In times of omnipresent social and political movements that keep rising up on the streets around the world, expectations concerning the bond between aesthetics, politics, and the commercial, institutional art market, between the artist and their public deserve a closer look. A question art produces today, especially when working in the public sphere, might research is not merely ‘what good is (my) art’, as it is no longer about the final product, but rather what are the parameters and conditions, the potentialities and limitations that determine and regulate the development of the work, and place these in relation to what the work does in public space.
Typically, artists working in public place operate in many different places where they are sometimes for only a short while, sometimes for a period of up to a few years. Finding a way to work as artists in this complex environment often involves referring back to their own biographies and backgrounds in the relation to an awareness of repeatedly dealing with and being in, but not really a part of a specific public space. One could even argue that the artists, as international voyagers, constitute their own artistic category that constantly shifts between the assimilation within a certain public (space) and creation of a prospective (counter-) public.
Some critics point to a precise viewing of a potential public that it is not only defined as subjective space, but that the artist as a public intellectual who is already situated within certain interconnected practices and accordingly subject to determined functions. So if we are to understand the artist as a public intellectual we also have to understand how this potential public is constructed and reconfigured through the historical and contingent placing or function of the artist though his/her specific public sphere, which is also termed the apparatus through which the artist is threaded. The artist himself/ herself functions as a particular public figure, is given a defined and specific role and is, consequently, bound to commercial ways of communications instituted by a cultural industry that plays out its own mechanisms. For the cultural industry, the notion of “the public”, with its contingent modes of access and articulation, is replaced by the notion of “the market”, implying commodity-exchange and consumption as modes of access and interaction. This also means that the idea of the Enlightenment, rational-critical subjects and a disciplinary social order, is replaced by the notion of entertainment as communication, as the mechanism of social control and producer of subjectivity.
If we consider the artist as a public intellectual, who understands the implication between politics and culture, moving inside multifaceted publics, we can no longer talk of homogeneous categories in the singular, but rather of several political spheres and several cultural fields that sometimes connect and/or overlap and sometimes strive towards autonomy and/or isolation. Clearly, artists themselves are part of it all. However, this relationship between an apparently relatively more mobile population of cultural workers and more sedentary local population may be reconsidered in terms of Bourriaud’s discussion of the figure of the radicant. For Bourriaud, in an era in which, as he says, the most prominent figure is the tourist, the traveler, and the migrant. ‘Where you are from’ has become less important than ‘where you are going’, identities have become fluid and less determinant; it is possible to create new roots in new places, to re-root oneself, to change and learn to adopt.
It opens up the discussion because it is no longer about being either rooted or not, but instead, it becomes about different forms of rootedness, overlapping and connecting.
But why do artists become ‘global nomads’ as physical travellers in the first place? Is it the only way to make a living as an artist, or to gain visibility to communicate entertainingly, in order to become subjects, to become public intellectuals? An intriguing question, considering the increasing virtual interconnectivity between artists. One might be tempted to imagine that actual physical mobility becomes less important for artists, who can today view a cityscape or an exhibition space online with the help of technical visualization, communicate to any number of people about all aspects of the production and installation of a possible work of art, so that the mere shipping of object based work or the transmission of a documentary film file might be sufficient for a work of art to be shown elsewhere.
In addition, the development of e-learning makes it likely that teaching will increasingly take place online, so that physical classrooms, and congruent physical travel become obsolete, and travel costs are spared; no one need ever deal with potentially uncomfortable situations of physically being in an unfamiliar space, with unfamiliar mannerisms. It is even conceivable that some administrators might see online international teaching environments as a perfect way to cut costs, since no bodies need to be moved, no classrooms maintained. An artwork might exist only online, as the internet is seen as expanded public space. Yet, the opposite seems to be true today: all forms of work, including that of artists, seem to require more physical mobility, and government funding is actively encouraging travel, as careers require more presence at locations abroad, not less.
In the interview, ‘The Tourist Syndrome’, Bauman addresses a main distinction often made between different forms of mobility by describing on the one hand the tourist- celebrating their success and desirability as consumers, and on the other hand, the vagabond-admitting their condition of desperation, consumer failure and undesirability, before pointing out that we need not to move an inch to turn into a vagabond; we are still in the same place, but the place is no longer what it was. Being on the mobile, temporarily, tourist side of things is like being in a place temporarily and knowing it, not belonging to the place, not locked into the local life ‘ for better or worse’.
