Public art is for everybody

Tue, 21/08/2018 - 05:07 -- eyeline
A roundtable discussion with Amy-Clare McCarthy, Kieran Swann, Kinly Grey and Meagan Streader

In late 2017, curators Amy-Clare McCarthy and Kieran Swann teamed up to produce two temporary public art projects commissioned by the Brisbane City Council—The Weight of Light by Meagan Streader, held 8–26 September inside Brisbane’s heritage-listed Spring Hill Reservoir; and The Size of Air by Kinly Grey, held 25–27 October in a marquee on the Queen Street Mall. This roundtable discussion with the curators and artists examines the projects and the liberating and challenging nature of public art in general. It was undertaken by email and finished via Skype and in person, in late 2017 and early 2018.

Emily Wakeling: To start, how were the projects conceived, and what were the precedents?

Amy-Clare McCarthy: In the beginning, Kieran and I were thinking about artists whose works were in some way experiential—they could only really be grasped by being there. Kieran and I have experienced both Meagan’s and Kinly’s works before in gallery contexts. Meagan had a work at Metro Arts in 2016 that traced the architecture of the gallery with lines of light, and that work changed the experience of the space so much that this gallery (in which I’d spent the past three years working) suddenly felt unfamiliar to me. We’d both been in one of Kinly’s smoke works before, and found the way the work engulfs you to be incredibly strange but also a very moving experience.
Being public art, we were also thinking about ‘the public’ and we wanted to curate works that people weren’t alienated by. What I love about both these works is that they’re very conceptually rich and grow out of specific lineages within art history, but you don’t need to know this to enjoy the experience of them.

Meagan Streader: As Amy-Clare stated, these projects came from an interest in exhibiting ephemeral and experiential works to a wider Brisbane community. It was important that I created a work within an unorthodox space like the Reservoir to draw attention to a history and a site in Brisbane that people were generally unaware of. During the project I discovered that most of the people who came to see the work had never been inside the Reservoir site, let alone even heard of it.

Kieran Swann: The project first came about when Amy-Clare and I found the opportunity—the call-out by Brisbane City Council for project proposals. What we first started thinking about was this idea of ‘the public’; what did it mean to be a ‘public space’, and who are the ‘public populace’? The call-out document didn’t critically dig into these questions, but left them as broad ideas. It was the breadth of those ideas that gave us the space to begin delving into them—starting to deeply consider who the people of the city are; what are their ideals and understandings and experiences of the public spaces they inhabit—what possibilities those spaces enable or hinder by their very public-ness.
Brisbane is a very ‘outdoor city’—every day in its public spaces there are markets, food and wine events, live music and entertainment… and while there have been contemporary, conceptual works in Brisbane’s public spaces, it’s still a small percentage of what occurs where the city spends most of its time. If anything, we were responding to a perceived lack of this type of public art in our city. We talked about the high quality and exciting work by local artists that happens in our contemporary gallery spaces, like the Institute of Modern Art (IMA), Metro Arts, our ARIs (Artist Run Initiatives). We talked about the really great work done by the Gallery of Modern Art to grow an appetite for and understanding of contemporary work in our city, really beginning to overcome some fairly parochial and anti-art attitudes of the past. For all the quality of work these institutions were doing, being sequestered within buildings made it inaccessible to many of ‘the public’. It’s inaccessible for a number of reasons: geographical distance, perceived cost, fear of trying something new, and those same pervasive anti-art or anti-intellectual feelings mentioned before.
Amy-Clare and I had talked about that before—it naturally came up as she and I worked inside one of those very institutions, Metro Arts, trying all sorts of initiatives to get audiences to see risky work (including taking it physically outside the building on a few occasions). So here we saw an opportunity: funding, support, and more importantly, the invitation to bring the contemporary work we love into the streets. And what better art to offer than straight-up, transformative experiences.
This led us to the work of two artists whose works we’ve both loved for years and who are so skilled at providing transformation in different ways. When I saw Meagan’s transformative installation at Metro, it gave me flashbacks to the same sort of exciting disorientation I’d experienced with Dan Flavin’s works at Dia Beacon (USA), and closer to home Sandra Selig’s works in the mid-2000s at the IMA. Kinly’s work, on the other hand, didn’t so much transform a space as completely obliterate it—making the familiar unknown, and known again in a new way by prioritising the non-visual senses.
The Spring Hill Reservoir was such a great location for Meagan’s work. In the experience of descending into the cool, dark space, it sort of was an underworld; there was a sense that you’d really left the day-to-day of the city behind by climbing down that metal staircase into this unknown, seemingly untouched antique space. It definitely didn’t feel like the space belonged in Brisbane in 2017.
Kinly’s work was dead-centre in the middle of 2017 Brisbane. It felt perfect to site the work right in the middle of the CBD in the Queen St Mall. Although, I think initially we were scared of exactly how completely public the site was! The project worked in terms of providing a transformed experience of the city centre; you could see people slow down immediately on entering. From outside, if you look closely, you could dimly perceive bodies close to the edges of the cube, and I would watch people enter, slow, still, and step deeper into the obscuring fog. It was kind of beautiful to perceive their physical experience shift in that way.

