A Considered response to “Wish”

From  Public Art in Belfast.   Published on October 26, 2013 by Daniel Djewesbury.

I thought I’d leave it a while before posting any more considered ideas about ‘Wish’. Firstly, I wanted to see what other voices came forward, and to allow the discussion to begin without constantly putting my oar in. Also, we extended an invitation to Belfast Festival director, Richard Wakely, to join in an event that will be taking place at the Art College in December, where we hope to tease out some ideas about what the words ‘public’ and ‘art’ could actually mean, when they’re put together. So far, we’ve had no response from Richard, but the Festival is still on and it’s a busy time for him – the invitation is still open, and we’d be delighted to hear from him once the dust has settled.

But it seems unnecessary to wait longer before posting this response to ‘Wish’, especially givenyesterday’s article by Fionola Meredith in the Belfast Telegraph, which has been circulating online and has reignited the debate. Also the marketing office at the Festival have called for critique, so here we go.

So far a number of people have suggested that they quite like ‘Wish’ – it’s been a good opportunity for people to get involved in doing something together, they say, it’s been a fun project, it’s ambitious and impressive and it’s good publicity for Belfast. Some people have said that they might not like it that much themselves but they think it’s a good idea to have big projects like this happening here.

I don’t agree with these comments because I think that there’s quite a few things that are fundamentally wrong with ‘Wish’, and with the language that’s been used to describe and promote it. In many ways, my arguments are not primarily about whether this is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ piece of art – I happen to think it’s not, but that’s not the main issue for me. So here’s a few points…

1. ‘Wish’ relies on a thoroughly banal conception of ‘the public’. It has been described (by Richard Wakely) as a piece of work that is ‘democratic’, I suppose in part because volunteers were involved in making it, and because it’s out in the city where anyone can get to it. I don’t think that this is what ‘democratic’ means. But I do think that public art can be inspired by democratic ideas, and that it can even promote them. But to do that, it has to start from a different place. As I wrote in my post on the Festival blog, this piece ultimately views the public as a static thing, something that already exists; in other words, as a pre-formed audience who just come along and see the work. Yes, a few volunteers were required to make the piece feasible, but in fact most of the actual work was done by a team of paid assistants, many of whom are artists themselves. I think that the volunteers were a crucial part of this project, but I don’t believe that they had any input into it – they were just required to do what they were told, in order to create something that was larger than any individual participant’s contribution – in fact, this was a bit like a production line, with the exception that everyone on a production line gets paid.

I think it’s an error to presume that the public is something that is settled, stable, static, something that is just ‘out there’, which already exists, and which you reach primarily through marketing and PR. I think that this approach to public art treats people as consumers, and the art as a product. I believe that ambitious public art projects can be more than just products that need to be marketed through glossy flyers. I believe that the encounter with art can be a hugely rewarding thing, both emotionally and intellectually, and moreover, I believe that some public art can actually create a public where one didn’t exist before. Really good public art projects can help us to come together to think about our place in our society, our stake in the way things are done here, the crucial importance of places and institutions that we can use in order to make change, to make better lives for ourselves. This is where the ‘public’ comes into public art; not just because we can see it outdoors. We can learn how to reclaim public spaces, so that we can use them for the things we want to do, rather than just endlessly shop, or drift around windblown urban wastelands (those ‘ public squares’ that are really just the bits left over when city space has been privatised and turned into profit for its owners and their investors).

Belfast is a city that has been systematically turned over to private interests in the years since the peace process began. Do you remember agreeing to this? Do you remember being asked what you thought? There are many places in Belfast that people presume are public space, but which were sold off many years ago – the empty, unused space around the (council-owned) Waterfront Hall, for example, which is owned by Belfast’s biggest property developers. No wonder nothing ever happens there. But that’s just one example; it’s repeated all over the city. Meanwhile, the opportunities for us to come together, to shape our city and our future, and to decide how things should be done, have been taken away from us. Isn’t that what we should try and reclaim, isn’t that a ‘public’ that would be worth the expenditure of some mental and physical effort?

