Art in the public realm has gone through a series of concentric cycles over the last 50 years, with changing relationships to the object, commodity and the ‘spectacle’. Artists have had waxing and waning relationships with the politic of working in the public realm and this brief discussion primarily focuses on artists whose works is grounded in the political and experiential act of occupying it.
The practice involves the occupying public space and consciousness is invariably influenced by both situationism and phenomenology. The situationist rejections of spectacle and object-based commodification of art brings an influence of action and process, while the use of ‘artist as body’ and ‘body as harbinger of spiritual, spatial and political power’ has its root in the theories of Merleau-Ponty and phenomenology.
The definition of ‘occupation’.
The definition of ‘occupation’ referred to here is largely focused on the derivative of the verb, to occupy1 , based on taking up space, settlement, presence and with slightly tactical, or event military overtones 2 – as opposed that related to labour, although obviously the entendre is not entirely unwelcome.
Similarly, this analysis of artist establishing occupation in a public place is also distinct from performance, focusing on the artists’ presence or evidence of presence in the space as a key element to the work: “working in a public, rather than in front of a public”3 , dropping in on daily life, rather than a prescribed or prepared action 4.
This kind of action and concept has its beginnings in conceptual art from the 1960-70s and, it is helpful to track the range of artists ‘occupying space’ since then, through the 1980-90s object-based movements, to contemporary artists, and to place its use and popularity within the aesthetic and public/political contexts over time.
Early occupations, actions, performances and conceptual practice
Art practice where artists’ presence is the work is firmly routed in the beginning of conceptual art in the 1960s, whereby process and action are impressed as vital artistic requirements. Obviously the gallery works and happenings of the fluxus movement at the time are influential on the development of ‘occupations’; however, there is a distinctly different purpose, method and outcome when occupying the public realm. It is in this instance that the relationship with political occupations and strategic warfare begins.
UK artist Richard Long’s A Line Made By Walking, England from 1967 is a major work utilising the public/accessible environment and rooted in concept of process and action. He repeatedly walked a path across a field, tracking his movement and his presence in the space, ‘drawing’ with his walk. This work set up the importance of the artists role as an occupier of space, within which artistic work is conducted, and also looked at the political effects of the work – enabling the work to be created by ‘anyone’ thereafter and encouraging experiential and spatial action as a way to effect ones environment. These considerations, based in the politic, have since influenced a range of artists in varying degrees, across a range of concepts.
Work like Long’s helped shape the tide of conceptual works created at the time, and with most artists were challenging the role of the institution, the gallery and the keepers of art. Joseph Beuys’ theory about the political nature of art, whereby each person is an artist, therefore all action is artistic continued to provoke the public and political actions of artists.
Similarly, Bruce Nauman and his coffee/studio works focused on this process of presence, action and occupation. Whilst initially in the private space of his studio, Nauman often referred to the political or public application and theory behind these conceptual works, which went on to influence his later Art & Language works.
Collaborative team ASCO, working in East LA and raising the awareness of the ‘Chicano’ community, operated specifically in this conceptual realm – working only in public and creating works that sought to reclaim public parts of LA. Their motives were simultaneously aesthetic and political, rooted firmly in the poor conditions and discrimination of displaced Latin American and Mexican people of East LA.
Working during the times of the East LA riots, the ASCO group would commandeer traffic islands, declaring them for art5 , or blocking off the centre lanes of bridge for two hours with a performance and only a series of spray cans left behind as a ‘mark’6. Unlike the gallery-based installations from the time, these ‘actions’ and pieces were scarcely documented, reflecting the intention of creating an experiential work in order to change the perspective of the viewer, rather than an image for posterity or commodity.
These artists were forerunners for a lot of the occupying, active work to come. However, their greater influence and place in public aesthetic would have to wait a generation.
In the face of objectivism and the spectacle
During the 1980-1990s, the primary context for art in the public place was postmodernism and the general feeling of big is better. The Americans – Andy Warhol, Julian Schnabel, Keith Harring, Jeff Koons and Claes Oldenberg’s influence on art – both private and that in the public sphere was exciting and challenged other preconceived notions about art and celebrity. But it left little room for non-objective, action-based work of a grass-roots, political or public nature to really take hold. In fact, in her survey of art in the 1980s, Alison Pearlman refers to “neo-expressionism as a rejection of conceptual art.”
