Inflecting time’s arrow, or the art of exploring impossibilities

Inflecting time’s arrow, or the art of exploring impossibilities

‘The city is an oeuvre, closer to a work of art than a simple material product’ (Henri Lefebvre, The Right to the City, 1968).

When the French philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre called for ‘the right to the city’ in his 1968 book, Le Droit à la ville, he was not making the case for the redistribution of urban property. Instead, he was advocating the democratic right of the people to participate in and to appropriate the city as oeuvre (artwork). By this he meant that the ideal city, for him, would be one that is worked perpetually by its inhabitants and that this process of inhabiting (in other words making and re-making the city) would take priority over consuming ready-made cityscapes (or habitats). The city he evokes (and which he describes as the properly urban) is a working site, characterized by disequilibrium, unpredictability, desire and encounter, a place that survives ‘in the fissures of planned and programmed order’ (Lefebvre, 1996: p. 129). It is a space of untold possibilities, in which the meaning of what is and what can be remains (perpetually) at stake. By contrast, capitalist logic forecloses the possibility of making new meanings in and of the city. It transforms the use value of the city into exchange value, concealing the emancipatory plasticity of the site with the hard signs and values of profit. In the capitalist city, the inhabitant, the user of the city, is instead conceived as a consumer of signs, a client to be kept happy. The city as a place of consumption, Lefebvre reminds us, goes hand in hand with this idea of the consumption of place.

Fredric Jameson famously wrote that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to envisage the end of capitalism. Lefebvre applies similar thinking to the capitalist city, noting that we often perceive it as being ‘as full as an egg or as an entirely written page’ (Lefebvre, 1996: p. 104), a physical and ideological space in which there is little or no opportunity for us to intervene or make significant change. Certainly, it seems that all too often the only ‘wiggle room’ we’re able to imagine for ourselves remains contained within dominant ideological structures.

For example, in Britain, it seems that we find it very difficult to imagine the city centre as anything other than ‘the high street’. It’s true that shops have, historically, influenced the morphological structure of our city centres. Their streets and architecture were constructed for the purpose of trade and a whole social structure grew up around the actions of browsing, buying, conversing and taking refreshment between purchases. Still today, street furniture and the layout of pedestrianized areas point to shopping as a key factor in city centre design and planning. However, the economic crisis, the rise of online shopping and other factors including the number of available car parking places and the proliferation of out-of-town malls have together produced a sharp downturn in the numbers of consumers who choose to shop on the high street. Since 2007, nearly 300 major UK retailers have gone under (affecting almost 2500 stores) and countless small businesses have closed their doors. Between 2009-2011, city centre vacancy rates doubled. What we’ve inherited, then, on the high street is a form that is increasingly without function, and yet literally set in stone.

There’s a left-right consensus in government that as much as possible must be done to keep city centre shops open. Money has been made available through some high-profile schemes to ‘re-think the high street’ and despite the introduction in 2014 of a new PDR (permitted development right) it still remains difficult to convert retail properties into residential accommodation, the thinking being that the latter doesn’t create long-term jobs and salaries. Mary Portas, who headed up a review commissioned by government in 2011, described its aims thus: ‘once we invest in and create social capital in the heart of our communities, the economic capital will follow’. In other words (and this is underscored by the first of the review’s five headline recommendations – that town centres should be ‘run like businesses’), the point for her is that the means of producing capital might need to change, but capital as an end remains unchanged. It seems also that even many ‘grassroots’ initiatives to re-think and re-make our city centres also remain grounded in doing retail, even if they are claim to be doing retail differently. The glut of ‘alternative’ pop-up shops, window displays by local artists and other ‘meanwhile’ solutions, all of which shore up the premise that this is but an economic hiatus, neither challenge the neoliberal status quo or respond usefully and creatively to the irrefutable downturn in city centre shopping. Instead, they paper over the cracks of a socio-economic model that requires not so much an aesthetic sticking plaster as a radical structural overhaul. The ideology of consumption – that is, the idea of the city centre as a space to be consumed and a space in which to consume – remains intact.

