A lecture given at the 1994 conference of the Association of Art Historians, Birmingham
One of the early projects for students in the MA in Public Art & Design course at Chelsea College of Art & Design involves London’s South Bank. Students are asked to consider the approaches to the South Bank – that is, river and transport links, and the public spaces within and alongside the complex. They set out in all innocence and enthusiasm to this great cultural centre, and are immediately knocked for a burton by an overwhelming problem. Like Birmingham, London also has its bull ring; it is the huge area under the bridges and roundabouts approaching the South Bank Centre; it is the ‘home’ of the homeless.
Inevitably, many students on the course begin designing temporary shelters for the dwellers in the Bull Ring, or get in touch with the community groups in Westminster and Lambeth for direct action strategies, arrange talk-ins with the dossers, or conceive of film or photographic projects to image their plight. Nevertheless, on both left and right of the political spectrum, the usual consensus of the agonised student debate is that homelessness must be left to governmental agencies to address; a design solution would be to sanction the status quo. Those who have argued themselves back into the fine art canon after the first period of distress find themselves designing for the safe interiors of the Festival Hall, or the Hayward. The so-called ‘public’ spaces around the South Bank Centre are seldom addressed; the spectre of beggars, in their posts on the streets, steps and bridges leading into the area – guarding the margins – is too daunting; the kids skate-boarding beneath the Queen Elizabeth Hall are too violent; the crack dealers in the car parks are too invisible. The contrast between the disruptive public space that encompasses everyone, and the pacified public space which excludes and controls, or at the least deters, is too extreme.
The discourse of public art in Britain – if it can be so elevated – represents a reluctance to address the central issue of ‘publics’ and ‘public spaces’. In fact, like its patrons, artists and administrators go along very happily with the single, unitary use of the term. The public domain, singular, is an unproblematic shorthand for a realm which embraces diversity, indeed naturalises it, and where uncontroversial regard for the ‘greater good’ demands the exclusion of certain groups and control of violence. Think of the removal of ‘tent city’ from Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London which is now ‘protected’ by a high wire fence, or the picketing and policing of the City of London on Sundays. The power relations on which this realm is based are not acknowledged, except in a negative capacity; that is, when complaints are voiced about the neglect of public spaces. The language we use is interesting: an ill-maintained public site ‘invites’ vandalism or ‘attracts’ bums and beggars. This is the liberal public sphere, which Jurgen Habermas defined as ‘an all-inclusive site of uncoerced discussion and opinion formation, a place that transcends politics, commerce, private interests and even state control’. This notion of public, of course, depends on the complementary notions of the private sphere, investment and ownership.