Art can be found in the street,” is such a common phrase, it seems an axiom. What is now a slogan at art festivals and part of the promotional campaigns of populist political parties, was once one of the most controversial phrases of the 20th century. Coined by Jean Dubuffet in his essay “The man of the street before the work of art,” the current lack of quotes translates – more than ignorance – one of our common post-modern expressions. Dubuffet, of populist ideology, expanded the idea that art brut should be found outside of the museum. He gave us, using sand, plaster and organic debris, another form of masterpiece: one that was more playful, less messianic and much closer.
Public art has generated discussion around this movement: from a masterpiece (glorification, whether political, economic or ritual) to sculpture of public “property,” understanding the term as “use,” not a possession. We recognize public art as two variables: one having to do with the way we “enrich” or “decorate” urban spaces in harmony with the city’s architecture and planning, and the other that challenges accepted norms, turning into action, performance, happenings, and net.art. This last concept is a warning about our role as citizens over that of consumers.
Pop culture is greatly responsible for this sensitivity to everyday things. Robert Indiana understood that pop art was much more art, than pop; in his LOVE series, which has been copied numerous times, he, like Dubuffet, lacked quotes. But was this not the author’s idea? Using a slanted O that insinuated the decadence of America’s cultural values, Indiana created – in the end – his own “one-hit wonder.”
Another example: nothing could reflect us better in the city than Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog, a deformed, shiny, and apparently obvious caricature. Koons has insisted for years that publicity firms have “stolen his idea.” The Village Voice contradicts him: “If all you do is reproduce something that is already commonplace for the masses, you copy it larger, and shinier, and you sell it for a ton of money, does that mean it’s yours?”
That is a legitimate question for street art: who does it belong to? And we can add: who does it affect and how?
When couple Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped the Reichstag, they lightened Germany: visually and historically. This symbolic act would become a demonostration of how public art “should be.” This “recovery” is how InSite works – an international project coming from one of the most complex border areas: Tijuana/San Diego. Its curator, Osvaldo Sanchez, uses a constant interest in art through urbanism, psychogeography and the negotiation of public space (with city governments, federal governments and institutions) to create visual poetry that alleviates or worsens – but at the very least makes visible – tensions in an area of “high levels of trafficking.” In InSite05, Hombre Bala by Venezuelan artist Javier Téllez, literally shoots a man from Tijuana to San Diego, clearly demonstrating the absurdity of borders and providing the idea that cultural borders precede those of governmental laws.
JR, the French winner of the 2011 TED Prize (InsideOut Project), uses giant portraits of real city narrators, making us correct the invisibility of marginal areas while minimizing differences among inhabitants. In Brazil (2008) after the death of several adolescents in a neighboring favela, he questioned – using the stares of their family members - not only the murderers, but also the entire city of Rio de Janeiro, about the continuous impunity found in these areas of conflict, at the same time that he ironically made the city more aesthetically pleasing.
Cuban artist Tania Bruguera has founded, together with the Queens Museum of Art, Immigrant Movement International, a type of political party with headquarters in the multinational neighborhood of Corona in Queens, NY. Now that immigration is a central issue, it defines the status and identify of those who live outside of their homeland. From 2010 to 2015 Bruguera will explore, using links between local groups and international social organizations, political representation and conditions that immigrants face around the world.
Eva & Franco Mattes, known as 0100101110101101.org, use fiction and the Internet as a tool to spread awareness about the power of the press to manipulate. In NikeGround (2003-04), combining a mobile information desk and a false website, they convinced the press and the people of Vienna that Nike was going to buy the popular Karlsplatz, rename it Nikeplatz and erect a giant swoosh sculpture. After complaints from Viennese residents and Nike, they revealed that the campaign was nothing more than a “prank.”
In 2003 curators Gerardo Mosquera and Adrienne Samos judged that despite its complex history, Panama City lacked myths; Multiple City attempted to address this. Using the City’s characteristic traffic, numerous international artists intervened somewhat “notoriously” in the City for a week. Francis Alÿs (Belgium/Mexico) was able to “sculpt” silence transmitted from one person to another. One minute of silence established a counterpart between two variables of public art, between the ephemeral and the conclusive nature of things: a great human sculpture in silence situated between the City’s purpose and its possibility as a nucleus for all resistance.