I think that the way ‘Wish’ mobilises its idea of public – as unpaid workers, grateful for the opportunity, or as a static audience, who just look at the thing and then go away again – is just another in a long line of things that stops us from thinking publicly.

‘Wish’ is not public and it isn’t art. It’s perhaps better described as corporate spectacle. It promotes corporate interests – that’s to say, the interests of the private developers whose primary aim is to increase land values in Belfast, and the public agencies who have decided that this is all that ‘peace’ means. It is a spectacle because it promotes dumb consumption, not active participation. It’s just an image that we’re given to marvel at. But more of that in a minute..

2. The way in which public art helps us to think about place is crucial here too. It’s related to the points above, but it’s distinct. Claire Doherty, in a document written for the European Network of Public Art Producers, describes an approach to public art which is about challenging the definition or meaning of places, rather than confirming people’s preconceived ideas or just promoting glib aspirations or truisms. I believe that ‘Wish’ trades in such glib description of the situation in Belfast, and that’s why so many people have found it so patronising. It says nothing about the site that it’s in – this is just a spare bit of ground that they managed to get permission to use. It says nothing about the city that it’s in, beyond its message of ‘why can’t everyone get on all the time?’ If art is to have any real meaning or value, it can’t just be a means of lending credibility to the empty language of ‘making a wish that everyone gets on’. Why doesn’t everyone get on? What can we do about it? Is there a process at work here that we could try and understand and intervene in, or should we just leave that to the politicians, be a bit annoyed about all the rioting, and just cross our fingers and make a wish. Doherty writes,

“… our projects could be described as agitations, dislocations and interventions, which remake our sense of place. Some of course may be overtly confrontational, others quietly shift the ground under our feet, but each one is dedicated to a process of seeing anew, of raising questions about the world in which we live.”

She says that the ENPAP idea of public art is not about ‘place-making’ or ‘leaving the site exactly as it was before we came along’. It’s clearly about trying to make a difference, developing people’s capacity to make that difference, in their society. Art should be able to do that, and it should be able to do it by troubling our ideas about the place we’re in and how it works – why does it function this way, for whose benefit?

3. ‘Wish’ is a disappointing piece of public art, because you can’t see it. Some people think this is interesting – you know it’s there, but you can’t actually see it on the ground, only from the air, or in a photograph. Granted, there is something interesting and curious about this. But then why is the image itself so empty of any meaning? If the concept is that there’s something really amazing all round us if we could but see it, shouldn’t the imagery be sort of interesting too? And of course the artist was apparently unaware of the tradition in Belfast of using Black Mountain as a site for political and artistic interventions (Belfast-based artist Aisling O’Beirn wrote about this in her PhD several years ago). Republican political groups used the mountain as a site for a message, spelled out in white fertiliser sacks, calling for the release of extradited prisoner Dessie Ellis. Their message was visible to thousands of people around the west and south of the city, including anyone arriving in Belfast on the M1 motorway. Since then, the site has been used for a number of art interventions, by artists Dan Shipsides and Christoff Gillen amongst others.

But this is not how ‘Wish’ functions – it’s not a huge message on a hillside that’s visible from miles away, it’s a picture on the ground that’s not visible to anyone in the city. I was at the launch of the project, in the Titanic building, and can only say that this is possibly the worst view of the piece – a big bit of the roof of the building is in the way of the view, and what you can see is a tiny part, distorted because of the low viewing angle (I don’t understand why the artist didn’t try using an anamorphic projection, like those sponsor messages on the field in a rugby or cricket match; then the image would resolve into a picture when you were able to see it from a particular place).

At first we were told that ‘Wish’ would be visible from space. This was nonsense. If it’s true, it’s only true in the sense that my house is visible from space – that’s to say, with an amazingly high-power lens on a satellite.

Then we were told that ‘Wish’ would be visible from planes landing at or taking off from Belfast City Airport. But planes often don’t go over this part of the Titanic Quarter – their approach route is on the other side of the lough, over the city or over Bangor and Holywood.

