Exciting Times for Art in Public Spaces

Pushing the boundaries of public space, higher standards, and an expanding dialog

This summer I participated in Reconfiguring Site: Art and Architecture—a residency at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. The program’s interdisciplinary approach attracted me, as did its emphasis on sensitivity to the nuance of site. Program coordinator Anita Glesta along with the faculty, Henry Kendal and Ed Woodham, all accomplished artists, offered a distinct perspective on making art in public spaces. I was left contemplating the responsibility of the artist to make work that considers its context, is socially engaged, and that will last over time.

During my residency I was intrigued to listen to public arts programmers, administrators, and organization founders discuss projects that pushed the envelope of just what constitutes ‘public space’—from outer space (Creative Time helped Trevor Paglen send 100 images on board the EchoStar XV1 satellite) to veterans’ recollections of the war (+ Art sponsored Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection, 2012). Through the many presentations we attended, our group was exposed to the ins and outs of programming from a variety of public art agencies in New York City. The challenges that these organizations contend with are as multifaceted as those that face the artist.

Sherry Dobbon, from Times Square Alliance, offered three mandates for administrators when considering art in public spaces: “Design it, manage it, and program it.” Manon Slome, of No Longer Empty, an innovative organization that installs temporary exhibits in unused spaces around New York City, invokes the city as a muse. Many projects in the public realm engage communities, are site-specific, temporal, and collaborative. They also consider scale, history, architecture, and have a clear message. It’s an exciting time for art in the public, and the standards are becoming higher as the dialogue expands.

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One of the more poignant discussions among our group was a conversation about Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument in the South Bronx. We collectively considered the ways in which his work did, or more specifically did not, engage its community, challenge the white box ideology around art making, and break down intellectual barriers.

In essence, if you choose to make art in the public, there is a specific criterion involved—the public. Artists throughout the history, from those who made cave paintings, to cathedral frescoes have considered their audience, their communities and their message. Perhaps the time has come to reinvigorate art practices that resonate with this larger intent of art, and that activate the poetry, the critical thinking, and the innovation of art in society.

Ed Woodham, founder of Art in Odd Places, gave us the challenge of applying our practice to the streets of the city. We were to work along 23rd street, between 5th and 7th avenues, spend no more than $20, and work with the idea of numbers. The phrase “our every breath is counted” came to my mind, and I choose to ask people to breathe in and breathe out and then hold their breaths in front of my video camera. The request to breathe became a pretext for an exchange between strangers. The responses were as varied as the people. Some people said they don’t have time, others self-consciously fixed their hair and asked “how should I do it?” while others laughed or looked at the camera directly, revealing as much about the relationship to the other as to themselves. The gesture was intended as a pause, a meditation on the interior/exterior space of breath, and our mortality.

Using color and natural light, my art practice explores the subjective ways in which we experience spaces, in particular architectural spaces—how we enter, where our eyes fall, and how we inhabit the ‘universe of the house’ and by extension, the universe of the gridded city. How do our senses inform our minds? How do our minds direct our senses? How is our reality shaped by our ideas about the world?

Drawing from a phenomenological framework, I am constantly curious about how we make meaning out of our experiences, and how these borders of understanding shift as our perception changes. Reconfiguring Site—Art and Architecture expanded my awareness about public space, and the possibilities of how I participate in reconfiguring the structure of the grid.



Jessica Houston was an invited artist aboard a Cape Farewell voyage to the Arctic, and was featured in the expedition documentary by Big Heart Media, London, UK. She presented her work at the International Polar Year Conference in Oslo, and was invited to the Tipping Point Conference, a climate change think tank, held by Columbia University. She exhibits in the United States and abroad, and her work is in private collections around the world. Houston teaches at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and she has lectured as a visiting artist at The Art Institute of Florence; Teachers College, Columbia University; Concordia University; and Ontario College of Art and Design. Her site-specific installations are testing grounds for the subjective experience of space, often casting the relationship between light and architecture in high relief.www.jessicahouston.net

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