arch-peace editorials

20 October 2011

Default – Art, Culture and Cities

“The advocacy of artistic intervention in the public realm shifted radically during the 1980’s. Public Art became increasingly justified, not in aesthetic terms but rather on the basis of its supposed contribution to what might be broadly termed ‘Urban regeneration’.”i After three decades of arts involvement in such regeneration and in the midst of a global economic crisis, what might be the substance of these claims or the relevance of such ideas? In September 2011, I attended a master class in residence in Lecce in Southern Italy to discuss art, cities and regeneration with 20 practicing artists and 13 presenters across 10 days. The workshop was entitled Default.

The reinvention of cities in the Middle Ages and again in the 18th century saw massive movements of people from rural societies to the nascent capitalist and industrial cities respectively. Urban regeneration in the early 21 century plays out many of the predictions of Lefebvre’s thesis as articulated in David Harvey in the Right to the City: surplus capital finds its form and generation in the urban and its regeneration and/or flight spells disaster for the city or region that is not willing or able to compete with either privatized and/or subsidised infrastructure, exploitative labour or the cultural and natural assets of tourism. The de-industrialisation of these same cities in the developed world and the role of rural and semi-rural communities in the developing world’s urban century create a new paradigm for place, culture and the movement of people. The question of mobility in a globalised world is often considered in relation to the migration of those who chose to move (the professionals) and those who are forced to move (the asylum seekers and refugees escaping war or persecution). However, a third group needs consideration across both the developed and developing world as “it is estimated that fully 40% of all people on earth will be involved is such migration”ii This figure includes the movement within and between cities, regions and countries in pursuit of employment within cities.
Default was an interesting title for the workshop. This title did not refer to the pressing situation and implications for the EU (and the world) of Italy defaulting on debt repayments. Default referred to the question of how art practice might relate to the city other than defaulting to the dubious regenerative claims of the creative class,iii retreating to the creative city’s’iv cultural quarters or remaining part of the spectacle of the Biennale for globally competitive cities all now running their course and for their lives.

It was with interest to attend the workshop in Lecce to witness the government of a city and regional centre attempting to reconcile regeneration within a regional perspective while trying to retain and revive a spatial, cultural and social form – the medieval /renaissance city as a modern city centre and its surrounding village life and customs. Lecce is a small to medium sized city (100,000 people) in the south of Italy surrounded by 97 small communes (villages) varying in size from 1000 – 30,000 people each. The region has a total population of 800,000.
A key feature of urban regeneration for the last three decades in the Anglophone world has been the quality and use of its public spaces and the requisite financial and legislative framework for such development. Within these public spaces, art has been attributed with contributing to the creation of a sense of community, place and civic identity. Interestingly, the vast majority of these works have been commissioned by government. Further, it has been argued that this same art addresses community needs and tackles social exclusion while possessing educational value and promoting social change. While this may be partially accepted, there is no critical debate or evidence to support these assertions other than “productionist and semiotic arguments”v i.e. the administrative improvements in the manner in which artworks and artists are commissioned or the aesthetic debate about the importance or otherwise of the works themselves in relation to a history of contemporary art assembled as the works are being made. The activist aesthetic that has permeated much of the self initiated works sitting outside (and sometimes within) the government commissioning process – whether this be street art, relational/relationist works, parades and performance or urban interventions and actions– derives many of its “strategies” and “tactics” and much of its form from art, social and political movements, and philosophical thought of the 1970’s. Stripped of this context and social connection, meaning, time and place, the contemporary “projects” undertaken by various practitioners sit outside any program and are generally remembered or reduced to what can be collected within the art world. It is with interest that the architectural word “project” and de Certeau’svi terminology of strategies and tactics dominate and are interchangeable in the urban discussion that both dismisses the idea of any program and are misused to the point of meaninglessness in relation to art and cities. The artist has a strategy as if part of an institution and the artist uses tactics to defy the institutional strategy through projects that do not belong to a program. The artist’s action is privileged, as is the gesture to be collected and catalogued as something that happened, then what?

When the economy turns downward and spatial and social regeneration projects within a city’s program falter or fail to materialize what are the projects, strategies and tactics that the artist employs? I can think of at least three general responses to this self evident and cyclic situation within late capitalism.

One is that the spaces formerly designated for regeneration resume their identity as everyday spaces of “possible and potential transformation”.vii This is an argument that suggests that the small, autonomous and un-authored is beautiful and holds inherent meaning of place and belonging. However, when it is by an artist it holds more significance because it can be documented and potentially collected in one form or another. The everyday space and action implies that the gesture and ritual is of great symbolic value and potentially and accumulatively of politic importance. Like art in public space’s claims, there is little or no evidence.
Another response in the postmodern arsenal is the embrace of urban alienation as the most well adjusted response. This covers the architectural resignation and totalizing plan of Rem Koolhaus but also refers to a fascination with redundancy, abandonment chic or a kind of artistic shrug of the shoulders. It is Warholian in its self-fulfilling engagement with mass culture and late capitalism and does not assume a transformation outside of that which may have occurred anyway.

