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Conversations about Public Art: An Homage to Complex Form

A few weeks ago I was asked to write about public art, possibly because of my affiliation with the Tentative Collective and our intermittent art experiments, often situated outside the gallery. I said yes without hesitation, only to discover a paralysis in zooming out of my own practice to reflect on what public art is. For an artist working in different kinds of urban space in Karachi, the question of what is ‘public art’ sets up a very limiting framework of binary discourses regarding both space (as either public or private), and art (the is-it-or-isn’t-it debate). The number of assumptions built into these two words lead to circular conversations about assumed publics, places, and art that oversimplify meaningful study of works in their specific contexts.

 
In an informal Skype with Brooklyn based curator Sadia Shirazi, we acknowledged that a conversation about public art in Brooklyn would be quite different from one in Karachi, considering the contingencies of place. Genealogies of this mode of production aside, she commented that questions like, which publics? what sites? who is speaking for whom? who has access to these works? and who are these works for? must be asked to be able to assess (and enjoy) this kind of art production. We talked about looking at specific examples of public art via the networks that led to their production, revealing power structures and the dynamics of patronage that shape the final form of the work. What frameworks did we have to evaluate a sculpture commissioned by the state for a park, compared to a performance designed in collaboration with a community for their neighbourhood?

 
The conversation became really interesting when we started discussing the public domain via its infrastructures (walls, roundabouts, flyovers, cell-phone towers) and the fact that it includes an expanding digital platform; a series of platforms if you will, which are very different from romanticized (and bourgeois) notions of civic life in public squares and cafes. “Could we talk about people gathering at a well as a public space? Or at a mobile charging station?” Sadia asked me. Who would have access to that kind of space as opposed to a coffee shop in a mall? How does class privilege influence subjectivity and access to these public spaces?

 
We talked about the specificity of mediatised platforms. For example, Instagram versus Facebook, their different publics, and the flows of information that their infrastructures enabled. This led to nuanced questions about the public domain and by extension the art that might inhabit it. Sometimes, as Sadia observed, “the space is secondary and the platform, its distribution and its public, is actually more important.”
Zooming in on specific examples and escaping the is-it-public-art debate, I want to talk about Pakistani sculptor Zahoor ul Akhlaq’s Tarbela Dam commission in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (1982), and Indian artist group CAMP’s project, ‘Neighbour before the House’ in Jerusalem (2009-2011).

 
The Tarbela commission was envisioned by Zahoor ul Akhlaq as a memorial to the approximately four hundered workers who died in the construction of one of the world’s largest earth-filled dams. In a conversation with Nurjahan Akhlaq and Naazish Ataullah, I discovered that the project was commissioned by the Chairman of Pakistan’s Water and Power Development Agency (WAPDA), General Dr. Safdar Butt. The latter was a fellow of the Army’s Corps of Engineers, an institution Ataullah’s husband was also a part of. Incidentally, Ataullah was studying at National College of Arts, Lahore at the same time as Butt’s daughters, and became an integral part of facilitating Zahoor’s proposal through WAPDA. A network of people, including the engineering firm that Ataullah’s husband later worked at, and a company set up to receive payment for the commission, eventually helped to complete this project over a four-year period.

 
The form of this work references Islamic geometry. Dark steel rises from a reflecting pool like an extrapolated five-point star. Beneath it, touching the surface of the water, rests a steel cube inscribed with the names of the dead. Its sprawling promenade marks one edge of the dam’s massive embankment, and despite its scale, appears almost delicate. From a distance overhead, the composition evokes a drawing on paper; the points of the star seem to pierce the surface of overlapping geometries traced lightly into the ground.

