No There There?

Spotlight

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.

HERE-THERE_2-900 Steve Gillman 2011

HERETHERE by Steve Gillman (Berkeley/Oakland, CA )

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”.

There yarn

Knit-in at the HERETHERE sculpture – Photo: Brant Ward, The Chronicle

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.

– – –

The public space activists: PPS (USA)

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”.

pps.org
@PPS_Placemaking

 

The cultural pioneers: Artscape (Canada)

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.

torontoartscape.org
artscapediy.org
@Artscape

 

The community champions: Mend (UK)

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”.

Roman-Road-Mend

Roman Road Vacant Units Project

mendlondon.org.uk
@lianemendsacity
@urbanistasuk
@planninginpubs
@source_rp

5 Questions to… Asia Diaz, YELL Festival Director

5 questions to...

Event planner Asia Diaz has set up her own company, Magnum Opus Events, to have the freedom to dream up, design and deliver the events that matter to her. She stumbled across Art of Festivals when searching for street event planning tips, and I took the opportunity to ask her a few questions about YELL Festival, due to take place this summer in Shoreditch, London.

1. You’re planning a street festival right now. What is it going to be like?  

The YELL (Young Entrepreneurs Living in London) Festival is going to be a celebration of young entrepreneurs and new business owners in the city. Our aim is to create a fun, family friendly, carnival like atmosphere for all. We want to offer a platform for new businesses to display & trade their products, gain exposure, build and make contacts. There will be live music, entertainment, games, giveaways, food drinks and dancing. It’s set to be a great event!

2. What has surprised you so far in the planning process?

I’m still very early in the planning stages, but I have been very surprised and pleased at the feedback and positive comments I have received when explaining or discussing my idea. I’ve been taken aback by the amount of support I have received and how many others want to get involved! Another surprising find, is the amount of preparation that actually goes into a street festival. There are so many factors to consider that hadn’t occurred to me. My background is in events management, usually within established venues, so I never really had too much to do with trading licenses, planning permission and the likes. It’s a whole new world that I am rapidly learning about.

3. What are the greatest challenges that you’re forecasting along the way?

My greatest worry at the moment is getting everything done in time for the deadlines. This is my strong point in events planning, but now I will have to acquire a small team and be able to trust that they will deliver on time so that the whole operation can go to plan. I think that people management will be my biggest task during this project.

4. What other festivals and events do you attend – or would you love to attend – as an audience member?

Last year in June I went to the Rivington Street Festival, which also takes place in Shoreditch. It was a great day with a great party vibe and atmosphere. They had a lot of activities and entertainment and it really was an enjoyable event. I really like going to events that have features that you can take part in as opposed to just watching a show on stage. Interaction is always a lot more fun.

5. What would help you most right now?

A good solid production team, being granted the funds to make this all possible and the strength and sanity to push through any set backs that may follow!!

_ _ _

Best of luck, Asia!

A website is in the pipeline, and in the meantime you can follow Asia on Twitter (@Asia_Diaz) to join the YELL Festival team and for all updates about other Magnum Opus Events opportunities.

The Art of Weather

Programming

The Manchester Jazz Festival just ended this past weekend (on the flamboyantly playful sounds of Journal Intime, a French trio featuring a mighty bass saxophone) and despite fears of flooding, the damp Mancunian weather didn’t succeed in deterring music fans from their annual rejoicings.

Is it because the British weather is a little bit more awful than anywhere else that Britons are so obsessed with it? “Talking about the weather” is apparently the number 1 self-identified national trait (according to the same poll, other top qualities include “being overly polite”, “gossiping with neighbours over the garden fence” and a “fondness for mowing the lawn”, painting a charming portrait of a nation).

While manners, back-stabbing and gardening would all make great themes for a festival, for the purpose of this post, I will focus on what really matters to most people, looking at a few artistic explorations that embrace the elements.

How it feels

On my very first visit to Tate Modern in 2003, I came across one of the Turbine Hall site-specific installations by chance, and was transfixed by pretty much everything about it: the space itself, for its scale and the sheer ambition of repurposing it; the way the artist invested it with deceptively simple means; and the public’s joyous abandon of museum etiquette.

The Weather Project, by Olafur Eliasson, featured a giant sun, hanging high at the far end of the cavernous Turbine Hall and radiating a warm and soft orange glow. Looking up, the ceiling seemed to shimmer, just like on a hot summer day.

Weather Project, Olafur Eliasson, 2003, Tate Modern

On further examination, the sun was in fact a half circle of light, reflected to form a full figure, and the mirrored ceiling was not made of a single piece, but covered in hundreds of slats, creating a vibrating illusion. A light mist added to the heat-wavering summer feeling, so powerfully suggestive that the best way to enjoy it was to lay down and bask in it, just like in a park or on a beach.

