Monday, 23 March 2009

Permanent or Temporary?

I’ve spent the last few weeks developing proposals for an arts programme to complement a regeneration scheme (hence the blog silence!). It was an intense and very interesting piece of work which threw up some key issues for me about public art and the idea of permanence.
The area I was working in is a mix of marshland/nature reserve and industrial estate. The funding for an extensive scheme of infrastructure and public realm improvements comes from central government and from Europe, and is, very specifically, for capital spend; in other words, for ‘stuff’.
Yet working in this area, walking, talking, reading, and walking some more, it became evident that a lot of the reasons why the natural resources are underused are psychological and emotional as well as physical. In addition, thinking about physical art work in this context is difficult. The area’s ‘charm’ is in its emptiness, it view, its industrial nature; some of the area’s problems are to do with having too much clutter – too many signs, bollards, fences etc. Would putting ‘pieces’ of art there not just mean adding more clutter to a cluttered landscape?
For me, a programme of temporary interventions, temporary signage projects, and text pieces that would generate interest and intrigue, but would eventually disappear, make sense in this context. For me, creating a role for art to engage local residents and employees in rethinking their area, and developing new relationships with a place on their doorstep, through participatory projects that build relationships and lasting partnerships, has a stronger resonance and potential than a series of permanent art commissions.
And yet the funding that exists is for ‘things’, and so the only option if you insist on taking the ‘participatory, temporary approach’ is to look elsewhere for additional funds. The other tension here is whether you end up arguing ‘against art’; whether you end up saying it is better not to spend this funding on permanent pieces of art because it isn’t the right place for them. In doing so are you failing to fight the ‘art’ fight? Or are you trying to be genuine in your response to a specific place? Linda France said something interesting to me the other week: artists need to be humble, she said, and advised writers with public art commissions to “ask yourself would a tree be better here?” But isn’t that complicated when the artist has been commissioned by someone whose funding and agenda insists that there should be something there, even if a tree might be a preferable option?

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