Dr Becky Shaw Researcher Blog – Running across subsidence: The ordinary failure of public art and public infrastructure services
Becky’s Shaw’s exploration of the unstable space of commissioning included in new book on public art and failure.
When an artist is commissioned to explore an institution or organisation the pretext is often to ‘celebrate:’ to communicate complicated ‘hidden’ work to a public; to reach a ‘hard to reach’ community; to give visibility or to find a form to express societal value. Success is understood as the achievement of these aims through a visible and legible work. However, the artist’s experience often feels more like being harbinger of doom than flag-bearer. So often it seems that, within a few weeks of work, there are tremors working their way up the legs of the host. Redundancies, mergers, strikes, restructures, loss of revenue, loss of identity, conflict and disengagment are often currents in the uneasy substrate of the commission: subsidence on a scale that no artistic work can shore up.
Through exploring her experience of making an artwork for the City of Calgary Water Services, Becky reflects on the impossibility of communicating incoherent organisational forms or changes in a ‘stable’ visual form. The stable ‘keys’ to build a project on (processes, materials, spaces and people) once there, may quickly slide out of reach. Artists have to keep ‘running’ to keep up a dialogue with the unstable terrain. The works that develop are not static snapshots, but are stretched, unstable, fragmentary and provisional in the same way as the context. Rather than making a shiny vision that hides realities or acts as glue, Becky argues that works can be, and are, produced through shared experience of instability and uncertainty, and might form a mutual engagement with the difficulty of visibility and publicness.
In the text particular attention is given to what it means to explore publicness and how the contested notion of public art might relate to the contested public and private life of water management. Drinking water (the focus of the project) is a substance that is us- it flows in and out of our bodies and we have no life without it, and yet it is also an industrial product that has a value calculated economically, and that inhabitants pay for in different local arrangements of tax and private purchase. Public art processes are considered alongside sociological reflections on the care of maintenance, and Becky considers how this ‘maintenance’ might also be about maintaining or constructing meaning and relationship.
The Chapter was commissioned and supported by editors Cameron Cartiere and Anthony Schrag in their new book ‘The Failures of Public Art and Participation’, available in 2022. The anthology brings together practising artists, curators, activists, art writers, administrators, planners, and educators from around the world to offer differing perspectives on the many facets of failure in commissioning, planning, producing, evaluating and engaging communities in the continually evolving field of art in the public realm. As such, this book offers a survey of currently unexplored and interconnected thinking, and provides a much-needed critical voice to the commissioning of public and participatory arts. The volume includes case studies from the U.K., the U.S., China, Cuba, and Denmark, as well as discussions of digital public art collections.
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