Morten Straede
Art in the Public Space

1. Representation and modulation

The model that still sets the tone for artistic encroachment into the public space today is several hundred years old; it stems from art that actually had a job to do in the public space, as a representation of the power that ruled over it. A general on a pedestal in the middle of the square or a prophet on a cross over an altar - in both cases art represents a power, not just in the sense that it represents or depicts it, but it is also understood as a representative of that power: an emissary watching over the public space. Between the Renaissance and the Romantic period, art in the public space enjoyed a golden age, the representative function of art coincided with a representative public structure, whose representation of power was the epitome of public opinion and art's production of certain images was a direct and immediate part of the reproduction of a form of power and social organization of life that, in artistic representation was a comprehensive, esthetic interpretation of life.

The representative public structure corresponds to a definite way of enforcing social power, which Michel Foucault has called disciplinary. This power is linked to disciplining the human body in certain institutional contexts: the school, the military base, the factory, the prison, each of which comprises a module in the social field. Within these modules, discipline is constant and intensive, but outside them, in city life, in private life, it is extensive: an external control that establishes a framework, which utilizes boundaries and limits and is supported symbolically by the representation of power, once again: the general on a pedestal, the prophet on the cross...

"Modern" society's exercise of power is less visible, i.e. it is conveyed better and, at the same time, it is more effective. Control replaces discipline: education is lifelong, the military is citizen-based, work relegated to the home and even the highway, punishment written into civic duty... Instead of discipline that modularizes the social world, we have control that subjects existence to constant modulation.

In modern public, physical space, particularly in the city, a number of spaces and sensibilities coexist side by side. With the arrival of the bourgeois public and the fall of representation, they are no longer hierarchically arranged. The city space can be seen as a model of public space, where it is not possible to enter into an unequivocal contract. Public space has become a modulated space. Considering this, it is difficult to maintain that particular parts of the city possess particular semantic qualities. The city comes to act as a modulational public, the city's physical space and the social circulation's mental and institutionalized space require functional design, alleviation of modulation, interface-design, co-modulated physical and social transitions.

That may sound like a loss, but in reality it may just as well be understood as a liberation of art. Gone are the complaints that works of art are placed at the worst places, from the standpoint of meaning. On the other hand, the place is made a place when the work of art is placed on it, when a praxis and modulation are utilized, which are foreign to the public space.


2. The White Cube

With the breakdown of the representative public, the work of art undergoes an autonomization. Among the bourgeois public, the institution of art becomes an undifferentiated field in which the function of art is primarily esthetic and in which this esthetic is linked only in an indirect and mediated way to the field of power and legitimization, as part of a complex public structure.

Modern art appeals to the public primarily via the institution of art. With regard to the visual arts, the institution is incarnate in the closed "cube," whose white walls, light gray bottom, and even, almost astral light gives the works of art exhibited in it a special "claim" to eternity. Special, well-defined demands are placed on the observer of the work, making possible a very refined interaction with the artistic. Perceptions are made here in a highly defined, complex cultural and art historical space.

The white space places demands on the work, that it must define its optics on the world, its scale with respect to the body, and its place in art's "field of knowledge". The work modulates its statement over these three figures. Over the scale model, the optical model, and the knowledge model, the work models its statement in a 1:1 relationship with the world.

The public aspect of the white cube is found in the meeting between the modulating work, the observer, and the institutional framework. This meeting, too, is a modulation. The white cube is part of the modern public like a laboratory for sense perception, for intelligent sense perception that processes our understanding of the world.

The esthetic, differentiated art of the white cube is no longer an immediate part of a culture's world view in the same way as the art of the representative public. The world view is incorporated into the work in a complicated manner. The work constructs a manner of looking at, perceiving, and thinking that seems to presuppose an entire cosmology, that is not just present in the work's accessible import. At the same time, the work suggests a view, a sensuality, that must see the world in a new way, although it does not disclose how. The work of art appears as part of a non-existent horizon. Thus, in the famous words of Rilke, the observer will always see the work as a challenge: you must change your life. The work breaks with the world - the white cube as the work's proper place confirms this. But this break presupposes, implies another. This worldless invocation of another world by modern art, follows directly from its contract with the world, from the bourgeois public's differentiating division of labor.


3. Art in the Public Space

Publicly exhibited art is, by definition, misplaced. It is like reading a poem at a general meeting, or a wine glass at a farmer's field - a meeting between two highly developed cultures that have no relations with each other, other than a historical convention. A clash between the social modulation field and the white cube's differentiated - "incomprehensible" - esthetic modulation field will inevitably arise. The work is at odds with its captive public, which frequently approaches it with anger and mistrust, because it is different and hampers the modulation's effectiveness, like a rock in your shoe. It is also at odds with its immediate physical surroundings, since its interference with the surrounding world lacks mediation: the art work's picture of the world is created for the white cube, not for the historical city and social modulation. The surroundings blur the work's implicit horizon and the work's pressure on its surroundings deform the logic of modulation.

Presumably, the two spaces will never be able to intersect in a true synthesis, without the result's becoming an undifferentiation of the work or of the organization of reality. Either the work must be created according to the requirements of its context and, by virtue of this, shrink to a social gesture or the public space, with its characteristic tension and modulations, must be reduced to a neutral, unmarked space, which finally reduced the common public space to a kind of clinical and antiseptic background for the work of art, i.e. a recreation of the representative public's space. The accelerated convergence between the two spaces undifferentiates either the work or the context. The former is reminiscent of the avant-garde's attempt to organize and reform society via esthetics - and, at the same time, of the failure of this attempt, which is transformed into critical reflection. The latter utilizes the simultaneous tendencies toward refeudalization of the public space by reintroducing the sovereign esthetic gesture or by simulating it.

But if the work really hesitates between these two solutions to the problem of contemporary public art and insists that it cannot bring the public space and the white cube to the same formula, then its encroachment into the public space must ultimately be strategic. This means that the work must plan how it will use its devices to point out the impossibility of this synthesis. Using various devices, the work can set the point at which the impossibility of the synthesis is obvious. By keeping the game going as long as possible, so that the work of art becomes a figure that longs for the connection between the space and its representation, thereby postponing the point at which the space cracks, time is provided for an extensive articulation of the respective orders of the place and the work.

The choice of strategy says how the artistic praxis is related to its historical ideal, classical public art in its glory days. The first two strategies, which prioritize context and sovereignty, respectively, are related primarily to the gesture of the public placement and, thus, to the nature of the encounter between the space of the public and that of art. The third strategy examines the transitions on which the classical monument has developed a rich syntax. The transitions that have been handed down from the glory days of the monument and liberated via the white cube, form the starting point for a co-modeling of the two different modulation order. Series of analogies and variations that no longer exist to legitimize representation's centering of the public space, but to utilize modulation to the utmost. To grasp the varied modulation techniques of the social space and the white cube's formal modulations in the construction of an encounter, which does not threaten the one or the other in the errand of a social critique or of a new edification, but does cultivate possibilities, openings that appear, and singular potentials in the uncomfortable trap that the present time also is: the differentiated inescapability.


Morten Straede and Frederik Tygstrup 1999