At Play in the Frame – Stephen Horne

[Summer 2009]
In Montreal, as in many cities around the world, works of art have often been placed in “public” urban spaces. In some cases, the placement of works is accomplished through channels of bureaucratic control or corporate interest, while in other cases artists have thought of their actions as interventions in those spheres, even as disruptions of the systems that direct life in a public site. Since the historical avant-garde, these efforts by artists and art institutions to participate in or create public space have been conceived of as “oppositional” criticality. In the late 1980s, Krzysztof Wodiczko, an artist working “outside,” referred to the urban environment as “already a powerful, dynamic art gallery . . . with ‘artistic art’ collections or commissions . . . decorating the city with a pseudo creativity irrelevant to urban space and experience alike.”1

by Stephen Horne

Wodiczko’s statement, made in the late 1980s, leaving aside its patronizing arrogance and hyperbole, identifies the general outline of the problem: that aestheticization of everyday life that has been one of the major trajectories of modern social organization, and that has led to the irrelevance of art.

During the era of Wodiczko’s projection works, critical art meant a Brechtian distancing alongside an expectation that individual artworks could bring about concrete instrumental political effect. Even now, such rhetoric attends so-called oppositional/critical art, missing the point that innovative artworks unfold their true complexity in relationship with the discourse of art and the archive of the individual artist – in other words, across the limits of inside and outside, ultimately enfolding with “world.” To think that “works of art” attain or resist art status and function without that (internal) framing is simplistic; nevertheless, from this point in time we could (retrospectively) ascribe a degree of hypocrisy to the practices of Wodiczko, Daniel Buren, and other artists of that period who built institutional careers supposedly by working “outside.” Barbara Kruger was more explicit about her art and an outside public; she said, “There is no outside to the market.”2

a work that claims to function in regard to public space, as this one does, must function performatively, embodying rather than indicating meanings

Oppositional criticality has rested on the ambition to resist bureaucratic and corporate use of art in urban renewal plans, and to resist the instrumentalization of art by its use in the media and tourism or its use in giving a more cosmopolitan image to a city.3 There have also been occasional attempts to empower members of disenfranchised communities to speak for themselves. Some of the more interesting works have been those taking the “impurity” of art as always already endemic and have used the dialogical language of “everyday life as spectacle” to instigate debate and dialogue across the constructed boundaries of inside and outside.

Two examples of such works that were sited temporarily in Montreal are Ken Lum’s There Is No Place Like Home, which was presented at Mois de la Photo 2001, and Rebecca Belmore’s Fringe, currently sited on Duke Street in Old Montreal and included in the 2007 edition of Mois de la Photo. Lum’s work was a commercial-billboard-sized photomural located “outside” on a public thoroughfare. Made up of issues from the politics of daily life, including multiculturalism and its clashes with essentialist notions of cultural identity, the theme of belonging, and the definition of home, Lum’s photomural functions by unsettling fixed assumptions in favour of dialogic exchange. A work like this is more than a mere advertisement for issues when it takes into its own mode of operation the dynamics of its ostensible subject. In this case, it is the politics of multiculturalism, which include the claim to speak “multiply” – that is, not only to present accessibility by means of a layered complexity, but to reveal and expose the operations of codification that are attached to various interests, to inscribe the disunities of the “who” that is speaking and the “whom” being spoken to. In other words, a work that claims to function in regard to public space, as this one does, must function performatively, embodying rather than indicating meanings and especially the boundaries marking inside from outside, the “I” from the “you.”

Installed atop an Old Montreal rooftop beside a much-travelled expressway approach to the city, Belmore’s Fringe is, at a quick glance, indistinguishable from advertising or upscale urban décor. In the “art community,” Belmore is known for her performance-based interrogations of cultural identity, and specifically for staging her own experience and representation as an artist of First Nations descent. In Fringe we see a figure familiar from the context of advertising imagery: a naked woman lying prone, here seen from the back, oblivious to the camera or resistant to having an audience. Two details register: that her nakedness is slightly covered by a white sheet draped over her hips and buttocks, and that a large sutured wound traverses her entire back. The sutures consist of white threads strung with beads, and thus resemble a “fringe” common to media representations of “authentic tribal” clothing. The woman’s head rests on a white pillow, and she is lying on a very flat white fabric-covered surface parallel to the frame that suggests something institutional. There is a narrative of display and its rejection: this image is of a woman with her wound and its repair literally offered up as private property to the viewer – perhaps we could even say that she bears the wound of visibility. In her early works, Geneviève Cadieux explored the psychological impact of a photographed wound or scar, showing a similar concern with the photographic image as fetish, heightened here by the indicators of ritual process – the beads adorning the threads hanging from the stitched wound.

What I hope for from an encounter with art in urban “public” space is that the work will reveal unexpected and hidden aspects of that space simply by carrying itself out as art within and through that space. To do this, it will typically need to be constructed or created from the very materials, intensities, and perceptions already existing within the domain within which it will work. What we encounter in so-called public space is generally “private” coercion and corporate and bureaucratic “information,” and so this is the material and context from which works will be made and from which they will “speak.” I think that we must include architecture as an element of this “information,” its materials and techniques being composed to the extent that they are of image-based coercions at the service of urban management. The works that I am discussing here inhabit their sites anonymously, without indication of their status as art. In some programs, such works for public spaces have been identified, even supplemented, by didactic panels explaining their status and function as art. Such identifying procedures undermine any interest that the works might generate.

The placement of photographic artworks in urban public space brings up an entirely different set of issues than would, say, the more traditional practice of publicly sited sculpture and “site-specificity” in general. Foremost among these issues is the relationship between authorship and bodily experienced place. These sculptural attributes are attached to an ideology of uniqueness and aura, while the photograph, with its logic of repetition, implies an anytime anywhere availability, a sort of “placelessness.” This aspect of the photograph belongs to the post-authorial ideology of “new media,” with its radically “democratized” accessibility and transmissibility corresponding somewhat to the definition of modern spatiality as urban “non-place.”

With works such as these, situated as they are in media contexts, we can ask what the current relationship of contemporary art with mainstream culture is. Certainly, these works, and similar ones, go into that place where media control in everyday life is mimetically internalized, hoping to deflect or disperse its domination of artistic practice. If there can be no “outside,” at least there can be the destabilization of fixed identities, and a creation of spaces characterized as transitional, spaces that invite creative living.

1 Krzysztof Wodiczko, “Strategies of Public Address,” in Hal Foster (ed.), Discussions in Contemporary Culture (Seattle: Bay Press/Dia Art Foundation, 1987), p. 41.2 Barbara Kruger, “Strategies of Public Address,” in Hal Foster (ed.), Discussions in Contemporary Culture (Seattle: Bay Press/Dia Art Foundation, 1987), p. 52.

3 Johanne Sloan, “At Home on the Street,” in Johanne Sloan (ed.), Urban Enigmas (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2007), p. 213.

Stephen Horne is an artist and a writer whose essays have appeared in periodicals (Third Text, Parachute, Art Press, Flash Art, Canadian Art, C Magazine, Fuse) and anthologies in English, French, and German. He edited Fiction, or Other Accounts of Photography (Dazibao, Montreal, 2000) and published Abandon Building: Selected Writings on Art (Press Eleven, 2007). Horne was an associate professor at NSCAD University from 1980 to 2005 and taught MFA seminars at Concordia University from 1992 to 2000. He currently lives in France and Montreal.