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Thursday, April 10, 2008
Art in The Public Space
Welcome back to the exploration of Luminato’s StreetScape exhibition. When this blog was first unveiled, we sought to define StreetScape in as open-ended a manner as possible: as “an experiment, a set of questions that over the next several months we will set about trying to answer in the form of an exciting, interactive and thought-provoking public exhibition.” Excitement and intellectual provocation are givens—or at least, they should be—in the course of thoughtfully and thoroughly planning a contemporary art event. It is the other two attributes, “public” and “interactive,” which beg the more intriguing questions and provide the framework for our experiment.

The question of public art and accessibility has already been explored to some extent in this space, principally by investigating the increasingly problematic relationship between a democratically-defined and inclusive potential audience and the all-too-often rarified, restrictive demi monde of contemporary art. We allotted ourselves a difficult task: to throw open the “doors of perception” (as defined by Freize’s Dan Fox) and “present contemporary art in a way that allows it to be truly meaningful—enlightening, thought-provoking, aesthetically pleasing—for everyone.”

While accessibility in contemporary art is an interesting concept and noble cause, the practical work of providing this type of inviting experience hinges at least as much on the second above-mentioned term, “interactive.” Interactivity, used not simply as a buzzword but as a guiding principle to be explored and deployed in practice, requires a returning to and rethinking of some of our most basic assumptions about art and its exhibition in public—in fact, it demands a redefinition of the very notions of “exhibition” and “public” themselves.

The word “exhibition” is less interesting for what it immediately connotes—a large-scale public display of a collection or body of work—than for what it does not: a dialogue, a fluid and to some degree organic artist-audience exchange of ideas, interpretations and experiences. In a cultural climate that has embraced exponentially proliferating types of media and contexts as artistically viable, the hermetic model of the viewer as the passive receptor of meaning is sliding toward obsolescence. Many of the projects which will comprise StreetScape share a basic desire that the “viewer” take an active role—they are user-activated, if you will—and their public availability thus becomes more of an invitation than an exhibition.

But what to call these kinds of projects? Helen Castle christens them “Interactive design environments” in her introduction to an eponymous volume of literature on the subject, praising “their potency; their power to transform people’s experiences and perceptions. They may not aspire to irrevocably change an individual’s quality of life or life course; what they can do, however, is shift the way people interact both with those around them and also with the space around them…. They turn the anonymous passer-by from just another face in the crowd to an individual, and often a playful one at that.”[i]

“Regent Park swimming pool”

Now consider just one aspect of StreetScape: Living Space at Regent Park, Canada’s oldest social housing project, a site of rapid change and massive redevelopment, and most importantly, a home to a diverse community of thousands and a highly unconventional venue for contemporary art projects. The culmination of months of international collaboration and local grassroots organization (with a large share of the credit going to the organizers of Toronto’s Manifesto Festival, the closing weekend of Luminato will see the Regent Park neighborhood transformed: the facades of decades-old apartment buildings will be illuminated by brilliant photographic projections, digital video and large-scale poster portraits; these varied pieces will make Regent Park residents both the subjects of the artwork and participants in its creation via workshops and artists’ mentorships. Top-flight Canadian street artists will team with local youth to produce murals in an urban beautification showcase, and noted New York-based artist Oliver Herring will conduct one of his TASK performances—a participatory performance/collective art-making extravaganza—in Regent Park.

“Hightop Studio’s projection portraits,” courtesy them.ca

The use of multimedia projections in Living Space as well as other ephemeral media (such as, in this instance, wheat-pasted posters and performance) on the architectural elements of a particular site as a means to a transformational end has an intriguing precedent in the short history of interactive design environments as public art. For example, in "The Influence Machine", his acclaimed ArtAngel project of 2000, multimedia sculptor Tony Oursler used video and text projection, sound and smoke machines to transform the trees and buildings of London’s Soho Square into a spirit-haunted psycho-landscape that enveloped its audience in a chilling spectral spectacle.}

“Tony Oursler’s “Influence Machine,” courtesy artangel.co.uk

Earlier, in 1994, Canadian artist Raphael Lozano-Hemmer
coined the term “relational architecture” to describe “the technological actualization of buildings and the urban setting by superimposing audiovisual elements to affect it, effect it and recontextualize it.”[vii] Lozano-Hemmer’s was in fact featured in 2007’s Luminato festival, which included his “Pulse Front: Relational Architecture 12,” a massive installation which illuminated the sky above Toronto’s central harborfront with 200,000 watts of light synched to the heart-rates of seven on-site participants.