 
What intrigues me most about the form of this work is its reference to the surrounding infrastructure – its homage to the site, a tip of the hat to the pylons whose delicate steel webs carry electricity and connect power lines in the distance. It’s no accident that the image selected for this essay includes those power lines in the foreground and faint glimpses of electrical pylons in the distance. Symbolically for me, this work evokes the blood and bones of spent labour reborn as iron and patina. There is a tension within the form, between a celebration of human achievement and a mourning for lives lost. The form and aesthetic of the work is imbricated with the site, subject, symbolism, materiality and networks of production. This is not an example of ‘plop’ art, where monuments are air lifted from the artist’s studio to a site that bears little relationship to the work’s form. We have the tools to critique this kind of public art formally/aesthetically. We know what kind of work it is, what its means of production are, and what histories of form precede it.
The question of assessing works of art in public space that do not produce traditional visuality as an end is more difficult. How do we assess works that use nontraditional materials and media; whose ephemeral forms are derived from collaboration and participation with their subjects?

 
A voice very close to my ear says: “even though I lost I’m here to establish my neighbour’s presence, so we can see where one wall ends and the other begins.”[i]

 
I am standing in a white room of the Outset artist space in Delhi, where I experience Bombay-based artist studio CAMP’s project in Jerusalem, “Al jaar qabla al daar or, The neighbour before the house” (2009-2011). CAMP was formed as a studio collaborative by Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran in 2007. Their members change over time. In this project they collaborated with Nida Ghouse, Mahmoud Jiddah, Shereen Barakat, Mahasen Nasser-Eldin and eight Palestinian families to create a kind of action in ‘public space’ in 2009, which eventually took the form of a video screened in 2011. The video is a compilation of footage from a surveillance camera set up in various Palestinian neighbourhoods in Jerusalem. One of the two evicted families CAMP worked with were speaking from a tent outside their evacuated house, which they occupied as a form of protest. Some of the families were still in their own homes, others expecting eviction, but each was witness to a process of change in their neighbourhoods which were being occupied by Jewish settlers. The Palestinian families pointed the surveillance camera at these transforming neighborhoods, occupying, observing and gaining access to them in a different way. Below is an excerpt of their narration (in italics) combined with my reading of the visual:

 
“It’s amazing how much this camera can see” (zoom in by a factor of 22 denoted by ‘x’) x22 [ii]

 
forward and back x33 x20 x19 x10 x5
wooden pallet like debris on the roof-scape, grills, satellite dish, trellis, metal netting
pan, pan pan, tilt, tilt, a grill x4 x3 x1
“this is a camera base”
a metal plate mounted on a wall
“move from there Mohammad”
grey watchtower
submerged and upside down x134
a surveillance camera swivels…
“it is always checking”
“we are now looking outside the walls of the city…British…mandate…”
pan, tilt, pan, tilt, pan, tilt
“back inside the old city”
jaali…corrugated metal, domed roof. Police van, blue and white lights
white plastic chairs x8
lone man on square…wearing all black. Tourists…
“strolling without a care in the world”
“look at this”
“this is our house” x9|
“damn it, you see them living there”
pan x4
dog tied on a rooftop. Tilt, tilt, tilt, pan.
(the movement makes me nauseous)
“one of the windows used to overlook the butcher market” x3 x2 x1
debris, tent, mesh
satellite dishes, 2 guards in navy blue uniforms x12
people walking. Azaan
white surveillance camera enters the frame…pause…pause… turns to face me
pause…surveillance cameras look at each other for a moment
“this is our roof”
“this is our water tank”
“move slowly the washing is in the way” x58
yellow tie die flowers
pixels, grain x220 x3
brick wall x220
white and grey pixels
the image breaks up into quivering dots and dashes…

 
At first I was disoriented by the low resolution graphics of the surveillance footage and the narration that came in and out of the restless gaze of the camera. This video did not follow any of the rules of videography or composition, but it suspended my expectations of aesthetics immediately and I entered an entirely different system of visuality defined by the mechanics of the surveillance tool.

 
I started participating in the pathos of the situation as well as the occasional humour in the narrating voice as the camera searched for familiar architecture framing the story that unraveled on the wall in front of me. The experience of the Palestinian narrator (and my own experience as a secondary audience) was defined by the camera’s zooming power, its turning radius, its pixel aspect ratio, its resolution and the speed with which it moved from one frame to the next.

