Photography as Public Art

[Summer 2009]

by Jacques Doyon

This issue offers some preliminary observations on the presence of art photography in urban public art. When we think of “public art,” the governmental public art programs in effect in Quebec and Montreal for several decades immediately spring to mind.

Photography, however, has not been well represented in these programs. It was accepted late and is often relegated to interior sites; its fragile materiality seems incompatible with permanent integration into outdoor public spaces.

Such integration, however, constitutes only one of the possible ways that photography can occupy the public space. Since the 1970s, a number of artistic initiatives have explored almost all aspects of a more time-limited presence of photography in the urban space (from fly posting to negotiated use of advertising media, to the creation of mobile communication devices) as well as all types of supports and locations (billboards, walls, and screens of various formats; streets, corridors, street furniture, transit vehicles). In this issue, the projects of ATSA and Peter Gnass are examples of such a resolve to intervene artistically in the city.

In recent years, a number of new institutional initiatives have sprung up in Montreal. Although each is distinct for its desire to inscribe photography in the public space in a more durable fashion while preserving the event-based nature of its presentation, their common strategy is the use of billboards, the most prominent sites of urban advertising. Most of the time, this use is negotiated: that is the case for Quartier éphémère’s Plan large, the Make Art Public (MAP) events, and exhibitions by the McCord Museum on McGill College Street. The Musée d’art urbain (MAU) is alone in its ambition to found a new type of museum, based on the use of display panels devoted to its own projects.

What emerges from all of the institutional initiatives and artistic experiments of recent decades is that posting, in all of its forms, seems to be the privileged mode for the public display of photographs. This territory of visibility in the public space, though largely dominated by advertising, also has a space for democratic expression for both politicians and citizens. By appropriating and diverting communications strategies, art photography in public space offers opportunities to pause and reflect, amid the uninterrupted flow of information, solicitation, and pressure that saturates the urban environment today. Art photography may be present in the city, and it may vie for attention with the dominant functionality and performativity, as long as its specificity as a medium – based on its relative material fragility and its reproducibility – is taken into account.

This issue offers a first overview of the extension of the territory of art photography into the city, showing a range of initiatives, strategies, durations, sites, and intentions. The accompanying articles offer milestones and define avenues for further analysis.
Translated by Käthe Roth