So what should we make of Lefebvre’s call for the city to be inhabited as oeuvre? As artwork? In fact, the connection between art and the modern capitalist city is a difficult and ambivalent one. In the nineteenth century, while the Impressionists embarked on their radical attempt to capture something of the fleeting, rapidly changing quality of industrialising cities such as Paris and London, Baron Haussmann – the self-proclaimed ‘demolition artist’ responsible for dramatically re-making the urban fabric of the French capital – commissioned photographers to make propagandistic ‘before and after’ images that would be used to persuade the people of Paris of the social usefulness of an initiative born largely, in fact, of military, political and financial interests. Similarly today, art is harnessed to the needs of the regenerating, branded city. Artists, when they are not asked to work for free, are offered financial incentives to package and sell their practice as product to the public and private corporations who manage our cityscapes. ‘Percentage for art’ schemes variously request or require of developers of residential, commercial and public space a small percentage of their overall budget for the purposes of commissioning art that will be publicly sited. This is perceived as ‘adding value’ to regeneration and ‘enriching’ urban space. Artists are also employed to work with communities whose landscapes are being transformed or ‘regenerated’, with a view to encouraging the latter’s ‘buy-in’ to the project and reinforcing the illusion that they have some creative say in what is happening. Beyond these funded opportunities, there are also, of course, invitations to sell artworks in pop-up shops and galleries, or make street art, or window displays in the now defunct retail spaces described just a moment ago… And then, at another level again, there’s the infamous ‘Bilbao effect’. Every city worth its salt wants a contemporary art space (with gift shop attached) that draws in the tourists, drives the economy, draws inward investment and renews the urban fabric, though since the crisis of 2008 art’s magical effects can of course no longer be guaranteed…

Writing in the middle of the last century, Lefebvre was alert to the dangers of art’s problematic complicity in the top-down meaning making of the capitalist city, yet also keenly aware of its critical and creative potential. He writes:

To put art at the service of the urban does not mean to prettify urban space with works of art. This parody of the possible is a caricature. Rather, [we argue] that time-spaces become works of art and that former art reconsiders itself as source and model of appropriation of space and time. (Lefebvre, 1996: p. 173)

Through this prism, art is reconceived as ‘a capacity to transform reality, to appropriate at the highest level the facts of the “lived”, of time, space, the body and desire’ (Lefebvre, 1996: p. 164). The space-time of the city, rather than being endured or accepted with passive resignation (ibid, pp. 156-157), becomes the very material from which the properly urban might be sculpted. In other words, the city itself should be understood as a plastic object, the consistency, form and texture of which are at one level determined by what has been, yet the stakes and future of which remain open to (re)appropriation by its inhabitants. It is in this sense, and in contrast to the ‘full egg’ model of the capitalist city, that Lefebvre perceives a gap between the fact of the city and its practice. To inhabit the city is, for Lefebvre, synonymous with critical art practice; it involves interrogating, and more specifically denaturalising, what is and, consequently, what it seems must follow, by exposing their radical contingency. To inhabit the city, in other words, is to imagine that all this might be otherwise.

The works made in the context of the plastiCities project share a common interest in reconfiguring the fact of the city, its objects, sounds and signs. For example, in Is this not a wasteland? Richard Ward destabilises dominant urban taxonomies and re-opens the hermeneutic complexity of ‘wasteland’, which is in fact a discursive ideological production, to other configurations of interpretation and intervention. The compositions sculpted from ordinary and everyday sounds found on and near the Furnace Park site can be heard through listening posts engineered by Thom Wilson, Sam Varcoe and Ben Wadsworth. With ingenuity and craftsmanship they extracted empty paint tins from the cycle of consumption and obsolescence to re-make them as conductors of sound. Similarly, David McLeavy’s stark images decontextualize objects found at Furnace Park. These empty cans of spray paint, rusting padlocks and photocells, along with the lumps of industrial stuff that we simply cannot identify, are a reflection on the processes of production, releasing the labour and forces embedded in the commodity of the ‘steel city’. An archive of the obsolete, McLeavy makes no recommendation as to what use this archive might be put, other than inviting us to contemplate its possibilities.

Lefebvre, as we have seen, describes a gap between the fact of the city and its practice, between what the city is and what we make of it (literally and conceptually). This gap, for him, is the space of politics, agency and engagement; it is the space in which we might deflect time’s arrow, interrupting the ‘natural progress’ of capitalism’s logic and recalibrating what we are made to understand is possible and impossible. This deflection, or interruption, is how we have interpreted the political valence of détournement and derive. The event of art institutes a space for thought, a critical distance from what is, and – very simply – creates the conditions for exploring impossibilities.

‘Art is not, in the first instance, political because of the messages and sentiments it conveys concerning the state of the world. Neither is it political because of the manner in which it might choose to represent society’s structures, or social groups, their conflicts or identities. It is political because of the very distance it takes with respect to these functions, because of the type of space and time that it institutes, and the manner in which it frames this time, peoples this space’. (Deranty, 2014: p. 23).