[insert photo 4, caption: “Luminato 2007’s “Pulse Front: Relational Architecture 12” at Toronto Harbourfront by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer]

At Regent Park, projected videos by Oliver Herring, Hightop Studio projected photo portraits by and wheat-pasted poster portraits of community members by Dan Bergereon will likewise recontextualize and transform the community’s institutional architecture into a medium for expression: the buildings turned inside out as the stories and images usually contained within those walls are proudly displayed on the exterior.

Deploying these kinds of multimedia relational-architectural projects has ramifications far beyond the rephrasing of the dominant narrative of a given building or urban setting. This phenomenon of these sorts of interactive design environments creating a sense of the uncanny—the familiar made strange—inevitably affects not only people’s relationships with their surroundings but with each other as well. Programming that explores practices such as Lozano-Hemmer’s relational architecture also constitute, in the words of critic and theorist Lucy Bullivant, “an architecture of social relations that invite the visitor to spontaneously perform and thereby construct alternative physical, architectural, urban and social meanings.”[x]

Open-ended participatory performances like Oliver Herring’s TASK event take advantage of the disinhibiting effect of such multimedia-induced altered states. Herring’s happenings completely erase the distinction between art and the audience, exploring the creative results of the kind of collaboration, improvisation and sociability that interactive environments engender. Bullivant continues: “In interactive environments… cultural codes are fluid and function is defined as a more open-ended concept influenced by in-the-moment behavior.”[xi] “It is,” agrees Castle, “the encouragement of sociability where the interactive is at its most potent, where it has the ability to transcend the everyday—causing the individual to pause a minute on a street corner to have fun, be playful, and have occasion to smile out of unassailable joy.”[xii] And this, in the end, is the most worthwhile objective; one we hope to achieve at Regent Park when the literal residential dwelling, switched on, becomes a Living Space.

[insert photo 5, caption “Scene from one of Oliver Herring’s TASK events”

* * *

Of course, we would be remiss to discuss the behaviorally and architecturally transformative properties of relational architecture and interactive design environments (in other words, redefining “exhibition”) without giving due consideration to the conceptual and practical issues of geographical and social context in which our projects will be installed (redefining “public”). Luckily, there is much more as-yet-unrevealed StreetScape programming at other sites to provide enough fodder for a later discussion of the nebulous distinctions between public and private space and the fascinating gray zone in which many interactive design environments reside. Until then, stay tuned for posts from other StreetScape contributors and feel free to leave any thoughts or questions in the comment section.


[i] Castle, Helen. Introduction to 4dsocial: Interactive Design Environments (Lucy Bullivant, guest ed.) in the series Architectural Design (Helen Castle, ed.), Wiley Academy Press, Sussex, UK, 2007, p. 5

[vii] Fernandez, Maria. “Illuminating Embodiment: Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Relational Architectures,” in 4dsocial: Interactive Design Environments (Lucy Bullivant, guest ed.) in the series Architectural Design (Helen Castle, ed.), Wiley Academy Press, Sussex, UK, 2007, p. 79

[x] Bullivant, Lucy. “Alice in Technoland,” in 4dsocial: Interactive Design EnvironmentsArchitectural Design (Helen Castle, ed.), Wiley Academy Press, Sussex, UK, 2007, p. 7 (Lucy Bullivant, guest ed.) in the series

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Castle, Helen. Introduction to 4dsocial: Interactive Design Environments (Lucy Bullivant, guest ed.) in the series Architectural Design (Helen Castle, ed.), Wiley Academy Press, Sussex, UK, 2007, p. 5

posted by Luminato, Toronto Festival of Arts & Creativity @ 7:27 AM  
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