 
The complex aesthetic form of the project was thus derived from the infrastructure of surveillance in a charged site negotiating issues of security, visibility, loss, distance and return. Even though this project has a completely different form compared to the Tarbela commission, the influence of infrastructure and the context of its site on its peculiar aesthetics are not dissimilar.

 
CAMP’s intervention in public space in Jerusalem was a gesture that shifted the power of the gaze to the dispossessed. I know a few curators who would critique this work as activism pretending to be art. While indeed a strong gesture with a clear political position; this work is much more than an ethically positivist subject-object inversion. It shifts the discourse of protest from the realm of activism to art, and ultimately it is not interested in reaching any particular political goals or agendas.

 
The telling and performance of this story is an end in itself. The duration of the gaze and meandering voiceover weave the banality of a laden clothesline with the unspoken weight of exodus. There are moments of sadness and anger just as there are moments of surprise, wonder and reflection. The viewer has to contend with the absurd paradox of past and present, near and far, intimate and grand, inside and outside, public and private, coexisting in one impossible moment – the surface of the moving image manipulated by a plastic joystick.

 
I assert that this is a very strong example of public art because of the way it plays with the public infrastructures of a site defined, controlled and represented by them. Additionally, its form creates two different experiences that are equally moving for primary participants and secondary audiences of this digitized and over-circulated public domain.

 
The camera literally collapses distance as it moves back and forth between frames of far away landscapes and zoomed in body parts. The voiceover connects these disoriented glimpses of space in a highly localized and intimate narration. There is wonder here, alongside the pathos. The viewer does not know where the story will end…does not want it to end. There are no apologies and no accusations. It is brilliant how the piece makes Jerusalem non-mythical and non-binary. It locates it on the screen, in the present moment, as an unfolding and unresolved space, hence allowing room for interruption and participation. Instead of becoming a story of the occupier versus the evacuee, it becomes a negotiation of (re)occupation – a conversation navigated via circuits and pixels.

 
The low-resolution haptic form of the projected video demands a full, visceral participation[iii]. Imbricated in a precarious situation of collapsed distance and simultaneous occupation, the viewer is constantly balancing her perspective trying to figure out what is happening and what will happen next. This realization of intentional disorientation occurs in multiple intense moments; haptic moments that inspire theorists like Laura Marks to write whole books about their power.

 
In a sense, the form of this work (arguably crafted with a singularity of vision analogous to the Tarbela commission) also employs a Situationist[iv] détournement, whereby the artist hacks into a system of relations/ representation, or language of control. “Subvert[ing] and appropriat[ing] existing images to undermine their existing meaning,“ and like “a good détournement reverse[s] the ideological function of the effluvia of spectacle culture, but without adopting the form of a simple inversion of the original” (Bishop 88)[v]. Sadia referred to this as shifting the terms of the debate instead of taking a position of opposition[vi].

 
A comparison of the Tarbela commission and CAMP’s use of infrastructure can be used to reflect on the vast diversity of tools that allow us to look at place more intently, differently, and in more nuanced ways. Many of these tools are already a part of our everyday vernacular, concealing genealogies of aesthetics we often take for granted. Let’s use these tools to create more complex forms, and deeper readings of place, publics, and public art today.

 
Yaminay Chaudhri is a visual artist who runs the public art organization, Tentative Collective.

 

 
[i] This was said by a member of a Palestinian family who had been evicted from their home and were now parked in a tent outside it as a form of protest.
[ii] ‘X’ denotes zoom factor of the surveillance camera lens. It appears on the corner of the screen, now the projected image on the museum wall.
[iii] read Laura Marks’ writings on Deleuzian haptic space.
[iv] Rread about the Situationists International, operating in Europe in the mid 20th century. Their influence on contemporary works in public space and socially engaged projects is formative.
[v] Bishop, Claire. “Je Participe, Tu Participes, Il Participe . . .” Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. London: Verso, 2012. 88. Print.

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