Amanda Crawley Jackson & Martin Elms, 2015.

An essay written to accompany our work being shown in The Art of Wandering exhibition at 35 Chapel Walk gallery, July-August 2015.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Deranty, Jean-Philippe, Jacques Rancière: Key Concepts (London: Routledge, 2014).

Lefebvre, Henri, Writings on Cities, translated and edited by Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 1996).

Rancière, Jacques, The Emancipated Spectator, translated by Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2009).

plastiCities – a symposium jointly hosted by occursus and the School of Geography at the University of Sheffield

plastiCities

Tuesday June 3rd 2014, 10am-5pm

G03, Jessop West, 1 Upper Hanover Street, University of Sheffield

Scientific discourses on neuroplasticity abound with metaphors both of (neuronal) landscapes and (cortical) ‘real estate’. This cutting-edge symposium brings together speakers from across the disciplines to explore the ways in which recent advances in the understanding of neuroplasticity might be used to construct new models for negotiating urban landscapes and temporalities. Our discussions will include a consideration of how brain trauma and cerebral re-organisation can yield new understanding and insight regarding the complexity and resilience of the damaged topographies that punctuate the post-industrial, post-colonial and post-traumatic cityscape. Thinking through the sculptural dynamic of cerebral morphology will also open up a debate concerning the ways in which critical methodologies from the arts might find their place in the sculpting of new forms of stability within the contemporary built environment, participating in the ‘real life’ making of cities, at both grass roots and policy level. This symposium is open to all and will feature a digital exhibition by Stuart Wilson.

Speakers include Professor John Barrett, Luke Bennett, Dr Amanda Crawley Jackson,Professor Martin Jones, Chris Leffler, Sara Parratt-Halbert, Dr Tom Stafford, Dr Adam Stansbie, Dr Stuart Wilson

The event, which is part of the In the City programme organised by the Faculty of Arts at the University of Sheffield,  is jointly hosted by occursus and the School of Geography.

Furnace Park, which grew from the occursus project, is an associate pilot of the EU-funded SEEDS project and the symposium will include a presentation by the project manager, Sara Parratt-Halbert.

To reserve a free place, please visit our eventbrite page

Landscape and Community // Start the Week, BBC Radio 4

A fascinating episode this morning, with guests including Patrick Keiller discussing various aspects of urban landscapes.

Bridget Kendall talks to Patrick Keiller about the relationship between film, cities and landscape, and uncovers the hidden stories of the places where we live. Victoria Henshaw is interested in what our cities smell like, and what we lose when we sterilise our environment. The poet Robin Robertson has written about the bleak, remote island of St Kilda and how the remnants of its close-knit community left together in 1930. The importance and difficulty of creating a sense of community is at the heart of Giles Fraser’s new series which asks whether we’ve become merely nostalgic for a bygone age of close neighbourhoods, or whether it’s possible to reconstruct them.

Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03jz1hn

The JR James Archive at the University of Sheffield

An amazing archive, recently digitised and made freely available online by the University of Sheffield.

This website hosts the photos, maps, plans and images of the JR James archive, digitised in the summer of 2013 by Philip Brown and Joseph Carr – MPlan graduates of the Department of Town and Regional Planning at the University of Sheffield. The project was funded by the University of Sheffield Alumni Fund and directed by Alasdair Rae, an academic in the Department of Town and Regional Planning.

JR ‘Jimmy’ James was Professor of Town and Regional Planning at Sheffield for several years before his untimely death in 1980. Prior to that he was the Chief Planner at the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. He left to the Department his large collection of fascinating planning-related photos, maps and plans spanning many decades.

Source: http://www.flickr.com/people/jrjamesarchive

Consult the archive here:
http://www.flickr.com/people/jrjamesarchive

Resurgam: A Libation in Light for the Almost Forgotten

“Some day soon, perhaps in forty years, there will be no one alive who has ever known me. That’s when I will be truly dead – when I exist in no one’s memory.” 

Irvin D. Yalom,  Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy

The forgotten corners of cities conceal surprising narratives and striking imagery.  Wardsend Cemetery is just such a place, a burial ground officially closed since 1988, but whose population has been unchanged since 1977.  I came upon the existence of Wardsend during one of those chance conversations you have on a lazy Sunday afternoon.  The following week I was winding along an industrial access road, conscious of the rich golden quality of the late afternoon light.  The metalled road crossed the bridge built to replace one severely damaged by the Sheffield floods of 2007.  Progress then ended abruptly, blocked by large boulders set in place to prevent access to the muddy tracks flanking the River Don.  

