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Rhythm & Reason

by Deborah Turnbull on 30 NOV 2012

How does the role of a traditional curator intersect with that of a producer operating in a public realm?  The traditional role of a curator is to collect, to archive, to preserve and to make available a specific collection to be engaged with and enjoyed by the public.  With the advent of technology, this role has had to evolve to deal with what industry professionals term “born digital” materials, things like design schematics, packages of code representing artworks instead of objects, and an expectation by the public to have digital access to objects.

Two people with insights into the practice of curating digital art in public are Matthew Connell, Principle Curator at the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney [PHM] and Natasha Smith, Senior Curatorial Lead, Urban Art Projects [UAP], Brisbane.  Connell and I have collaborated on several projects together, predominantly Beta_space, an experimental exhibition space featuring prototype interactive artworks in the Cyberworlds Gallery of the Powerhouse. Smith and I recently collaborated on a public art project for Ausgrid, a static work to replace the Grid Gallery screen of 2009/10.  Excerpts from my interviews with them are contained below:

Deborah Turnbull (DT): What is your understanding of public art, and by extension digital public art?

Matthew Connell [MC]: When you say public art I tend to think of installations that councils might pay for or developers might have installed in a public space. I might think outside, the sort of thing a developer might be prevailed upon to put in a space as a new development as part of their commitment to community spirit above and beyond or in addition to the basic utility of a site. So, it’s something in a public space to provide the various things that art purports; some questionings, some ponderings, something to perhaps marvel at regarding the mind of the artist from various perspectives. Acknowledging the notion of art being the reason for and the category under which this thing exists and its category of being artistic and the context of viewing it being appreciation of that art.

Natasha Smith {NS}: My understanding of public art extends from experience in the public realm for the past 3 years and then before that working more in the gallery and institutional scene here in Brisbane and also in the south island of New Zealand. I see successful public art as something that really draws from or creates connections to its environment. We [at UAP] often talk about connecting to or creating that sense of place.  Obviously sense of place is something that different people see in different ways and it’s very open to an artist’s interpretation. It’s really exciting for me when public art connects with its location and also with the community and forms that place. From that I see a really exciting potential for digital public art, and I think that’s really blossoming at the moment as a medium because digital public art has this ability to evolve and change as a platform and react to a community or to a place. So I really see the digital medium as something very exciting in that sense.

DT: Is there any sort of fear associated with the digital medium [in commercial practice]?

{NS}: Yes definitely. From our experience, particularly working with Urban Art Projects, we work on a range of projects that can be small sort of temporary installations that only last for a week or 2 months, to really large city renewal art programs and that sort of thing that need to be in place for 20 years. Our experience with different clients really ranges, in particular government or sort of council clients can be really nervous about new media, but I have seen a shift in that since I’ve been in this field.

There is definitely a growing interest in the medium because it’s all around us and the way we communicate is completely different. We’re hooked into our smart phones and it’s a way of life. Urban environments need to keep up with that culture.  There’s a trend towards it, but at the same time there is a nervousness to it. Councils in particular are very concerned about maintenance requirements. It’s just about being considerate, first of all, about the types of technology you’re using and looking at materials that have longevity, and also considering planning and process for how materials can be upgraded over time.

We also need to look at the duration of the artwork and just being really honest, is this a 5 year artwork or is a 20 year artwork? It’s ok to work towards a smaller lifespan if it’s going to be really effective and then it potentially can be re-commissioned in a new way later down the line. The benefit of new media art is that the work can evolve and change so it is a really interesting platform to work on

DT: How do you think curating artworks for a public space, say a cityscape, differs from curating them for an institution, say an art gallery or museum?

{NS}: Well it’s interesting because on the one hand I would sort of say that it’s actually very similar in that you go through a process in a gallery just like you do in a public art project.