In this short video interview below, the artist talks about the Weather Project and another experiment on perception, Your Blind Passenger (2010), a long tunnel with very limited visibility and changing levels of light, reproducing extreme fog conditions. He explains his interest in creating collective experiences where people can explore social constructs – such as “the weather” – and define their own singularity as part of a collectivity.

The Weather Project is as much about how we relate to the weather, real or imagined, as it is about the way the museum setting – yet another social construct – shapes our perception and understanding. The artist thought carefully about the viewer’s experience, even choosing himself the marketing messages to control the visitors’ expectations, as explained on the Tate’s website.

This emotionally charged review in the Telegraph is a good starting point to delve further into the Weather Project experience, and a few copies of the exhibition catalogue are still circulating (US / UK).

How it sounds

Music critic Alex Ross, author of the excellent The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, has published a new collection of essays under the title Listen to This, exploring many different genres, periods and artists, from Schubert to Björk, with the same attention to context and reception.

One of these texts, originally featured in the New Yorkerfollows composer John Luther Adams on his musical journeys, as far as Alaska. Adams is passionately interested in environmental questions and his compositions and books are based on his research on climate and natural phenomena, as he explains in this short video portrait.

The Place Where You Go To Listen, an immersive data-based light-and-sound installation (also used as a title for a creative writing piece and a book on the ecology of music), is located within the University of Alaska’s Museum of the North. It is described as such on their website: “(an) ever-changing musical ecosystem (that) gives voice to the rhythms of daylight and darkness, the phases of the moon, the seismic vibrations of the earth and the dance of the aurora borealis, in real time.”

There is nothing romantic or figurative about Adams’ notion of the weather, as he declares himself in the video above: “I’m not interested in telling you a story”. The music of the world is what you hear when you listen.

Whilst The Place Where You Go To Listen is, in a way, composed by nature, John Luther Adams uses a variety of compositional devices in his other works. Many audio excerpts are available on his online catalogue and on the Audio Guide of Listen to Thisfor a more recent creation, this video excerpt of the première of Inuksuit at the Armory gives yet another flavour of John Luther Adams’ sense of sound-in-space.

How it looks

The art of weather can veer from the collective experience of the social body to a focus on the singularity of the listener; it can also be purely contemplative, creating a safe distance between the viewer and the elements.

Stormy skies, hazy mornings and glowing sunsets abound in Romantic and Impressionist paintings, and on this occasion I’ve discovered a fantastic free resource, WikiPaintings, a non-for-profit Arts Encyclopedia online since December 2011 that already contains over 100,000 works. William Turner and Monet are safe bets for expressive skies, and a quick search on series returns the following results.

William Turner - Landscapes Series

William Turner – Landscapes Series – WikiPaintings.com

Claude Monet - Houses of Parliament

Claude Monet – Houses of Parliament Series – WikiPaintings.com

Land Art also provides a fairly obvious catalogue of weather-related works, from Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels to Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field. Although these works happen in situ, and not on canvas, distance is almost ineluctable, due the number of conditions needed to experience them in person.

James Turrell - Skyspaces

James Turrell – Skyspaces

On the other hand, James Turrell has circumvented this inherent contradiction of Land Art – which should be experienced on site, but realistically will mainly be encountered in a mediated form – by creating a replicable experience with his Skyspaces. The artist’s official website lists 47 such structures, dotted all around the world, all unique in shape, proportions and design, but providing a similar experience: an intense view of the sky, sublimating natural phenomenons such as sunrise, sunset and the passing of clouds.

Like Olafur Eliasson and John Luther Adams, James Turrell’s experiential art can be likened to a phenomenological approach, inviting the visitor to sharpen their focus, become conscious of their own consciousness and pay attention to the interrelation of the collective and the singular.

In other words, he is far from encouraging the weather chit-chat, and on the contrary is often quoted for saying:

I want to create an atmosphere that can be consciously plumbed with seeing like the wordless thought that comes from looking in a fire.

More elements

The weather in art is certainly a hot topic, and recent installations are playing in their own ways with storm, rain or wind. To explore more elemental works, from clouds, fog and snow to rainbows and midnight sun, here’s a nice top 10-type compilation of “art installations that imitate weather”.

Last but not least, the world’s only Festival of Weather, Art and Music (WAM) is taking place in Reading, England, in September 2013. Amongst scientific talks and sound installations, it most excitingly features a free “Weather Factory” event, a mass experiment pitching as many people as possible against one laptop to predict the weather using nearly 100-year old methods.