Ph. Richard Ward 2012

From the unheralded cul-de-sac, anonymous stone steps rose.  In the absence of signage a welcoming party of gravestones huddled a few metres on, cast in partial shadow.   At the foot of the steps the electrical guts hung from a small concrete bollard.  The wind-blown detritus of modern life was strewn through the adjacent undergrowth.  Alongside, woven into the vegetation, was a smattering of larger offerings to the dead.  These comprised of the usual suspects: tyres, paint cans, an incongruous left shoe and lumps of rubble.  The sense of isolation from the mainstream of the city is immediate. 

Elec

It was not until 2nd February that I came to write about the photographs I had taken some weeks before.  Only then did the poignancy of a favourite image from that earlier visit strike me.  The beautifully crafted headstone of one 27 year-old stood out, captured in a libation of warm winter sun.  Frederick Stephen Goddard had passed away one-hundred years ago to the day.  His headstone was crowned with the single word ‘Resurgam’, which means ‘I shall rise again’.  I thought immediately of all those city spaces that lie dormant on a similar premise.

graves

Wardsend reveals strong parallels for me with other urban land in apparent decline.  Rendered in the pre-sunset glow of Winter light the memorialised dead jostle in a sun-dappled crowd amidst the pell-mell ingress of nature.  Similar vistas play out in the post-industrial brown-fields mottled with buddleia, bramble and rosebay willow herb.  Our heritage takes many forms and speaks to us in many ways, many of which are themselves individuated in their interpretation.  None is perhaps so poignant as the neglected memory of the dead.

Throughout Wardsend nature tries to make sense of a space less manicured than the dead might ever have dreamt in life.  The tension with a natural succession shines through in many of my images.  Silver Birch, the classic pioneer tree species of open disturbed ground, abound and encroach, albeit gradually.  This quest for a new equilibrium also plays out where industry has died, or is in transition, as much as in a place of burial.  Here at Wardsend, the process has been managed since 2010.  Consequently, some identities have been refreshed from beneath a blanket of vegetation.  Others are lost to us, their memory shattered by frost, or corroded by the action of wind and rain. 

Broader questions about the spaces we offer to the dead and how we memorialise within crowded urban settings are of considerable cultural and social relevance. Does this apparent decline really matter?  Is it a decline at all, or is a more radical position, one in which we surrender the dead to nature, a more fitting epitaph?

Richard Ward, 2013

Interstices of the City

Interstices of the City

Often those seemingly forgotten or forbidden places, shadow cast and foreboding, hide stories that arterial roads never bring to light.  We hurtle by, their narratives not lost on us because they were never found.  On a sunlit Sunday, I was taken to just such a place.  Between decaying buildings a short access road to a new nowhere, the quaintly named ‘Sylvester Gardens’, was lined with the social gargoyles of other lives lived.  Silver nitrous oxide capsules cascaded from the innards of black bags, drinks cans piled together, their chaotic state of equilibrium incongruously crowned by the chess board lid of a small games compendium.  These cairns of indulgences past form tribal boundary markers on a journey into a borderland where societal values are potentially contested.  They speak of other cultures and existences, a rabbit hole for the ‘curiouser’, or a potentially threatening place where social taboos are enacted.   Half swept streets make strange bed-fellows with suburban sensibilities.

With each step, the austere walls of decaying industrial units gradually gave way to surfaces adorned in art of growing complexity.  The lane opened out onto a concrete slab relict that betrayed former purpose.  Onto the whole played the golden light of the winter afternoon as to our right the Porter Brook roared with the passing of Friday’s snowfall.  All around clumps of mucky whiteness persisted in the shadows.   Each remnant vertical surface had something to say, or a legacy of someone with something to say.  Beautiful, complex and sometimes perplexing images were interposed with short bold statements, themselves often foregrounded with teeming mounds of rubble and rotting timbers.  The whole place asked many questions across a bold and unpromising canvas of brick, broken windows, concrete and flaking paint.  On the surface the scale of endeavour and striking imagery are magnificent.  The whole speaks of a deeply unconventional meeting of minds, a place where counter-cultures can be and are enacted beyond the opprobrium of the bigger society.  Is it an appropriation of space, or embellishment?   I have attempted to capture some images in this fairly secret gallery.  If this is a space in transition how long will it remain?