Kinly Grey: In terms of how my work was conceived, as Amy-Clare and Kieran have mentioned, I’d done a few of these ‘smoke rooms’ before, mostly as an undergrad and in a university or small gallery context. Producing it for the Queen St Mall was tremendously exciting because of its public-ness. Access to art is something I think about a lot—physical access, monetary access, and also access in terms of appreciation or ‘understanding’ art. It was important for me to produce the work in a way that each person’s respective experience is the work. As Amy-Clare pointed out, there is a lot of conceptual and art historical content, but it doesn’t necessarily matter when inside the room engulfed by smoke and lights, unless you want it to.

EW: Let’s talk more about public versus designated art spaces. Kinly and Meagan, could I have you compare viewers’ experiences in a public space to a museum or gallery? What kind of audience experiences were you anticipating with The Size of Air and The Weight of Light?

KG: A designated art space like a museum or a gallery defines where the art will take place. When an artist does something public, the boundaries of the art experience are thrown open. I’m interested in the commute to the art work as being a part of the experience. I’d like to challenge those straightforward delineations of ‘here is the art’ and ‘the art is over now’ and see what is possible.

MS: I have a very similar response. A public space leaves the work open for discovery by people who aren’t even seeking it out. They may interpret it as something completely different. It removes a lot of labels and I like that. As Kieran has referred to, it removes a kind of elitism that is felt from the contemporary art world as well.

ACM: I expected that everyone who walked through those doors would have read a press release or know it was happening, but many people who use the area did simply wander down and say, ‘Oh, what’s happening? We can go in today. Usually this building is shut’.

KG: The gallery is usually supposed to be a NON-space, an absence of space and context. In public art, not only is there a very specific space to work with but, to state a cliché, it becomes a part of the work.

MS: Especially with your work, Kinly, you had the freedom to make your own space right there in the tent. I chose very carefully my space because of what I could do with it but you basically got to dictate that for yourself. That is a really amazing opportunity for an artist.

KG: Sure, and perhaps I didn’t do that with quite enough hubris because the space ended up affecting my work a lot more than I thought it would! That’s very interesting in itself and it’s nice to have a porousness between what you have made and the site as well.

ACM: Kinly’s work was also great because it was in a space where people often go to shop. The work is another way of being; inserted into the capitalist/consumerist centre of Brisbane.

KG: How many people did we have come up to us and ask ‘how much is it?’

KS: There’s something there as well about—as someone who has worked in a managing capacity in an arts centre—I’ve spent so much time on the question of how do we get people in the doors. Maybe the answer is just to put the art in their way!

ACM: Besides the people in the area who were just popping down, people who made the trek to the Reservoir were quite excited to find it. I don’t think they would be as excited to arrive at a place they’ve been to many times before. Part of that pleasure might have been the use of a heritage building too.

EW: Like destination art.

ACM: Yes!

KG: And you know what comes with destination art? The journey to get there. For me that is a very important part of the experience.

EW: Definitely. And that comment should lead me into my next topic. It comes from my personal experiences getting to the art projects and being inside the work. When I was walking to Meagan’s work, it was a hot Saturday afternoon and I was catcalled by a group of four large, loud drunk men. After that public encounter, I was relieved to finally be inside the space, in the cool shade, amongst a ‘safer’ art-viewing crowd.
Coincidentally, a few weeks later, I had another unwanted interaction with a stranger inside Kinly’s installation. There is, of course, that moment of uncertainty when one enters the smoke-filled room because of low visibility, but this happened after I’d adjusted to the work. I was about to take a photo when a man—a stranger—grabbed my shoulders from behind and yelled, ‘Boo!’ That’s when I decided I’d had enough and headed home.
The reason I share this is to bring up the vulnerabilities of public art, and accessibility to/in public works, and how those unpleasant side-effects can inform the overall viewing experience.

KG: First, that’s an awful thing to happen. I feel like the problem in your story is the more general public culture. If we are going to make distinctions between art-specific space and a public space, yes there are differences when you’ve got people purposely going to a specific space and seeing art, versus people who just happen to be in the mall. When you’re putting a work in such a public space, you’ve got to have that vulnerability in mind and you’ve definitely got to put safety measures in place if anything like that happens. At the last minute we put extra staff on the door, for example. It was hard to anticipate how people were going to react. We had no idea. I thought for sure someone was going to run through the [tent] walls, maybe steal the computer and projector. Luckily, none of those things happened. This was my first time making a public art work so it was hard to gauge what kind of things we would be dealing with. I don’t really have an answer for your question, but I don’t think not putting art in public spaces is the answer. The possibility of harassment is something that should be rigorously considered, and continuously reassessed, too. That way, fewer and fewer incidents should occur over time. Is that an okay answer to your question?

EW: Definitely. Thank you for your concern.