The third is not so much a surrender to impotence as a retreat from universal ideas into the totally personal. In place of the concept of justice we shift to personal notions of care.viii Similar to, but different from, the possible and potential transformation, this approach accepts that the world was always too big and the sphere of influence is only at the personal level – the de-politicization of self through the politicization of everything.

Each of these assumes that a program is counter-productive if not totalitarian in the face of the inevitable mass migration of people and not part of a possible response to transform this fragmented and fragmenting world or regenerate cities.

Of the artists and presenters at the master class none lived or worked where they were from. Perhaps this is the avant- garde of the 40%. It is curious that we should be engaged with place, cities and a notion of regeneration – what does this mean? What might be of importance in this discussion (and dare I say program by default or direction) is that if cities are to regenerate without a rapid demographic transformation and displacement then an approach that involves the arts and cultural development must address the retention and strengthening of the existing community. This may appear on the surface antithetical to regeneration.

The purpose of the master class was ostensibly to explore the relationship between art, cities and regeneration during times of economic downturn and the critical faculty that contemporary art possesses to engage with the emerging global issues, meaning and place. Many of the projects discussed were without a program and lapsed into the aesthetics of protest, poverty or indifference, false collective memory in re-enacting community life or a confused social enterprise in the vacuum left by state welfare’s failure or absence. However several programs were clear and systemic in their purpose and intent and located projects within this broader definition of cultural development.

One third of the population of Lecce is involved in the university life. At least three non-government organizations, including Ramdom Association who hosted the master class, are involved in cultural programs ranging from musical education and creative industry training and development to the engagement of contemporary and experimental arts in the cultural life of the city. One of the purposes of these programs is to mitigate the deleterious effects of development on the cultural life in villages of the surrounding communities of Lecce. This includes cultural restoration and outreach programs. Another is to introduce contemporary art practice to make it relevant for young people to remain or be attracted to this centre.
To contextualize contemporary art practice and to finish this editorial, I’ll provide an anecdote in relation to public space and public life.

The city of Lecce shuts down at about three in the afternoon and opens again at 7 or 8 until midnight. This twilight in early Autumn was picked as the time for an intervention into public space as people emerged as they do every evening into the public square and streets of the city. The work devised by one of the workshop artists was topical and provocative. An action in response to Berlusconi’s extensive ownership of the media involved the purchase of a copy of each of the daily publications he owned and a cutup of these in the public square at a make shift news stand. The cut up text was placed in an open box and members of the general public were asked to select text and say why they picked this headline or that phrase and to discuss media ownership. I’m not sure whether more or less conversation was had about the government in the square that evening because basically everyone was there anyway, as they will be tonight, talking, arguing, sharing the day’s personal and national issues. In the centre of the square on that evening, in addition to the hundreds of people and the public political campaigning for local elections, approximately 60 secondary school students flash mobbed the space with a choreographed dance piece with decorated chairs, a newly married couple was being photographed on the other corner, a concert was happening in the Roman amphitheatre to the right and kids hung out on the steps of the church, dancing, flirting, talking. The evening had just started and our intervention was over in about 30 minutes. The few who were engaged by our action, our gesture were off somewhere else discussing something just as or more important than Berlusconi’s empire that would be over one day soon. The referendum that Italy recently held dismissed Berlusconi’s proposal to introduce nuclear power, to privatize water and to offer immunity from trial for government ministers.

Anthony McInneny
Architects for Peace, October 2011


i Hall, T and Robertson, I (2001) ‘Public Art and Urban Regeneration: advocacy, claims and critical debates.’ Landscape Research, Vol. 26, No. 1, 5–26, 2001
ii Casey, E (2011) The Place of Landscape. The edge(s) of Landscape. MIT Press
iii Florida, R (2004) The Rise of the Creative Class
iv Landry, C (2000) The Creative City: A toolkit for urban innovators, London, Earthscan
v Hall, T and Robertson, I (2001) ‘Public Art and Urban Regeneration: advocacy, claims and critical debates.’ Landscape Research, Vol. 26, No. 1, 5–26, 2001
vi de Certeau, Michel (1988) The Practice of Everyday life
vii Chase, J, Crawford, M and Kaliski, J (eds) (2008) Everyday Urbanism, Monacelli Press
viii MesKimmon, M (2011) Contemporary art and the cosmopolitan imagination, Routledge


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