Richard Ward, 2013

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Furnace Park // On Curating Strange Encounters

Luke Bennett (Sheffield Hallam University), Amanda Crawley Jackson and Matt Cheeseman (University of Sheffield) are currently preparing a series of papers on the Furnace Park project.
The first paper will explore the multiple readings that are projected on to the site and the ways in which together they produce meaning and place.
On curating strange encounters in multidisciplinary space: a case study on opening up a plot to multiple reading

In the long retreat from essentialism, prevailing orthodoxy has it that the experience of place is multivalent, partial, subjective and/or pragmatic (e.g. Creswell 2004; Harman 2009, Delaney 2010). In this paper we will explore what this means in concrete terms by examining our involvement in the valorisation and art-led repurposing of a small plot of derelict land in the heart of Sheffield’s industrial quarter. At the core of our project has been a conscious desire to reveal and then linger over the multiple ways in which stakeholders associated with this project have each brought their own ‘ways of seeing’ (Berger 1972) – their aesthetics in the widest sense of that term – to bear in making sense of the site for their purposes. Through this the project has seen a small abandoned scrubland site suddenly heavily traipsed by police, surveyors, writers, engineers, artists, scavengers, architects, police, film makers, ecologists, poets, lawyers, children, groundworks contractors and ambivalent bystanders. We will show how these visitors are strangers to each other, and this place, and yet through their proximity in time spent on site, their involvement in the project and the similarities and divergences of their sense making strategies, their paths, thoughts and actions start to interweave to create a rich, vibrant set of place-forming narratives for a supposedly ‘non-place’ (Augé 1995). In bringing these ways of reading out of their disciplinary silos, by creating a context in which their discursive grip of the situation was rendered slightly askew – we summoned intriguing patterns, commonalities and charming juxtapositional effects (Highmore 2002), a loose project specific community-assemblage of the type theorised by Jean-Luc Nancy and Jacques Rancière, that energised this forgotten site with new life, colour and purpose.

Marginalised sexual industries – Joshua Holt

All photographs by Joshua Holt, 2012.

This series looks to explore ways in which the sale of sex and items of a sexual nature seem to have been pushed into peripheral areas largely free of residencies and permanent communities. Sheffield’s red light district, as well as Pulse and Cocktails ‘sex superstore’ and The Crystal Suite massage parlour are located in and around the Neepsend area, which by day is a bustling industrial area and by night is largely abandoned.

It seems that the attitude of those who have pushed such things into these areas is one of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. It is as if the city wants to lodge them far back into its subconcious and avoid dealing with them properly. These images examine the places in which sexual industries (both legal and illegal) must go about their business and the marks left by them.

Joshua Holt, 2012

art / regeneration

In last week’s Reading Loop, we began to talk about the problematic issue of urban regeneration and the role art (sometimes unwittingly) plays in the process of gentrification.

In the next session (Reading Loop Wednesday February 1st), we’ll be exploring these issues some more. Sam has proposed a number of supplementary readings – listed below – which may be of interest in this regard.

“The Fine Art of Gentrification”, by Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan

Southwark Notes: whose regeneration?

A Plea for an Uncreative City. About Rotterdam.

Reading Loop, Weds February 1st 2011

The next Reading Loop will take place at BLOC (studio 49) on Wednesday February 1st at 7pm.

The text we’ll be reading, chosen and introduced by Sam Ross, is The Housing Monster. We’ll be focusing particularly on the sections entitled “Development and Decay” and “Commodity and Community”.

We’ll also read a very short section (only a couple of pages or so!) of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities – ‘Leonia’  (“Continuous Cities 1”). 

Reading Loop, Thursday December 8th 2011

This week’s Reading Loop will take place on Thursday December 8th 2011 at 6pm, in room 117, Jessop Building, University of Sheffield.

The text is by Gil Doron and can be downloaded here.

As the title of the text suggests, and in keeping with our current work on developing conceptual frameworks to understand how we inhabit, practise and represent our city, we’ll be looking at the concepts of

badlands, blank space, border vacuums, brown fields, conceptual Nevada, Dead Zones1, derelict areas,ellipsis spaces, empty places, free space liminal spaces, ,nameless spaces, No Man’s Lands, polite spaces, post architectural zones, spaces of indeterminacy, spaces of uncertainty, smooth spaces, Tabula Rasa, Temporary Autonomous Zones, terrain vague, urban deserts, vacant lands, voids, white areas, Wasteland… SLOAPs

Hope to see you there!

