There is no there there.
— Gertrude Stein
This non-there is Oakland, California, where author and art collector Gertrude Stein grew up at the end of the 19th century – and there now is a there where there once was no there: since 2005, an eight-foot high powder-coated steel plate twin sculpture spelling out “HERE” and “THERE”, by artists Steve Gillman and Katherine Keefer, marks the border between Berkeley and Oakland.
According to the commissioning agency, the Berkeley Civic Arts Commission, “the sculptured letters form a poetic message of hello and goodbye and provide a sense of place”.
Maybe not enough for some residents: the San Francisco Chronicle reported in 2010 that “renegade knitters … sewed a multi-colored tea cozy onto the letter T”. The knitters were asked by Berkeley’s civic arts coordinator “to remove their handiwork because modifying public art is against state and federal law”, but instead “resisted and … held a knit-in at the sculpture”.
One of the artists expressed his support for the knitters, applauding them for “start(ing) a dialogue where possibly only a monologue had existed before”. Unfortunately his views were not echoed by the civic arts coordinator, who pointed out that “he has a right to his opinion (…). But he doesn’t own (the artwork) anymore.”
While this is almost as gripping as the Tilted Arc controversy, and raises many questions of context, appropriation, ownership and authorship, it also provides an opportunity to revisit the Gertrude Stein statement. Here’s a longer quote to give context to this famous ‘no there there’ (punctuation is sic):
She took us to see her granddaughter who was teaching in the Dominican convent in San Raphael, we went across the bay on a ferry, that had not changed but Goat Island might just as well not have been there, anyway what was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about it if I like or anything if I like but not there, there is no there there.
…but not there, there is no there there. … Ah Thirteenth Avenue was the same it was shabby and overgrown. … Not of course the house, the house the big house and the big garden and the eucalyptus trees and the rose hedge naturally were not there any longer existing, what was the use …
It is a funny thing about addresses where you live. When you live there you know it so well that it is like an identity a thing that is so much a thing that it could not ever be any other thing and then you live somewhere else and years later, the address that was so much an address that it was like your name and you said it as if it was not an address but something that was living and then years after you do not know what the address was and when you say it it is not a name anymore but something you cannot remember. That is what makes your identity not a thing that exists but something you do or do not remember.
And that is what makes (good) (public) art important: it (can) create strong, lasting, shared memories. Created for permanence, it’s a link to a place and an anchor in time; a landmark, a there that’s always here. If temporary and diffuse, it’s an experience that becomes a reference, a living memory which meaning expands – or fades – with time. Whether or not the first life of the THERE sculpture did provide that sense of place, of ‘there’, the art hackers gesture – tangible sign of a collective spirit – has contributed to creating a futher memory-to-be.
But what if there is really no there there? In an article for Public Art Review entitled Strategies for Defining the Non-Place with Public Art and Urban Design, Ronald Lee Fleming writes:
Stein’s remark has come to be associated with suburban and fringe development since World War II, which has disfigured, with a banal sameness, the edge of almost every city and town in the country. How can public art and enlightened urban policy transform the non-places that one moves through on the way to the airport?
This claim – which takes Stein’s quote out of its eminently personal context and conveniently distorts its meaning to forsake anything outside the centre – is supported by some rather strange statements throughout the article (“Banal places are often full of very average people”, “People in modest neighborhoods are often fascinated by craft”). The underlying assumption is that the North American sprawling suburbs are nothing more that a ‘non-place’ (defined by ethnologist Marc Augé as places of transience that do not hold enough significance to be regarded as “places”, generally the by-product of ‘supermodernity’ and acceleration, places where people don’t meet and where they can’t build collective references) – and that public art can inject meaning in these semiotic deserts – in Fleming’s words, “artists can help redefine the meaning of a site no matter how boring it may appear”.
Here again, ‘non-place’ is taken a little too literally: Augé emphasises, throughout his essay, the many ways people ‘invent’ the everyday and create trails of memories and stories in the most unlikely and clinical places, from airports to budget hotel chains and supermarkets.
Fleming continues with further invoking the need for enlightenment for average people in these boring places:
What is needed is an enlightened artist constituency who can move beyond signature works of ego to serve a restive public that wants more meaning embedded in the infrastructure of the banal sites where they live. People want to experience well-crafted elements that often require a team of artisans as well as the conceptualizing artist. This is not the coterie of city sophisticates who value abstraction and the shock of the new.
So average people deserve average public art, something simple, “well-crafted”, that helps them to feel just that little bit less bored. One wonders if they deserve art at all, given the challenge that their abject banality presents for artists:
Working with these contours of meaning can be a challenge for an artist with a big ego—and let’s face it, a big ego is often necessary just to prevail as an artist and to justify the amount of energy that it takes to do public work.
At a time when placemaking is hailed as a remedy to urban ills – be them new and shiny developments or old and crumbly neighbourhoods, places with not enough or too much ‘identity’ -, is there a consensus about the practice at large, its methods and especially its ethos? The term is now widely used by public commissioners, artists and arts organisations, community interest companies, property developers and commercial agencies alike, and as a result seem to range from condescending opinions such as Fleming’s to thinly disguised PR campaigns for property developers (via a whole host of interesting long-term, artist- and community-led projects).
Quality frameworks are currently being developed for participatory arts – such as this paper by Toby Lowe from Helix Arts – and art & health – such as this contribution by Creative Health CIC to the West Midlands commissioning practice. What would a framework for placemaking look like? Has a consensus been reached yet on the term itself? Can a variety of approaches be evaluated against the same standards? Here are three examples in three different countries that exemplify this range of methods and angles, but also a common aspiration for ethical guidelines and for sharing their process and experience.
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Project for Public Spaces have been developing a conceptual and practical framework for placemaking since 1975, such as the 11 Principles of Placemaking (starting with “The community is the expert”) and the Power of 10 (“the idea that any great place itself needs to offer at least 10 things to do or 10 reasons to be there”). They are firmly positioned as a civic militant organisation, quoting Jane Jacobs and William “Holly” Whyte as inspiration and mentors, and are currently sharing their approach with over 600 international practitioners through the newly-formed Placemaking Leadership Council, which, amongst other goals, aims to “clearly frame the value and “language” of Placemaking” and “develop a common set of standards and indicators”.
Toronto-based Artscape have also developed a Creative Placemaking Toolbox, based on their experience of opening and running arts centres and artist studios. It’s a very practical resource, with video seminars (such as this conversation with PPS), tip sheets on how to conduct community consultations and work with an architect, an exhaustive series of guides – from funding sources to feasibility studies, planning charrettes and the role of the project manager – templates and examples. There’s also a glossary of urban planning, legal and property management terms, a series of case studies as well as the Artscape Archive documenting 25 years of creative placemaking.
Mend is a social enterprise specialising in responsible procurement, planning and placemaking. With an ethos of “Community as Client”, they are not just delivering consultation and strategic services, but also acting as a convenor of ideas by running networking events for different groups. As part of the “Lab”, they look after three networks, each with a different focus, that feed back into their own practice: Urbanistas, “a network for women who love cities, crowdsourcing support for their project or idea” – Planning in the Pub (“the agenda is simple, let’s talk about planning and cities, whilst in the pub”) – and the soon-to-be-launched Source RP, “Responsible Procurement network for the built environment, with a focus on building social value”.