No passage should go unnoticed: a case for a critical stance in temporary public art interventions – Gabriela Vaz-Pinheiro

No passage should go unnoticed: a case for a critical stance in temporary public art interventions

Gabriela Vaz-Pinheiro


In 1995 Sara Selwoood, taking the United Kingdom as an example, in her publication “The benefits of Pulbic Art”, has debated how permanent public works of art may impact on audiences and public spaces. This book has brought into question the well-doing effects with which many policy makers have attempted to defend permanent works of art in the public realm. However, an analysis of the correspondent impacts and public engagement that temporary works and interventions may trigger still needs to be made.

Since 1995 a lot has happened, and since issues of representation and expression of the political power are less visible in these forms of art, and since what is at stake with temporary processes in the public realm is much more difficult to measure, much more fragile to be granted expression, it may be useful to debate that temporary forms of art in the public space are also, often, very impactful in the contexts where they take place because they may give rise to immaterial and critical processes that should not be overlooked.

I will present some thoughts around these issues, thoughts that are in a constant state fo fluidity, as they should, and that I hope this text will help take a bit further. These thoughts mainly refer to interventions in which scale and time are inversely proportional to their critical potential, attempting to demonstrate that, the space we live in public, is a shared territory of political tensions, but also a space onto which individual pulsions are projected.

Starting from previous thoughts, expressed in other conferences and publications, thoughts on site, on the idea of the local (which I prefer to call proximity) and on the impact that art practice can have on and withdraw from them, I would like to reiterate that my interests and continuous investigation all started from a dissatisfaction, I believe this is known.

Site-specificity, radicallised mainly by Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc”, increasingly became a term that could not be applied to many forms of art practice that were still being called as such. Personally I felt that it did not apply to my practice and that a radical thinking that seemed to make sense in late 70’s and a good part of the 80’s, did not make sense anymore. This is how I started a PhD and a series of art interventions in different places and contexts.

I will draw from some past writing[1] in an attempt to update this paper with some current and relevant critical thinking on this matter. I have said, on a few occasions before, that I find that the term sitespecificity has been too widely used to define forms of working that take their placement as part of their conception. For a number of years now, I have been attempting to explore forms for the definition of the very idea of transference, of transferability, as I will explain later, of the trajective, which are embbeded in the connection between art and space.

For the purpose of this paper, and although this will mean to re-take a few steps back from other moments of reflection on these issues, I would like to briefly do a quick analysis of the term site-specificity. The triad of “work of art – observer – site” proposed by Michael Fried stills helps making sense of the terms in question. In this triad the observer and site are made and defined to the image of the work of art, with a Minimalist and abstract root, that is: they are abstract entities as well. This is why this model is not adequate to speak for the work that today is produced from places.

If we change the terms, in line with the progression of critical thinking, the observer becomes a multiple subject expressing the actual condition of the ways in which we position ourselves in the world and if site is considered as place: a locus of experience, memory, dissent. The work of art made to the image of the multiple observer and of site as place therefore becomes of a different kind altogether. In other words, in more recent forms of working the terms in question become multiple in character, and it is the work of art that is made to the image of the observer as multiple subject and of the site as place. But I am interested in adding here another direction of relations, because this text is less intended to update the Minimalist triad than in fact it is in refelecting upon the mutual influence between subjects and places.

Miwon Kwon has used the term site-oriented. Her critique of site-specific practices also signals the crisis raised from the fact that works and their site are inseparable, indicating a more flexible approach than theoreticians before her, by privileging an analysis of the new models of public art such as the so-called new genre public art and community based art. In line with Kwon’s thinking, we could also proceed by questioning the universal character of the models of representation presented by art institutions themselves even, and more often than not, those supporting art in the public space.[2]

I have also been very interested in what James Meyer[3] calls the literal and the functional sites. And the key point to retain from his notions for us today is that artists may actually reinvent the functions of places, (which may even not be a physical place at all) and map out movements and crossings, fluidities and transferences, recurrences and analogies, anecdotes and minutia, or otherwise blocks of stories that make local histories (histories of proximity) and ultimately how these contribute to the making of History, thus reinventing the functions of the work as well. Perhaps even the functions of History with a capital letter. But I am being too optimistic here.

We know the functions of the work of art have constantly been reinvented across the centuries. From religious to celebrating, from commodity to enlightenment or contemplation, it is perhaps through the changing functions that both the art system and artists attribute to the work of art at a particular time, that new modes of production develop. Differences in function determine differences in out-put and in outcome. All along the last Century, we have witnessed artists moving their focus from outcome to process, from object to event, and although these changes in focus may be followed from developments rooted in performance art, happenings, and generally art that favours time and action over object and contemplation, we may consider major differences.