As a curator, often your skill set can be quite similar. A lot of curators that work in public or art gallery setting have done one or the other in their professional experience; but I guess I still draw from my skills from the gallery side of things in the sense that you need to work with artists very closely. You’re procuring artists and you need to commission and contract them, so in those senses there’s a lot of overlap. I think the biggest difference is when it comes to thinking about the type of art that is appropriate in the public realm and that can affect a range of things.

When you’re talking about a public space rather than a gallery or museum you don’t have that construct of clean space you can walk into, a white room or a focused space where an audience’s visions is immediately framed in relation to the space that they’re in. In the public realm you are engaging with people’s homes or their hang out zones, so it’s completely different…it’s a chaotic environment that’s already got a rich palatte of colours, textures, and different kinds of media already advertising….they’re really saturated with information and with content.

[MC]: There’s not a significant difference and there’s no more reason why a piece of work on display at the Powerhouse is more akin to a piece of work on display in a public space than it is to the work being shown in an art gallery.

My suspicion is that there is a closer tie between a public piece of artwork that is clearly artwork and the art work that hangs in a gallery…a closer contextual connection between those two that there is with an artwork like Stelarc’s Articulated Head which is on display in the museum. The Beta_space is almost a different thing again because we name it. But, Stelarc’s work is the work of an artist that’s being used to drive a scientific research program into Human Computer Interaction and computational linguistics and that sort of study.

I think the thing that makes a difference there is that unless you already know Stelarc as an artist, you would walk up to that work and you might marvel at it and you might do all the things that you hope an artwork might inspire in a person, but you may walk away without ever thinking of it as an artwork. You are therefore imposing upon yourself, the viewer, that context which mediates your experience and approach to it.

Most of us recognise public art when we see it, a large sculpture in a public space, like, “ah, a piece of art!”, or “a bit of art is there…”.  We like it or hate it, depending. Outside an institution, you might be more inclined to be dismissive of a work. But once you’re in an art gallery, if you decide to go to an art gallery, there’s more likelihood that you acknowledge the artistic form and the discourses around art and the license you might give to an artist to have said something. But here [in the museum], with Stelarc, there’s nothing that says: this is a work of art.

Very few people would curate for movement, they are still curating with a view to the fact that people are going to stare at the work and so they’re managing a relationship between the artist, the artwork, the audience and creating a phenomenon in time. I’ve known artists who have done that. I knew an artist in Melbourne named Natalia Spatoyavich who would make scones and put them out on the road and watch as the cars ran over the scones. She didn’t record it. She told nobody.  It was just for her.  She baked the scones, carried them down to Fitzroy Street, placed them in the street and stood back and watched the cars run over the scones.

DT: Do you believe there is a dichotomy between public art [for the masses] and private art [for a privileged elite]? How so?

{NS}: I think the real challenge with artists working in the public realm is how to work against that in an interesting way or work with it or harness it and so different media can work with that in different ways.

Quite traditionally a lot of public art is sculptural, working with the 3-dimensionality of public spaces, being really engaging and perhaps providing interaction in some way. But the really exciting thing with digital art is that ability to the way it can evolve to engage directly with an audience, to react to its environment. And look, the medium in public art is a real challenge in many ways and it can be successful in what it has to contend with in terms of its environment. But at the same time there are a lot of artists out there who have very strong gallery practices and very strong public commissions out there and a lot of really high profile artists who have developed pieces for the public realm have very strong gallery practices. There are overlaps in the practices and in the processes as well.

There are different artists that enjoy different things about working in the public realm and then some artists just won’t touch it, it’s not of interest to their practise. But I think there are unique challenges in it, but it can be really rewarding. Really strong public art is really memorable because people engage with it; they enjoy it, they carry that experience with them and they want to go back to it and it becomes destination-making as well as an ephemeral experience.

I think it takes a really special artist to be able to bridge that divide. I think there are some artists out there that bring a very contemporary and global conversation about contemporary art out into the public realm through public commissions.