Interestingly, while the cult-of-personality was taking the western art world by storm, smaller occupation works were being lead by artists from emerging political environments: after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Eastern Block at the end of the 1908s, a group of Russians and East Germans, Collective Actions began creating works in Germany and Russia: their Field, which saw a field of artists, drawing with red thread served to highlight the new open spaces, reflect on the role of labour (note the third definition of occupation) and to, in a way, create works of beauty for the sake of it.
In Europe and the UK, aspects of artists ‘occupations’ began to emerge from the body/gender-based performance work and the feminist art movement: Cosy Fanni Tutti’s Prostitution performance at the ICA, in which they inhabited the gallery. The political furore about the public nature of the funding and institutional support certainly brought those works into the realm of the public. Whilst that work didn’t present the other hallmarks of occupation – its strategic/warfare-like action – Katherine Hammnet’s guerrilla fashion works certainly did. Her oversized 58%-Don’t-want Pershing-wear whilst meeting prime minister Thatcher made front-page news and reflected the Punk/Vivienne Westwood-inspired design trend for clothing and fashion – the public personal façade – to be political, anti-establishment and certainly military in its influence.
During the boom of the YBA period of the 1990s, process, presence and occupation began to creep back into the discourse around art, even if the works being produced were still largely objective. The concept of ‘taking up space’ was a hallmark of many YBA artists and perhaps the reason for their sensation. Whilst still primarily for the purpose of commerce and private output (supported by media aristocrat Charles Saatchi), Emin’s Bed, and her collaboration with Sarah Lucas, Shop, Rachel Whiteread’s concrete Untitled (House), Anya Gallacio’s room-sized ice block (Intensities and Surfaces) and Martin Creed’s crumpled paper/tiles/lights/doors in rooms and galleries all looked to occupy space, establish art as a force and a presence. Only Gillian Wearing’s Dancing in Peckham really established art in a place amongst the people, in a ‘political’ setting. Yet this work marked a gradual return to artists occupying public space, as a political and aesthetic statement.
Renewed political statements and reclamations of territory
Perhaps as a result of global concerns about territory, a rise in general political engagement within the arts and a general return to more conceptual works, the last decade has seen a return to artists occupying public space, in various ways, as an artistic process and political discussion.
Global arts practice and the political context of operating in a global community has become a feature of contemporary practice, and as such, is reflected in the public and political nature of works by artists like Francis Alÿs and Santiago Sierra – both of whom have worked within Occupied Territories7. Alÿs’ Walk With a Paint Can through Jerusalem, reconfigures the concept of border/territory/geography as he walks the streets of Jerusalem, tracking his process with a dripping, painted line reminiscent of Richard Long’s Walk in a Field. Sierra’s work in Korea’s Demilitarized Zone [DMZ]8 similarly works with occupying borders, and in his 2005 work, transferred a set section of soil from each territory to the other, only witnessed by those part of the project.
In less politically charged environments, other artists working with the presence of people in public space for the purpose of playful, yet meaningful occupation of space include the Austrians Guerrilla Disco 9 and Cie Willi Dorner, who create public urban ‘sculptures’ from intimate piles and configurations of people, often spilling into the street, or wrapping around public infrastructure 10 . And of course the rise of the absurdist and subversive Flash Mob around the world reflects a common need for people to take up public space in an aesthetic, yet politically meaningful way, disrupting public mindlessness by a large-scale game of ‘Freeze’ in places like Grand Central station 11 .
Occupation of public institutional space, as continuation of works from the early conceptual artists like Yoko Ono and Beuys continues, mostly in the UK and its large public art funding. Ironically, works like Antony Gormley’s Fourth Plinth project 12, in which the ordinary person becomes the public monument, or even Martin Creed’s Turner Prize-winning Work No.85013 in which runners sprint through the hallowed halls of the Tate Britain Gallery are at once focusing on the importance of the politic/person within the public institution, and supporting the spectacle of production, not necessarily process artistic. However, the general acceptance of works like these indicate a change in acceptable public art practice.