Forms of public art that privilege place and fluidity will very likely have a strong performative character and an accent on process. In fact, unlike more traditional forms of art, process identifies them perhaps more than outcome. And it is never superflus to draw attention to the dangers presented here… Outcomes sometimes create, what I have called before, temporary closures of meaning.[4] They instigate moments in which the audience comes into contact with them but are then carried through to another stage/space. To another possibility of existence. I am extremely interested in forms of art that take in effect a movement of people (what I called earlier the multiple subject: that is, on the one hand, artists; and on the other, audiences, both as witnesses to the work and often as participants) (later we may come back to the hyper rated ideia of participation if you like). So I am very interested in the movement of people and of works of art through different kinds of spaces.

James Clifford speaks of what he calls the Art-Culture System[5], trying to demonstrate how objects move through different categories and status. In simple terms, within this System, an object could be produced in a given continent as an everyday tool or icon. Once decontextualised by a field scientist e.g., it could become an ethnographical object, be incorporated into the ethnographical museum and transformed, by means of this institutional conversion, into what we tend to consider a “work of art”; only to move on to be reproduced for sale as a tourist commodity (key ring or a postcard) and thus return into the everyday. It is obviously not the object itself and I am taking a risk here by seeming to be overlapping object and image, image and space, but at their root objects, images and spaces are part of and are inserted into the production of meaning(s) to which I will come back a bit further.

James Clifford’s model may help us understand the sort of mobility I have been referring to in the previous paragraphs. It illustrates the differences in function that an object may have throughout the validation processes put in place by the Art and the Museum systems, and it can perhaps be reshaped to fulfil our concerns today with regards to public space and urban interventions. The methodologies from the social sciences help to explain these movements in more detail and artists and creative practitioners may learn from and invent new functions for those methodologies and put them to the use of the work of art[6]. It is crucial for us today to try to understand how have these methodologies influenced the work of art not only in what concerns the character of its modes of production, but also in what concerns the character of its modes of presentification, in which mobility seems to be important. The character of its outcomes, however, tending to seek a status of non-closure does not generate an appeased status…

John Law argues of the social sciences that they can never catch a dimension of life that slides out of the disciplinary methods. In fact neither can history nor can definitions of culture or of society.[7]

He says: “(…) the world is (…) textured in quite different ways. My argument is that academic methods of inquiry don’t really catch these. (…) Pains and pleasures, hopes and horrors, intuitions and apprehensions, losses and redemptions, mundanities and visions, angels and demons, things that slip and slide, or appear and disappear, change shape or dont’ have much form at all, unpredictabilities, these are just a few of the phenomena that are hardly caught by the social science methods.”[8] And possibly, that large part of the world left out by other knowledge domains, is bequeathed to art to grasp, address or redress.

Despite Hal Foster’s claims made from Walter Benjamin’s “The Author as Producer”, for an intervening artist in society, to a more current “(…) object of contestation”[9], that is, “the bourgeois-capitalist institution of art (the museum, the academy, the market, and the media), its exclusionary definitions of art and artist, identity and community” [10], claims that justify for him the so-called ethnographic turn at the end of last century; despite those claims, I was saying, we are ever more aware that neither to base knowledge in ethnography, history or statistics will produce a reliable account of the world, nor a truly post-autonomous art will ever prove and sustain its existence without acknowledging there is no solid and permanent terrain for its very definition. For better and for worse.

Foster continues: “(…) the subject of association has changed: it is the cultural and/or ethnic other in whose name the committed artist most often struggles” (Foster, 1996, p.173), to which I would like to add that, in such a struggle, it is the very nature of artistic practice that comes, as I hope to demonstrate, to be questioned and reformulated.

From Jacques Ranciére, and in the follow up by Claire Bishop, recent art is constantly shifting between the condition of autonomy, considered as indispensable for the delivery of aesthetic freedom, and authoring license and heteronomy. The complete quote reads as follows: “Rancière argues that the system of art as we have understood it since the Enlightnment—a system he calls ‘the aesthetic regime of art’—is predicated on a tension and confusion between autonomy (the desire for art to be at one remove from means-end relationship) and “heteronomy (that is, the blurring of art and life)”.[11]

It seems that art is constantly aiming for an uncontaminated condition, promise laid void by a failed Modernism but still holding a strong grip for the sake of artistic freedom, at the same time that it dreams of a sense of a total experience, the immersion of both art and life in each other, that feeds from the notion of a “total art” defended by Kaprow in his famous Essays.