Some thoughts around art and politics (public art)

“There is need for experimentation in public art because its past is commonly associated with pretentious monumental sculpture, and its present with spineless content. Public art is now expected to satisfy and serve many purposes, but not necessarily that of serious address. However, public art can be innovative, because in some respects it already challenges fine art conventions. It is not intended for gallery display and therefore can be adventurous in scale and presentation. The work is not the expression of the artist alone, but the outcome of a complex process of negotiations. It is not committed to certain mediums or to permanence. However, these releases can be hazardous as well as liberating for public art. Who will notice the work if it is not in an expected place? How will it be received without frame, pedestal, label? What will indicate that the work has been planned at all if it doesn’t look like art?
(Elizabeth H. Norman, Going Public: Public Art in Sheffield, SHU Press, 1996)

So:

1. What are a public artwork’s purposes?

2. Apart from matters of space, how does it challenge fine art conventions?

3. Silly question, but I like the way it’s worded: the idea of public sculptures as a kind of urban fungi, that simply spring up…

“…The agency of the local consists in moulding global forces (which arrive from outside) to specific circumstances. Local place… is the locus of the production of heterogeneity.” (Doreen Massey, 2004)

“If traditional public art identified certain classical styles as appropriate to the embodiment of public images, contemporary public art has turned to the monumental abstraction as its acceptable icon. What Kate Linker calls the “corporate bauble” in the shopping mall or bank plaza need have no iconic or symbolic relation to the public it serves, the space it occupies, or the figures it reveres. It is enough that it serve as an emblem of aesthetic surplus, a token of “art” imported into and adding value to a public space.” (Mitchell, 1994)

Perhaps “aesthetic surplus” can be seen as an expression of the collective subconscious, and so a deeper indication of how any given city sees itself, how it interprets the various larger narratives and forms them into part of its own reality. The pieces I’m thinking of in particular are the totally abstract and forgotten: a concrete frieze, for example, I noticed recently behind John Lewis. Most Council-commissioned works are probably only corporate branding – but even this fits into the “surplus” idea, especially in Sheffield, where steel is dutifully incorporated into anything and everything. (Spandrels of Steel).

Is art’s function (dubious word) decided ultimately by the space it finds itself in? If, as they say, half of an artwork’s meaning/value is its context, how easy is it to critique both halves at the same time? (Art in a gallery is, conventionally, isolated from its space, and municipal art is evaluated solely on how it fits in to its environment. This could be resolved in an exhibition: photographs of Sheffield’s public artworks are displayed in a gallery. The first day of viewing, photos are taken of people looking at the photos. These replace the original set for the second day – further photos are taken, which are substituted the third day. And so on. The work would only be completed after the exhibition closes. It could be called: ‘Site-Specific’.)

“Can provocative art endure the democratic composition of the selection panel and process?” (Phillips, 1989)

Is provocative art possible at all? Municipal commissions are necessarily the result of consensus, whereas in the institutional art world (we might debate this distinction between ‘institutional’ and ‘public’) there is a kind of uniformity of disunity. The essentialist assumption seems to be that, because municipal art is created through a ‘dry’, unartistic process, in which any original ideas are bulldozed by bureaucratic procedure, the results must be apolitical and artless. But the art of an object is formed in the manner of its perception – art is only imaginative as its viewer – and so municipal art may be reappropriated, and assigned new values.

“Public art has always dared to dream, projecting fantasies of a monolithic, uniform, pacified public sphere, a realm beyond capitalism and outside history. What seems called for now, and what many contemporary artists wish to provide, is a critical public art that is frank about the contradictions and violence encoded in its own situation, one that dares to awaken a public sphere of resistance, struggle, and dialogue.” (Mitchell, 1994)

These are just notes, and need refining. Also various things – permanence, monumentality, contingency (of course) – I haven’t mentioned, but are probably worth thinking about. Ideally, we would have a collection of contradictory essays about Sheffield’s public art, in which the collection’s motives – amongst others (possibly), the envelopment of those sculptures in the familiar/fashionable discourse – are also actively challenged. So, in the end, it would be a questioning of itself, of the possibility of collaborative dissensus…

Patricia Phillips (pp. 122-133 here) informs us that New York’s Sanitation Department has an artist-in-residence (although unsalaried). This strikes me as eminently sensible – I don’t suppose Sheffield has a similar scheme?

E.D., June 12 2011