opaque for the connoisseur. It can be overlooked provided that one simply understands how to place oneself suitably with regard to it as an observer. Successful handling of situations is characterised by ultra-rapid shifts from contingency to certainty. (…) Transforming contingency into situation puts an end to an atmospheric constellation and changes it into a situation that can be processed : practice.”6

The Nine Theses against Monuments drawn up by the Critical Art Ensemble are similarly
situationally influenced. The work suggests that monuments, even as the antithesis to an art that deliberately appeared temporary, were an attempt to create a contingency from a situation that was already understood as atmosphere, a contingency totally disregarding the chronological aspects of site-specificity by incorporating this into its thinking and thus inevitably negating it : “Monuments eliminate the apprehension of locality. Monuments decontextualise their subject to the point where the experience of the individual and the location of everyday life collapse into the category of the idiosyncratic. (...) Without a sense of localisation, marginals of all varieties have no place, as the general is not a part of their situation (regardless of whether this situation is brought about by objection or by imposition).”7hension of locality. Monuments decontextualise their subject to the point where the experience of the individual and the location of everyday life collapse into the category of the idiosyncratic. (...) Without a sense of localisation, marginals of all varieties have no place, as the general is not a part of their situation (regardless of whether this situation is brought about by objection or by imposition).”7

Thus a converse conclusion would suggest that the appearance of deliberately temporary art in an urban space would be an anticipated remainder of itself as a monument ; in the ideal case it would also reckon with the chronological element as a social component ; unlike the monument, therefore, which dourly collects external time around itself, stores it and exudes it again as history.

Thinking buildings, growing networks, dynamic GUIs, Global Players, Brain Operas, socio-cybernetic town planning, infra-red mobile phones, World Gaming, city.coms, weather charts, Open Sky – in all these cases, thinking of an art that sees the city as a visible entity made of “flesh and stone” renders the actual themes invisible. Art in the urban space would only make contact with the predominant visibility of the device concentrating on the invisible by distributing itself in the form of samples, left-over data, transmission residues, signs of wear or advertising decollages into the space between omnipresently assembled public quality and privatism that is specifically working in this direction.

To do this, art would have to place the theme of (public) space in art alongside that of art in the (public) space – the latter as a means of taking stock of an atmosphere and the former as a means of analysing a specific situation demanded by practice.

As Franco Moretti points out at the beginning of his Atlas of the European Novel8, literary geography has two ways of determining its points of reference : it can either examine space in literature, (as an implicit or explicit theme of this literature itself), or it can examine literature in space (its routes, editions, speeds and distribution). According to Moretti, both can overlap by chance, and will do so in terms of method. Nevertheless, or maybe for this very reason, the same approach can be valid for both sets of themes – a cartographic approach, which needn’t therefore be a morphological approach dedicated to atmosphere only.

A mutual adaptation of each field to the other, of art in space and space in art would be a contemporary motive for temporary art in the urban space, after and during the disputes surrounding artists’ cartographies, virtual cities and Cultural Studies. Only then could ideas about structure and content be set aside in favour of space and art. This statement and the conclusions arising from it are nothing new in principle ; nonetheless in times of turbo-capitalist data spaces (including those in art and in urban space) they would have to rearrange, secure or liquidise themselves urgently and over and over again in order to be acknowledged as consistent or distorting.

1 Stefan Heidenreich, Was verspricht die Kunst ?, Berlin Verlag, Berlin, 1998, p. 62.
2 Hal Foster, The Return of the Real. The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century, MIT Press, Cambridge, London, 1996, p. 202.
3 Siegfried Kracauer, Das Ornament der Masse, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 1977, p. 52.
4 Jesko Fezer/Axel J.Wieder, “Geschickt gemacht: Jesus vertreibt die Händler vom Platz vor dem Tempel”, in Die Kunst des Öffentlichen, Verlag der Kunst, Amsterdam, Dresden, 1998, p. 104.
5 Simon Sheikh, “Site-specificity. From the margins to the social”, in Øjeblikket. Magazine for Visual Culture, Special Issue #1, vol.8, 1998, p. 94.
6 Diedrich Diederichsen, Der lange Weg nach Mitte. Der Sound und die Stadt, Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Köln, 1999, p. 60.
7 Critical Art Ensemble, “Nine Theses Against Monuments”, in Random Access 2/Ambient Fears, Rivers Oram Press, London, 1996, p. 26.
8 Franco Moretti, Atlas of the European Novel, 1800-1900, Verso, London, New York, 1998, p. 3.

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