This deep contradiction leaves artistic practice stranded at the limbo of formal externalisation[12] as opposed to allowing for a ground in which the aesthetic would move into its inherent political consequences, as Rancière suggests, a condition that would, in extremis, let go of any formalisation, since the political is an acted becoming. And this begs the question: What is the form of the political? A question that I hope will remain in our critical space for a while longer!

The argument for an art that refuses the placidity of pure contemplation but does not want to be ideological; an art that rejects aestheticization but demands for mechanisms through which it is able of conveying the aesthetic experience; an art that will drink from the source of the history of art but will open itself to the readings and contributions of ordinary or uneducated people; the argument becomes insoluble if we are to seek for a point of appeasement. And I refer to Claire Bishop again:

“(…) I would argue that unease, discomfort or frustration – along with fear, contradiction, exhilaration and absurdity- can be crucial to any work’s artistic impact.” (Bishop, 2012, p.26).

This uneasiness is absolutely key if we want to give clarity to the unfounded but generalised hopes that art, particularly the socially engaged type, as well as temporary forms of art in the public space, are meant to bring a better life to those touched by it, hopes that foster romanticised notions of community/ies and expect a resolution of any alleged social issues the projects may be addressing.

Socially engaged processes are not happy, nor bring they a bright future to those involved, but instead they may enable for critical processes to be started. They induce awareness, and the discomfort Claire Bishop is talking about is very often a means for a process of disclosure of one’s own position in society, and that is, in itself, a valuable tool for a more empowered social condition.

Bruno Latour, paraphrasing Souriau, says “(…) without activity, without worries, and without craftsmanship there would be no work, no being.” (Latour 2011, p.10).

I am very interested in how art projects can move through all those categories, through all these different spaces. I am very interested in what happens to meaning in this process. How it is shaped, perceived and constructed, and how the system that enables art works to be considered as such, can actually participate in this construction at the same time that it is somehow tricked into validating objects or actions that would not otherwise enter it.

I am very interested in how art projects raise and reflect upon questions such as: what is there, in art made in response to a particular place, that may actually be transferable? What is there that artists may detect (with their very distracted or visionary eyes) under the surface of what we call reality, that can be reinvented within new functions for a place? Perhaps even, what is there, in the mundane and harsh realities brought about by technocracy and a complex and not always just society, that artists may approach critically or creatively?

I suppose there are no clear cut answers to these questions, nor is there a unique and universal way of working with them. One of the points made by these ways of working is that art is no longer considered to be a universal given, but it can perhaps speak across differences. Or it can try. Perhaps.

I often ask why, in that broad picture we have become used to call global, artists often chose to work more and more locally? Or in proximity, a word I prefer. I am very interested in this apparent contradiction. That the more our world becomes a vessel with no boundaries, the higher number of artists seems to chose to work geographically and in a detailed manner. I suppose the answer to this is more in the transferable nature with which I have attempted to define these forms of thinking and working, than it is in some form of specificity a place an artist chooses to work from may have, so we need to revise the term specifity as well. And I do not believe it is by antithesis, (between local and global, close and farther, and so on) nor it is by antinomy, but by fluidity.

Can we reflect upon the map of a locality in proximity to our neighbourhood, our city, our country – and make something that could enable us to navigate a different world? How are the mappings of our own worlds of importance to others? And ultimately, in what ways does it matter where we are in the world?

How can we be aware of the permeable character of our everyday life and, consequently, our thinking and our artistic work, and still resist grabbing the cultural recurrences of the everyday to feed the work we do as if they were buoyants of identity or markers of specificity?

In this sense, specificity would only be at the service of cultural allegories, amongst which the so-called universal character of art can be considered. As artists and thinkers, we are left with the great difficulty of trying to negotiate private (or local if you prefer) meaning, with the transversal aspiration of the resonance of the work of art, its communicative and consequently less private (or less local if you prefer) function. Because the true universal character of the work of art can only be that we are able of imprinting onto it something that will allow it to speak from the particular and resonate to others. So we move from specificity to an idea of transferability.[13]

Paul Virilio speaks of the notion of trajectivity. Besides objectivity and subjectivity as means to “know” the world, the notion of the trajective adds a sense of motion and fluidity to our knowledge of the world and how we position ourselves in it. In fcat, we know the world because we move through it, and movement may not necessarily have a purely physical dimension, and because the here and now is sometimes indistinguishable or contains in it itself the there and then.

