Hybrid Public Art Practice

Kevin Carter
The overarching aim of my research is to explore how production of a public art that combines both traditional and digital art practices may lead to a revised conception, a hybrid public art practice, that is inclusive of the physical and virtual as both site and material for the creation of public art works. In producing this practice based research my aim will be the development of a ontology of digital practices that might, when synthesised with particular public art practices, expands methodologies and methods available to artists and practitioners working within a public art practice across online and offline sites.

In the space afforded by this newspaper I would like to think about the possibilities that social media platforms appear to offer, and discuss, with reference to two examples, concerns that have arisen from the production and consumption of these works. “What we could call ‘art’ in the context of Web 2.0 is certainly what most reinforces our belief in the potentials of the connected multitude, in its possibilities for the free production of critical thought and new life.” (Prada)

Arguably examples of this free production might include the Google mashup of British National Party (BNP) membership data that was created after a BNP membership database had been leaked into the public domain via Wikileaks (Charlton). The works creator, Ben Charlton, in discussion with his peers on Twitter, converted the data and uploaded it to a Google map, creating a spatial representation of BNP membership, filtered by postcode, upon a rendering of the real space as represented by Google maps. More recently, the C.H.R.I.S. website (Witter) and related Facebook page made use of a database of convicted pedophiles to provide an online resource where users could view convicted pedophiles living in their area. The dataset is compiled and kept up-to-date by the sites author Chris Witter and users of the site. The impetus for the work resulted from the UK government’s abandonment of their own plan to publish a similar database due to concerns about vigilanteism.

In thinking about these works through the rubric of Kwon’s models of public art practice both artifacts might be understood as indicative of the “Art in the public interest” model, Kwon further divides this model into three main methods:

1: Communities of ‘Mythic Unity’.

2: Sited Communities (Existing).

3: Invented Communities (Temporary/Ongoing).

I would argue that both relate to the third definition – “Invented Communities (Temporary/Ongoing)” – a method that is reliant upon the practitioner forming a community of collaborators around the production of the artwork; a community that may be already existing or specifically set up to produce the work. In locating these works within a tradition of public art practice I am not trying to claim them as public artworks, or attempting to resuscitate a moribund public art practice within the novelty of new technologies, rather it is to see if there is a correlation between certain historical public art practices and a vernacular use of social media. Thinking about these examples from a information design perspective, it is interesting to note that Charlton withdrew the map soon after its publication due to fears about misplaced vigilanteism resulting from the efficacy of the dataset, which it might be argued, was one of he reasons that the C.H.R.I.S. website was first set up in the first place.

Kevin Carter. Landscape-Portrait. Gateshead, UK. 2007. Photo Karin Coetzee.

With my own work Landscape-Portrait this replication of the efficacy of market research was challenged by the use of non-objective data collection techniques. Post-code based demographics are derived from objective datasets, produced from census data. By attempting an inversion of the questions used by the census questionnaire, for example asking “How do you get on with the people you live with” as opposed to “How many people do you live with?”, a subversion is produced at the site of the data construction, corresponding to Kris Kohen observation that “whoever makes data makes the publics that data purports merely to describe” (Cohen).

Landscape-Portrait can be seen as a critique of this demographic viewpoint by offering different views of person and place, which are then juxtaposed with the reductive portraits provided by demographics, problematicising their unquestioning use, for example in the formation of strategies responding to business, social and environmental planning.

In contrast to the model of demographics with which the work is critically engaged, the software tools and web platform provided by Landscape-Portrait in combination with an artist led community engagement, can be seen as an attempt to sample and disseminate distinct portraits of person and place. In this way the sampling process forms an integral part of a hybrid public art practice which engages locations and communities as a “functional site” (Kwon 2002) for the production and dissemination of public artworks. The final outcome of the work will be a publicly accessible resource/artwork, featuring geo-specific videos detailing a multitude of personal views of person and place. Whilst this possibility to sample a multitude of voices is compelling in terms of  pubic art practice, the impossibility of hearing every voice and concerns about the quality of that voice has led to a questioning of the claim by some, that social media platforms offer a possibility of participatory democracy:

Many people see this growing hegemony of the amateur as a danger, considering the cultural model of Web 2.0 to be an ‘oclocracy’; that is, mob rule, one of the specific ways democracy can degenerate. (Keen, in Prada)

What has been termed the Babel critique has been challenged by commentators citing the practices of Web 2.0 interpolation, where Blogs and Tweets shared at the push of a button, produce a form of consensual filtering, allowing certain knowledge products to gain visibility in proportion to their user driven network exposure. An example would be “Like” recommendations on Facebook that are broadcast to all members of your network, who may then go on and further recommend the content to their networks. This argument promotes an idea of social networking knowledge that is moderated by users and software collaboratively, allaying fears about the quality of the knowledge whilst preserving a topicality outside of the machinations mass media:

We should consider its presence as our most efficient, promising possibility for resistance in the face of attempts at an undifferentiated unification, attempts at the destruction of individual singularity that has always been the goal of the traditional mass communication media .(Prada)

However this neat structuring and filtering of content via an organic consensus does not happen in isolation, content is not only local, it is also produced as the product of media platforms (Charlton’s and Witters’ projects were both written up by tabloid and broadsheet media, for example), and are therefore effected from a centralised position, rather than a purely consensual, grass roots evaluation as imagined by Prada. What does seem clear is that the connected multitude do not need any help in using social media platforms, the vernacular use of social media platforms by non-artists has a long and buoyant set of histories within which artists, if they wish to locate their practice within these spaces, would do well to acquaint themselves.

It is my feeling that as more digital artifacts, databases etc are released to the public domain via websites such as Wikileaks, artist and activists will make use of social media platforms to provide agency in interpolating this data with a view to engaging both the on and off-line spaces of individuals, communities, towns, cities, countries and global communities. In terms of generating hybrid or contingent understandings of public art practice, this approach is key, providing as it does the possibility to respond tactically rather than ignore a consistent critique of community based art practice: “Inevitably then, we must reconsider the possible “uses” of artwork in the social context and the roles of the artist as an actor in the public sector.” (Lacy)

Concomitant with the idea that Web 2.0 methods and methodologies sit snugly within the ambitions of an integrated hybrid public art practice is the thought that critical public art practices that do make use of social media might also offer critical possibilities outside of the “patterns of repetition and imitation of stereotypical commercial and professional models” (Prada). Advancing along these lines, could it be that a desire to enter into some form of dialogical, collaborative process, consistent with a synthesis of social media tropes with certain critical public art practices may offer agency to rethink and critique conditions in spite of itself?

Works cited:

Carter, Kevin. Landscape-Portrait. 2007.

Charlton, Ben. BNP Google Mashup. 2008.

Cohen, Kris. DayToDayData. Better the Data you know… Exhibition Catalogue, 2005.

Kwon, Miwon. One Place After Another: site-specific art and locational identity. Cambridge, Mass. ; London: MIT Press 2002.

Lacy, Suzanne. Mapping the Terrain: new genre public art. Seattle, Wash.: Bay Press 1995.

Prada, Juan Martin. “‘Web 2.0’ as a new context for artistic practices”. Fibreculture. Journal 14. November 8, 2009.

Witter, Chris. C.H.R.I.S. 2010. <http://www.chris-uk.org/>.


Posted in Public Interfaces Category