KG: We often talk about accessibility in terms of money available, or physical access, but being a femme-presenting person in the world comes with access restrictions, especially when it comes to being around aggressively masculine people. This is a question of how to make ‘safe spaces’, essentially. The queer community have been doing it for years; whether it’s a club space, spaces on campus, or public toilets. Public space is not a safe space for me and I would say it isn’t safe for most people I know. The term now often used is safer space, because there’s no such thing as a completely safe space.

MS: I’m thinking back to some of the encounters that I had in my installation as well. It wasn’t a matter of feeling unsafe, but on opening night, some people were disrespecting the art work by tugging on the lights affixed to the walls. I’ve noticed it in my other projects as well, sadly. Even when you explain how much work goes into producing the art and how you wish as many people as possible can enjoy the work, you can’t control people.
It’s a continual battle, really. I can’t really predict how good or bad the audiences’ reactions will be. Even in galleries, you have visitors who have no idea and will do the unexpected. I’ve heard stories about people pulling a basket from a gallery wall because they wanted to purchase it. You just don’t know what’s going to happen.
It was good to have someone at the front door explaining very gently the guidelines of how to safely walk down to the work and a request to not touch the lights. The basic things. You don’t want to anticipate that something’s going to happen and then have that compromise the work, or have it compromise everyone else’s experience. We should really take things as they come and hope that nothing happens.

KS: Amy-Clare and I talked in the lead-up to the projects about what it means to be putting contemporary art in public spaces. Part of our aim was to purposefully bring people into the work who would not necessarily know the ‘rules’ of how to engage with contemporary art. It was important that both works invited an experience of the unfamiliar, and that they welcomed people inside—that they reward risk and people going out of their way to try something new.
We put mechanics in place that invited people to enter the works with a slow, still care in an experiential way, instead of rushing in and taking ownership of the place. It’s the subtle things like making sure there’s someone on the entry who will calmly and clearly talk them through the rules of engagement—but not as rules, as an invitation. The way that is delivered should encourage a sense of respect and prepare the person to go in not feeling threatened or feeling like they have to dominate.

MS: Yes, particularly when you’re dealing with a shared space like that. And I was thinking about your experience a bit more just now, Emily, and I’m wondering if it was these spaces in particular which drove these people to act in this way, and I don’t think that’s the case. I think those encounters (which sound frankly horrifying) could have happened anywhere.

EW: Yes, like a pub or anywhere.

KG: You’re completely right, Meagan, but it’s because we made the space that we have a responsibility.

MS: Agreed. Emily, how did you feel about the people at the front door? Did you feel as though we had created a safe space?

EW: Yes. It felt like crossing a threshold, in which I could then relax and enjoy the art. Being one of those museum-loving people with an arts degree, however, I’m not your new audience from the general public.

KG: I lined up a few times for my own work just to listen to the spiel. That’s when I found out that one of the staff was telling everyone that I had gotten lost in there myself—which I did! She was bringing it up in order to tell visitors to move slowly and not to freak out because, ‘even the artist got lost in there’. I lined up in order to see how the experience was bookended by the people on the door. The fact that someone was harassed in the work, for me personally, that would be something to flag and work on in future projects. Not to put limits on it, but the entry and exit of the space are really important influences on people’s behaviour inside. I think all our door people did a really great job at that.

EW: They definitely did. As Meagan said, people will either choose to listen to you or not. That jerk clearly thought the space was somewhat scary. It was a little scary, when I first stepped in, because of the low visibility.

ACM: When we first filled the tent with smoke—when Kinly got lost, ha ha—I thought, ‘Oh no, I have to get out! What have we done? This looks terrifying!’ There was a moment where I didn’t know where the exit was, even though I had just seen it fill with smoke. But then I had the experience that a lot of people spoke about, it was a calmness.

KG: I was surprised they let us do it, to be honest. It was so disorienting and I was always thinking, ‘What if there’s a fire? What if the worst happens?’ I think a lot of people got lost in there, but it was easily solved by the door person asking visitors to follow the sound of their voice.

ACM: I should reassure you we had extensive risk assessment and contingency plans at the ready.

KS: Yes, bomb threats, fires, rain, we had to plan for the lot.

EW: Like an art space, then.

KG: So what have we learnt? That these were art spaces all along?

EW: Perhaps without the context? Same safety measures and bureaucratic processes… My last question was going to be about whether you all would be looking for public art opportunities again in the future, and based on this discussion I’m anticipating your positive answers.

ACM: Is that a ‘yes’ from all of us?

MS: Yes, absolutely. The gallery spaces just don’t offer the same exciting challenges. And I hope Kieran and Amy-Clare continue producing these types of projects that encourage new encounters and ways of being in a space.

Meagan Streader, The Weight of Light, 2017. Photograph Louis Lim.

Meagan Streader, The Weight of Light, 2017. Photograph Louis Lim.

Kinly Grey, The Size of Air, 2017. Photograph Carl Warner.

Kinly Grey, The Size of Air, 2017. Photograph Carl Warner.

Emily Wakeling is Assistant Curator, Asian and Pacific Art at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane.