Harbinger Consultants

Creative Sustainability :: Place, People, Product, Potential, Partnership + Pollinating

WORDS | Public Art Planning for Urban Media

by Linda Carroli

Harbinger has recently been developing a public art master plan. In the process of developing this plan, we have been benchmarking against other public art master plans, strategies and practices. One of the things we have noticed is the manner in which electronic media slips through the terminology and framework. Some electronic media practices, such as networked and online works, do not comfortably fit in the commonly referred to typologies and models of public art which have a tendency to fix artistic practice in or as particular modalities. This is despite some media art practice being slowly assimilated into or integrated into the traditional artforms over the last decade.

This has given us some pause for thought. Planners and other commentators often refer to the ‘virtual realm’ as another layer. This conception of space is quite perplexing. Space, in our schema, is not layered (in the way one might think of baklava or a multistorey building), it is something more plural and complex than that – perhaps folded, perhaps faceted, perhaps multiplied. In this respect, it is difficult to plan for media artworks because they are not as apparently fixed in space as a physical object can be, despite their concern for site specificity and place.

The community we are working with has indicated an interest in media arts. Our practice is keen to ensure that communities and localities embrace a framework that will guide a relevant, diverse and contemporary approach to public art. Part of this means renegotiating some of our assumptions about public space, public life and public art. We are of the view that spaces where people come together, such as online social networks, are public spaces. We are also concerned with how those interactions affect urban and public space and activity. Those spaces are a kind of commons and may seem more provisional than physical spaces. Through this commons, our ideas and experiences of locatedness and place may be disrupted or challenged or they may be emboldened and affirmed.

Often electronic or media arts require new kinds of infrastructure or technology to be introduced into the public realm. The infrastructure might be an interface – such as a screen or a particular type of technology – and is usually not the artwork itself (in a similar way that a stage is not a performance or a gallery is not an exhibition). The relationship is one of contingency and this infrastructure needs to be populated and animated. It needs to be used. This raises a question about supplying or developing the appropriate urban infrastructure for a range of cultural activities. The complexity of planning for this is that a screen or a network is not usually an artwork (although, for some, it can be) so there is some need to consider the immateriality of some artworks as public assets. For some, that may be appropriately considered as content management strategies, such as curatorial, moderation or commissioning strategies, and for others it may be framed as ongoing maintenance strategies. For local authorities, this means ongoing investment and flexibility, so the financial model requires some consideration. The difficulty of this, in terms of planning, is that there may be no end point. The technology isn’t the end point. Fixing an interface or network in the urban realm is only the beginning, the meeting or the transition.

For all their difficulties, this field and these projects need acknowledgement in public art planning. One of the complexities in this process and endeavouring to plan for media arts in public space is in relation to time. Public art and urban infrastructure is supposed to have a long life while much technology is not. Blank screens, like empty theatres, simply have a bereft or deserted quality about them. For many local authorities and communities, ephemeral, media enabled projects and events are acceptable and warranted provided they are not costly and provided they deliver new recreational, digital literacy or cultural opportunities for the community. We are aware that one scenario for future screens is that they may be more integrated into the urban fabric (energy and environmental issues notwithstanding). The question for us, as planners, is how that possibility remains open without binding communities to particularly kinds of technologies and infrastructure that are not difficult and costly to maintain, and may not be enduring.

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