Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Prairie Artsters - Going Public*

During the most recent installment of Pecha Kucha Edmonton, Kristy Trinier, Edmonton Art Council’s Director of Public Art, presented her quick and dirty version of public art from around the world. From inverted pyramids in Munster, Germany, to sidewalks outside of churches in Philadelphia, the works ranged not only in geography and scope, but in their ability to engage in site specific interventions with the space and lives around them.

The presence of Edmonton-based public art was not surprisingly missing, but a query into an Edmonton aesthetic was proposed by way of simply looking around and critically accepting what currently surrounds us.

Image uncredited

A general survey of Edmonton public art in 2008 could not exist without the list of works coordinated through Art and Design and Public Places. For close to a decade, ADPP has bridged the business and artistic communities by pairing up public art commissions with locally prominent artists and architects that now pepper our city’s public spaces such as major intersections, Churchill Square, and parks. But looking at the works individually and in relative proximity to the structures around them, artist Krystztof Wodiszko’s sentiment comes to mind: in elite, alienating public art, the “noble idea of public access is likely to be received as private excess.” A great majority of the works, most notably pieces from Churchill Square and the big bat, come to mind as the forefront of this discussion in their sponsor-centric displacement of ignoring the locale and the locals. As with any form of obtrusive public visuals, these works are detrimental to their supposed cause of beautification as they are visually polluting our cityscape on the same degree as billboards. Public art should not be selling you on a company or on art itself; place and art must inform each other to make each respectively more meaningful to those who view it and live amongst it.

Which brings us back to the question of place, specifically Edmonton as place—a flat sprawl with an extended river valley—and its slippery grasp of a visual identity. Architecturally, we’re glass and concrete amongst areas of density surrounded by small one- or two-storey misnomers stretched few and far between traffic lanes and unwalkable blocks connecting district to district. For public art to succeed within these parameters, a consideration of space needs to be evaluated within these terms first, instead of imposing an adopted aesthetic onto what already exists. There are certainly problems with what already exists, such as the absence of pedestrian-accessible paths that connect and retain neighbourhoods for those who live here, but ignoring these issues by covering them up with disconnected public art objects will only do more damage in the long run.

Public art, often appearing in the form of monumental objects, cannot simply be dropped onto a neighbourhood and accepted as a beacon of decor and culture. Whether it’s sculptural or graffiti-based, commissioned or non-sanctioned, public art addresses social issues, intentionally or not. Promoting thoughtless art used in terms of revitalization that does not consult, engage or challenge its surrounding people, buildings, and institutions is a veil of nepotism and safe misgivings, and a city will never come to terms with itself amidst such things. As arguably the most transparently social and conscious lot within visual arts, public art holds the great potential to transform the everyday experiences of its audiences, and, in turn, should remain vulnerable and susceptible to the public’s desires and demands.

Next up: Prairie Artsters takes an in-depth look at the Edmonton Art Council’s Public Art Master Plan.

*First published in Vue Weekly, September 18 - 24, 2008

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