Chain 11: Public Forms
As long as art is the beauty parlor of civilization, neither art nor civilization is secure. —John Dewey, Art as Experience
The creation of art in public places requires the eye of a poet, the ear of a journalist, and the hide of an armadillo. By intention or consequence, this work illuminates the relationship between the institutions that shape and define American life and the people they serve. —Richard Posner, “Intervention and Alchemy: A Public Art Primer”
Nobody knows who the public is or what it wants or needs. —David Antin
For the eleventh issue of Chain (we still can’t quite believe we forgot to celebrate our 10th anniversary issue), we put out a call for work that addresses “public forms.” When we came up with the topic, we were thinking about what is commonly called “public art” (visual artworks that are publicly displayed and frequently supported by public funds), but also about various forms of art that happen outside of usual performance and publication contexts such as street art, political speeches, poster campaigns, architectural design, mail art, community theater, speaker’s corners, poetry written for specific public occasions, etc. In other words, we wanted an issue that would investigate art that is created by/for communities or “the public” in its broader definitions.
We received an amazing array of materials that ask us to re-evaluate the ambient substance of our lives—the forms and forums that surround us everyday. These for(u)ms include letters to the editor, web sites, eulogies, nodding hello, speech-making, occasional poems, anti-war signs, line marking on public streets, market research surveys, murals, text on truckbeds, protest marches, car alarms, surveillance cameras, aerial views, classified ads, t-shirts, graffiti and graffiti-proofing, internet spam, stickers in phone booths, prophecies, billboards, eye-witness reports, architecture, internet discussion groups, call boxes, banisters, shadows, cemeteries, and train station flip signs.
These everyday forms were accompanied by seemingly simple actions which have extraordinary cultural resonance, such as planting subversive signs in corporate sign groves, planting papaya seeds on “public” land in Hawai‘i, creating a giant footprint on a beach, or building a private office for a public telephone. And then there are the less simple actions, such as staging a city-wide play that enacts the dreams of the people of Lille, France; critiquing the politics behind the Capital of Culture competition in Europe; analyzing the debate over the World Trace Center memorial; or comparing the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan to the toppling of the Saddam Hussein sculpture in Firdos Square.
The pieces here reference sites all over the world, from the Prostitution Toleration Zone in Rotterdam, to the gutters of Valparaiso, to the Garden of Eden. But we have also included a number of “reports from the field”—a kind of survey of the local public art that some of our readers find themselves admiring/rejecting/questioning. These reports cover the “Dance Steps on Broadway” in Seattle, a bench in Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, an Argentinean small press that makes books out of cardboard collected by the unemployed, signs on overpasses that cross I-495 in New England, the “It’s a Small World” ride in Walt Disney World, the movement of elk in Rocky Mountain National Park, the “empty” buildings of Detroit, a “surfer dude” sculpture in Santa Cruz, and a mechanical beet collector in Loveland, Colorado.
As always, we hope the readers of Chain will be as surprised and provoked by these works as we were upon first receiving them in the mail. We hope it will be a conversation that continues, as our eyes open to the possibilities of public site/sight.
--JO & JS