I think Anish Kapour is an amazing example of an artist who is probably the most famous artist in terms of public commissions but with an incredibly rigorously strong gallery practice behind him and a really strong voice as a contemporary artist bringing awareness to the public about contemporary art practice. I think the artists that bridge it, do it really very successfully.  But then there are different levels and facets to public art. There are smaller community public art projects which can be quite regional and quite local and really draw on a community and come out of a community-based process and there are also larger scale pieces that may fit in more global city centres that can capture a really vast and broad audience and they have a different role to play. So that idea of community can be really large or really intimate.

 [MC]:  When you invite and artist into the museum, particularly Stelarc, he mightn’t be treated with the reverence he receives in other institutions. He nevertheless, is ultimately provided with the respect due to his designs, He might not always be treated with the grace that he has received previously, but whatever he has done here, his artistic ownership of the project, if you’d like, has been owned by all parties.

While there may be some compromises, by and large we [the PHM] are trying to work within the constraints of his artistic vision…and we acknowledge that there’s certainly a bit of both ‘artist’ and ‘museum’ vision represented; but it’s going to be the same with any project he goes into that is being curated somewhere within an institution so it fits within their strategic plan. I find he’s very happy to accommodate that, and it’s actually so much easier because he says what he thinks and explains why he thinks it.

With Beta_space, we at least had a notice on the door which explained that these were new media artworks and experimental works of art, so that our museum visitors knew more what to expect. But as you probably recall a number of our museum visitors raced into the space, didn’t read the sign, if something didn’t happen immediately, they weren’t about to hang around, slow down, adjust the rhythm of their exploration of the museum, of which this was just a part, to accommodate an artwork. So we had to take extra steps to cause people to pause or to attract their attention as soon as they made it into the space.

DT: What role do you think the audience plays in engaging public art?

[MC]: When we display a work by an artist in the museum, that artwork fulfils the role that a curator has here which is not to display artwork…but to engage the public with some idea or a set of ideas and the artwork becomes a particularly effective way to get engagement with that idea…or interrogation of an idea, or to set up a circumstance to contemplate an idea.

I think one of the most important thing you’re asking someone to do in a large institution like this when there is a lot of choice and there are too many things to see and to my mind, its part of the nature of a museum visit. If you do a media analysis of an exhibition visit, people are passing through without specific intent. They’re actually waiting to be captured. They are looking for a reason to pause…I should say there are variations of people and there are certainly people who go from one showcase to the next looking at everything , but most people wander through waiting for something to capture their attention and imagination and say, “It’s time for you to pause now.” For us we work with the exhibition designers to create pause rhythms within a space to narrate a space….

We are asking our visitors to pause, and when we are doing an exhibition we have to think about the fact there will be a rhythm associated with a museum exhibition experience. I’m inclined to believe this isn’t a new idea…I’ve heard it expressed very articulately before by Ross Gibson.

He suggested this some years ago, somewhere. He was doing one of his things, I remember him suggesting or proffering the idea that to the museum visitor, I think it was about a younger audience, that rhythm was more important than significance; that a contemporary museum needed to pay attention to they rhythm of the experience because it had more meaning for a younger audience than did traditional significance. And I think he’s right.

{NS}: I think a crucial role is the ultimate answer. The great thing about public art is that it’s for the public, so it’s not alive without its audience. Talking about digital art, it’s just incredibly exciting because there is this potential for so many ways to engage people; across time, across the world. The amazing thing about digital art is that it can connect with people who may not even be in that location.  You can connect with people potentially in the future, depending on the vision of the work and the way it’s developed. Audience is critical to public art because it gives it its life, and without it there wouldn’t be any reason for making it. For me the ultimate is when public art fosters and builds on a community or a place, no matter how small or large that community might be, however diverse or how intimate that might be; it’s really important that that work helps to build that community.


These interviews were performed on 17 August 2012 [MC] and 30 August 2012 {NS} and edited for attendance at the Public Art, HCI and Evaluation Workshop held at Murramurang NSW by the Creativity and Cognition Studios, UTS.

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