Sustainability of Degrading Systems
Without any doubt, protest art, activist, or political art has become an acceptable currency in the art market and among its protagonists: in international art biennials and art fairs, in art magazines and galleries, the image of a critical radical movement of artists that speaks against the system keeps reappearing, even though it has already arrived a while ago, occupying market value there. As the call from the cultural sector is turning more and more towards artists and cultural workers that willingly work for less and less money, pushing a system of low-budget art workers competing with each other, the main question still remains: Why do the artists serve a system that apparently does not pay them well and how sustainable is such a system?
The unpaid labor artists habitually find themselves tied into is coupled with an urge to be constantly on the move, certainly celebrating their desirability, but unlike the tourists, who are consumers of experiences, they are rather producers of situations and events. At the same time, they feel increasingly obliged to subject themselves to a form of hyper-productivity in order to feed an industry hungry for multitasking art workers that leaves little space for more protracted and in depth engagement with a theme.
In her article ‘Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy’, Hito Steyer critically states that art is the industry with the most unpaid labor around; it sustains itself on the time and energy of unpaid interns and self-exploiting actors on pretty much every level and in almost every function. Free labor and rampant exploitation are the invisible dark matter that keeps the cultural sector going.
With respect to the determining mechanism of a global art industry and with a growing awareness of the processes behind its complex apparatus, questions about the vested interests of potential external funding institutions become relevant. Currently, institutions of higher education receive government funding for successfully internationalizing. They are not as visibly receiving funding for becoming more inclusive by successfully reaching out to socioeconomically disadvantaged populations. Instead, relatively more privileged ‘travellers’ , artists and students as global nomads, generally people perceived to be privileged by a higher socioeconomic status, with a higher level of education who choose and can afford to be mobile for study purposes, are actively produced as they are courted, since they are connected to the prestige the universities desire to accumulate.
An image (and the process) with potentialities of ‘not from here’ is as important as the final marketable image at least. It is often non-linear, experimental, messy and unpredictable as the process of making it possible. It requires a willingness to maneuver through and recognize false starts and sometimes conflict, and finding a way to communicate across cultures, often ad hoc and on the spot.
Perspective of Authorities
In 2010, for instance, Sofia Dona, an international artist, initiated and developed a collaboration titled ‘’ANTAΛΛГH/AUSTAUSCH/EXCHANGE’’ with the Goethe-Institut, Athens and the Bauhaus-Universitӓt, Weimar; many artists and architects were included in this project in Athens during the highly significant election period of 2012 in Greece. The project took place in a ‘Consumer Paradise Lost’, a former shopping mall passageway. Just before the public art project was to officially open, the artist Emrah Inandim was arrested for putting up a poster showing the silhouette of a man holding up his arm with a stick inscribed with the word ‘Moralizer’. The political situation was so volatile that what might have been considered acceptable just a while earlier shifted, and he was dragged away by an entourage of police cars, so that the entire process leading up to the opening came to a grinding halt. Eventually, Inandim was released from jail, and summarized his experience:
‘’After the release, I was thinking about the sex workers who were at that time still in jail. We were acting under the protective umbrella of art. So, even though arts could aim to be the voice of the bottom of societies in order to transmit its stories, artists with their international and cosmopolitan spectacle and the big institutions behind them, can seemingly benefit the state of being in touch with cultural industry and its elites. As long as your labor and products ca be internalized in favor of the system, like arts, you are in a relatively protected zone. Otherwise, who cares about you?
‘’Are you an artist? Oh, sorry, we did not know that, you can go.’’- is the summary of the end of my story. Can you imagine police saying something like ‘’ Are you a sex worker? Oh sorry, we didn’t know that, you can go.’’
This indicates that Inandim’s position shifted in the perception of the authorities from being just a person hanging up a provocative poster in public space to becoming an officially commissioned ‘international artist working in public space’. The repositioning here retro-actively granting him more freedom of expression; it is not possible to avoid unexpected turn of events when preparing to work in public space. This example shows that it may be possible to prepare to encounter the unexpected and to consider remaining flexible, to negotiate, to try to recognize possible shifts in lines of thinking among concretely human interactions, simply by choosing how to react to being assigned a space one supposedly belongs to.
So, how can we understand the parameters and conditions of working in public space and what can be done? Primarily, we have to take on roles of active observer, mirror, connector, moderator, networker, trouble shooter, enabler, finder of loop-holes and dialogical partner rather than taking on a more directive position, or the position of a critic.