Contemporary Australian occupations.
While the practice of aesthetic-political occupying space has largely been driven with European and UK artists, Australian arts practice has a growing number of artists utilising this process as a reclamation or political statement.
Mike Parr, as Australia’s foremost conceptual artist, traverses presence and politics, largely within a gallery setting, but increasingly within the public institution. And, whilst still mostly focused within the interiors of public institutions or facilities, works such as Ross Gibson’s Conversations, seen in the Sydney Biennale, the RMIT UI research group’s recent Occupation at Craft Victoria, and even my own occupation of public toilets in shopping centres show a continuing trajectory of consideration of this area.
In Australia’s greater public realm, work that seeks to occupy space as a process is still largely ground in a combination of performance and relational aesthetic works, however Perth’s PVI Collective TTS bus, Zanny Begg’s politically-loaded Checkpoint ‘soldiers’ occupying the streets of Blacktown and Lucas Ihlein/Squatspace’s projects traversing of Sydney streets and suburbs in the name of ‘ownership’ are all works which have a common need for the presence of people to form and inform the public realm. The role of occupation of land within Australian cultural and political context has been an uncomfortable one, only recently discussed with a level of openness seen in other countries. With subversive indigenous occupation of land being largely based at the Tent Embassy in Canberra, the effect of changing perspectives on land, territory and ownership on contemporary public art practice is unknown, as yet, but will be an important one.
Most of the works and art practices mentioned above are largely temporary/transient works, with reference to Aristotelian peripatetic practice14. However, with associations to shifting politics and possibly the overkill of ‘stuff’ – the object has ceased to be political, just consumptive and part of the spectacle. And whilst aspects of performance are obviously part of the spectacle, the person – citizen, in action has the power to reclaim the political, civic and public space and it is this lean towards action, towards collectivism, to the true meaning of the politic which is gaining momentum, in collaboration with contemporary conceptual art.
1. Occupy. v. 3. Take control of (a place, esp. a country) by military conquest of settlement. Enter, take control of, and stay in (a building) illegally and often forcibly, esp. as a form of protest. Oxford American Dictionary.
2. Also refers to the “ethics of combat”, which relate to the tactical/strategic concept of space, common in warfare, or combat mindsets, but influenced in artistic ‘commandeering’ of public space. Ref:, The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune, Kristin Ross, within the essay Internal Exiles , C. Ondine Cavoya, in Space, Site and Intervention, edited by Erika Suderberg. Interestingly, Michel De Certeau also refers to ‘tactics’ of relating to the public realm/everyday life in his Practice of Everyday Life.
3. Credited to Vito Acconci, op.cit, Chavoya.
4. Willie Herron from ASCO, “.. we would just drop in on everything in its normal pattern”. Ref: op cit, Chavoya p193: Brown and Christ, Interview with Willie Herron, 1985
5. First Supper (after a Major Riot), 1974. Ref: op.cit, p195.
6. A performance known as Last Rites in the Left Lane, on the Fourth Street Bridge, in which members of a local Chicano gang discover plutonium in cans of spray paint and so begins a nuclear age of atomic gang warfare. Ref: op cit, p196.
7. “Occupied Territories” being nation states whose political and geographic boundaries are contested through “military conquest or settlement” – Oxford American Dictionary.
8. The patrolled, controlled and technical nation-free space, which signifies the border between the Republic of South Korea and North Korea.
9. A pirate radio event, which broadcasts a DJ set to the public through a series of free headphones – a simultaneous public and private space.
10. http://www.ciewdorner.at/; http://swissmiss.typepad.com/
12. Supported by both the National Gallery and the Mayor of London. And although Trafalgar Square is technically a public space, the Fourth Plinth is managed by these public institutions and, as such, has in itself become an art institution.
13. Supported by the Tate Gallery and Turner Foundation.
14. Referring to Aristotle’s practice of walking to and fro whilst teaching, in and of itself about discourse and occupying a space.
Conceptual Art, Tony Godffrey, 1998, Phaidon, London.
Practice of Everyday Life, Michel De Certeau, 1988, University of California Press, Berkeley.
Space, Site, Intervention, ed. Erika Suderburg, 2000, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
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