To describe this Kenji Nishitani uses the concept of sunyata, roughly translated to ‘becoming’, in which any given being is simultaneously what it was, is and will be (become).[14] If we consider culture (and cultures) to be a permanentely remade territory and I believe we agree on this notion of culture, if there is no appeased frame for a stable definition of the present, then we must at least attempt to understand our positioning in the world in relation to that sense of becoming. Temporary interventions act on a level of becoming that is so difficult to consolidate, they shake up certain aspects of a public stability that may not necessarily express a sense of simultaneity and progress to an idealised cultural condition of a society, and this is why they tend to be undervalued. I have recently written that we need monuments that represent the fluidity of our experiences, the sensitivity for the living, the detail of that which is susceptible.

So how does experience avoid anhiilation when it becomes an object of observation or reflection? How does a collective experience avoid becoming a frozen narrative? A delapidated representation of sorts? How can multiplicity be expressed in a single image or object? And how can the passage of people, time and narratives be materialised in such a way that it may be experienced by others?

To measure the true character and impact of the experience of a temporary work of art in the public space becomes a hard task, when, more often than not, questions of entertainment or embellishment come to the fore. And when the expectation of an audience is not the driving force of something taking place in public, again more often than not, a critical process triggered by a temporary project tends to install discomfort, (Bishop, 2012).

In spite of that discomfort, and if we consider the public domain as one in which the passage from subjectivity to a notion of simultaneity of singularities takes place, what could allow public space to become a space of expression of singularities? The audience’s and the artist’s?

Malcolm Miles once brought to my attention Anna Arendt’s idea in which, “for her, publicity (that is making plublic) means the condition in which identity formation is enabled amid the perceptions of others, and only amid such perception.” So that the visible, or better, making visible, enables existence… oblivion or under-exposure, equals anhihiliation.

I would not like to think that there is a redemptive drive in art practices that invest in this territory. Singularity is not a resolved matter, nor it is necessarily and always a positive thing. And I do not believe in an appeased form of simultaneity.

I wish I could appease you by saying that the answer is a (perfect) balance between a socially driven art practice and one which entails the artist’s individual expression. But I do not hold the key to this balance. I have tried to produce some projects and curate some groups of people (artists and others) in an attempt to experiment possibilities for this equillibrium, or at least to come closer to believing in it. And I can tell you I have come closer to believing in that balance. I have come to believe that sometimes an individual life story, a critical posititioning or a simple private gesture may instigate a rather dynamic process of re-evaluation of the very notion of public, of the notion of the public.

Post autonomous art may help to move away from colonising forms art practice, often “too site-specific”, too unconcerned with negotiation, but also often insufficiently authoral. Minimalist practice from which radical site-specificity developed, on the one hand celebrated forms of industrial signature, as it would, but at the same time, they stimulated forms of authoral hegemony. Richard Serra’s work from the 80’s onwards is, for this, the most radical example!

But later, context driven practices have so intensely attempted to anihilate the author (and the idea of an author) that they have become indistinct from either policy or panflet… so this does not seem to be the way forward. I believe that authorship should be defended even if in a non-hierarchial mode. I explain – something that could perhaps be called transversal (less vertical) authorship.

To summarise, the idea of inside or outside is obsolete, every museum or every gallery space are a public space because they work towards a public (an audience) and towards a political committement (a choice).

The notion of transferability (although a unsteady fabrication of mine) is presented, in this course of argument, as a means to try to position meaning, interpretation and visuality in a process that alows for their transference between different modes, moments and spaces. And temporary forms of intervening in public (or other type of) spaces seem to convoke our deepest sense fluidity, an awareness of the transitory that we fear, but that we know is our only true condition, as biological and as cultural beings.

How is the notion of the “temporary”, the fluidity of human experience, sewn together with the built environment? And how is the built environment made to make sense with the fluidity, chaos and complexity of human experience? I believe that there is a space here that artists and spatial practitioners may grab and grasp critically.

Gabriela Vaz-Pinheiro, 2014

Bibliographical References:

Bishop, Claire, Artificial Hells, Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, (London and New York, Verso, 2012).