In fact, ‘Wish’ is a piece that is only designed to be seen in the PR images that were released at the launch, and reproduced in the newspapers the next day. It is, once again, just a PR product. It is a piece of public art that has managed to completely disappear from the city in which it is situated. In a very real way, it is just not there.

The writer Tom McDonough has written a great deal about the 1960s artistic and political movement, the Situationist International. In an article called ‘Situationist Space’, McDonough wrote a little about the Situationists’ attitude to aerial photography and mapmaking. McDonough’s argument is relevant here: he quotes the writer Michel de Certeau, and says that

“The elevation provided by ‘the overflight at high altitude’ transforms the sociologist into a voyeur of sorts, who not only enjoys the erotics of seeing all from his hidden vantage point, but who also enjoys the erotics of knowing all.”

The thing is that maps and aerial photographs are all involved with a sort of impossible, or at least anti-human view – a view that we who are in the city, surrounded by it, literally at ground level, do not have access to, not literally, even if we have Google Maps on our phone. It’s a view only available through technology (a plane or a satellite), or perhaps to some omniscient, omnipotent superhuman being. And it’s not stretching the point to argue, as McDonough does, that the fantastic view of the aerial photograph is a view connected with the desire for power, control, vision of everything; in our own time, this is the view of the drone pilot on a remote bombing mission. Yes, of course there are plenty of benign uses of maps and satellite imagery which we all rely on every day; but the point is that this imagery transforms a ‘real’ world – streets and houses full of people doing things with other people, relating to each other, falling in love, digging the garden, walking the dog or buying a newspaper – into just ‘data’. We all just become pure information.

This really is important, it’s not just a theoretical point. I’ve already shown how ‘Wish’ is, effectively, invisible from the ground. The point about the piece only really existing in aerial photographs is that everything on the ground, in the city, you and me, is invisible in them. So ‘Wish’ only exists on a completely separate plane from us, the people who live in this city, as an image that is detached from us, a photo in a PR leaflet, from which we are absent.

4. At the launch of the piece, the Arts Council’s Noirin McKinney pointed out that there has been a lot of discussion about the piece ‘on the airwaves and in social media’. I suppose that was really a reference to the piece on Arts Extra that I linked to elsewhere in this blog, and to some comments made by quite a few people on Facebook, and to this blog. Noirin said that the worst thing that could happen to a piece of public art would be for everyone to be indifferent to it, for there to be no debate or controversy around it. I agree. But I don’t follow the point that because quite a few people have pointed out why they don’t like ‘Wish’, that this makes it a success, or proves its democratic credentials. I think it just means that we don’t like it.

5. Finally, lots of people have asked me, “What would you spend the money on? What would you do instead?” I’ve been asked this about other public art projects I’ve criticised, for instance the Magic Jug that was planned for Fountain Street, and which a massive campaign prevented from being realised. Generally it’s a question I refuse to answer. I don’t believe that that’s how decisions should be made, in response to a journalist’s closing question. And also, as I’ve already said, a lot of public art is only commissioned in order to raise the value of a bit of land, or (in the case of the Magic Jug) to act as a signpost between two shopping centres. I wouldn’t bother coming up with alternative schemes, I’d start from a completely different proposition.

But more generally, I don’t need to answer this question, because artists in Belfast have been answering it for at least 30 years already. I was on TV this week speaking about the 20th anniversary of Catalyst Arts, an organisation that has a tradition of making clever, witty, subtle interventions in the city. I’ve also written about the artists who were practising before Catalyst opened, like Alastair MacLennan, who was making performance work in the city when it was a genuinely dangerous thing to do. There’s plenty of precedent for well-considered, provocative, intelligent public art in Belfast. In fact, we have one of the longest histories of this kind of practice, anywhere. The only reason for not supporting it can be that the commissioners are simply not aware of it. I have no problem with people wanting to produce large-scale public art projects in this city – contrary to what you might think, I’m all in favour of it. But wouldn’t it be great if the people spending huge amounts of money on it (and especially when it’s our money) had some idea of the really fascinating things that artists have been doing through their own initiative, out in the city, for so many years?