Clifford, James, The Predicament of Culture – Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature and Art, (Harvard, 1999 [1988])

Foster, Hal (Ed.), Vision and Visuality, (Bay Press, 1988)

— “The Artist as Ethnographer” in The Return of The Real: The Avant-garde at the end of the century, (Cambridge, Mass. MIT, 1996)

Kaprow, Allan, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, (Jeff Kelley Ed.) (Berkeley, LA and London, Uni California Press, 1993)

Law, John, After method, Mess in Social Science Research, (London and New York, Routledge, 2004)

Meyer, James, “The Functional Site; or The Transformation of Site Specificity” in Erika Suderburg (Ed.), Space, Site, Intervention – Situating Installation Art, (University of Minnesota Press, 2000, pp. 23-37)

Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another – Site-specific Art and Locational Identity, (MIT, 2002)

Rancière, Jacques, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. (Tran. Steven Corcoran) (London and New York, Continuum. 2010)

The Emancipated Spectator. (Tran. Gregory Elliott) (London, Verso, 2009)


Author’s References:

Vaz-Pinheiro, Gabriela, “Beyond site: towards a definition of place-specificity” in Point – Art and Design Research Journal – Framing the Future, (N.12, Aut/Win 2001); Portuguese version in Margens e Confluências Vol 3, A Ideia de Paisagem, Dec 2001

— “Contextual practice and beyond, some reflections on ReaKt” in ReaKt – Views and Processes / Olhares e Processos, (Project Catalogue, Guimarães 2012, Fundação Cidade de Guimarães, 2013 (Bilingual edition / Versão bilingue), pps 4-11)

— “From specificity to transferability: debating ‘place-specific’ art practices” in ArtInSite – Arte vs Local, Vol1, Summer 2004, (Torres Vedras, Transforma ac)

Curating the Local, Some Approaches to Practice and Critique, (Bilingual edition) (Torres Vedras and London, ArtInSite, 2006)


[1] Part of this writing has been redone from Gabriela Vaz-Pinheiro, Curating the Local, Some Approaches to Practice and Critique, (Bilingual edition) (Torres Vedras and London, ArtInSite, 2006).

[2] Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another – Site-specific Art and Locational Identity, MIT, 2002.

[3] James Meyer, “The Functional Site; or The Transformation of Site Specificity” in Erika Suderburg (Ed.), Space, Site, Intervention – Situating Installation Art, University of Minnesota Press, 2000, pp. 23-37.


[4] For more on this issue see for example: Gabriela Vaz-Pinheiro, “Beyond site: towards a definition of place-specificity” in Point – Art and Design Research Journal – Framing the Future, N.12, Aut/Win 2001; or the Portuguese version in Margens e Confluências Vol 3, A Ideia de Paisagem, Dec 2001.

[5] James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture – Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature and Art, Harvard, 1999 (1988).

[6] For a more detailed analysis of this turn to the social sciences methodologies see Hal Foster, “The Artist as Ethnographer” in The Return of The Real: The Avant-garde at the end of the century, Cambridge, Mass. MIT, 1996, pps 171-204.

[7] Parts of this text also appeared in Gabriela Vaz-Pinheiro, “Contextual practice and beyond, some reflections on ReaKt” in ReaKt – Views and Processes / Olhares e Processos, Project Catalogue, Guimarães 2012, Fundação Cidade de Guimarães, 2013 (Bilingual edition / Versão bilingue), pps 4-11.

[8] John Law, After method, Mess in Social Science Research, (London and New York, Routledge, 2004, p.2).

[9] In other versions of this text Foster uses the term “autonomous art”.

[10] Hal Foster, “The artits as Ethnographer”, in Hal Foster, The Return of the Real, (Cambridge Mass and London, MIT Press, October Books, 1996, p.173).

[11] Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells, Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, (London and New York, Verso, 2012, p.27). See also Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator. (Tran. Gregory Elliott) (London, Verso, 2009) and Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. (Tran. Steven Corcoran) (London and New York, Continuum. 2010).

[12] Kaprow himself says: “We ourselves are shapes (though we are not often conscious of this fact)”. Allan Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, (Jeff Kelley Ed.) (Berkeley, LA and London, Uni California Press, 1993, p.11).

[13] See Gabriela Vaz-Pinheiro, “Da especificidade à transferabilidade: debatendo práticas artísticas place-specific” published online in Boletim da Associação Portuguesa dos Historiadores de Arte, nº 1 (Dez. 2003) and, in bilingual version, “From specificity to transferability: debating ‘place-specific’ art practices” in ArtInSite – Arte vs Local, Vol1, Summer 2004, (Torres Vedras, Transforma ac).

[14] See Hal Foster (Ed.), Vision and Visuality, Bay Press, 1988, p.96.