Dr Georg Schöllhammer is a curator, writer and chief editor of Vienna-based art magazine Springerin. In 2011 he was one of the artistic directors of VIENNAFAIR.
Art in architecture, art in public spaces? Art for the public? But which public would that be?
Haven’t we seen since the sixties how the ‘old’ middle-class public has steadily retreated from streets and squares, and how the individual has been isolated and social interaction has furred up? Didn’t the public element begin to disappear from the streets right then? Haven’t the audio-visual media created a public of their own since the seventies at the latest? Wasn’t the TV public we had during the 1968 demonstrations already that?
Since then, art has been trying to win back these lost spaces, but its ambition to stir things up and draw attention and its provocativeness have long been directed at regaining direct communication on the streets. Yet the space in the streets had meantime been filled with a new public conjured up by the media and institutions. The inner cities began to fill up again, to become ‘zones of experience’ where the city was to be experienced. Communication was replaced via pictures of communication. Society in cities was divided up in small, exclusive circles whose secret recognition signals were henceforth only decodable by the initiated. These newly evolved secret societies in turn needed a theatrical space to exchange their symbols – the old public space of the city. And, apart from the historic backdrop of the city furniture and façades in the pedestrian zones, politics in turn needed art – employed as design – in order to give these groups of a design-hedonistic public the occasion to consume their cities again.
How could a way out of this complicated situation be found? That has remained to this day one of the key issues both for the patron of art in buildings and for the artist.
The first difficulties for a new procedure or attitude on the part of art towards the task of ‘art in buildings’ arise solely from the differing attitudes that architects and artists adopt towards the problem. That is due partly to the history of the differing job descriptions involved and partly to a certain lack of understanding for each other and in the public itself, i.e. in the images that the public generally have of the roles of artists and architects.
Inasfar as they concern each side’s view of his job, these difficulties can be traced back to some extent to the institutional separation of art and architecture in the modern period, but they also seem to relate to shared characteristics, particularly at present, where architecture has long re-established itself as the subject of exhibitions, i.e. something with artistic pretensions.
The public’s expectations, and indeed the ability of artists and architects to reach consensus in a shared job, are still pre-figured by historical models. Design jobs in public space (design of squares, courtyards, monuments) or buildings such as churches provoke an almost automatic collaboration between building-related art and architecture.
Apart from the quality of the art, which remains to be discussed, it is beyond question that, whatever pictorial or abstract representational content these works have, their symbolic value remains ‘classic’ within the logic of the job: unity and inner integrality, i.e. pure appliqué work reinforcing or disrupting the architecture in the given location or supposedly contradicting, mocking or blowing apart the individual character of the architecture, in short, drawing unambiguous demarcation lines between art and architecture’s respective areas of influence on society.
Only if a way can be found out of these constraints can art and architecture escape being boiled down to these simple dialectics of simulation.
Just such a way out – in fact, a way between – has been found by Robert Schuster for his project on art in architecture at the Eissporthalle in Vöcklabruck. A starting point was the longstanding controversy about whether the cityscape should be shaped like a stage set or arise solely from the accidental accumulation of visual signs where art in the meantime is setting the trend for the formal apparatus of media and advertising idioms, which is only generated more or less automatically by ongoing re-interpretation.
Schuster has furnished the interior of the hall with an abstract flat-field design in the manner of modernist abstraction. i.e. colour fields. However, these images are not purely decorative elements or abstract art but are a hybrid of the two. They occupy the space otherwise reserved for sponsors’ advertising. A sponsor who wants to occupy one of these fields receives one of Schuster’s colour panels in exchange, which then, detached from the building, functions as a work of abstract art or modern picture. The advertising thereupon takes the place of this picture, and in turn mutates into a part of the work of art/architecture, acquiring traces of art. In the most favourable case, the original design by Schuster finds its way into the sponsors’ collections, and the sponsors’ billboards become the art in the building. Regardless of the fact that it acts as an index of the local power of the sports hall and the clubs that operate in it, Schuster’s work with the swap is also an indicator of art’s straying into unexpected locations (the sponsors’ collections). It is not the host institution of the building or the community that plays the advertising game
with art in architecture but those for whom the public space there is an occasion for making a deal with art.
This set-up addresses the history of institutionalised standards and canonised exploitation of public space. Its concern is not harmony with the architecture or user but differentiation via signs. Schuster’s work is like a game of cards: its initiators – the client, the sponsors, the architects and the artist, and indeed the visitors, the users of the public space and those who handle the administrative bureaucracy – are all participants in it. All of them know of course only their own side of the game, their own hand and the story of their cards. The objects – the art, the staging, the space in the hall and the standards that regulate its use and the architecture – are the cards in this game. For the players, the only possibility for gaining more information about the other players’ hands seems to consist in marking the cards, since it is not the utterances of the other players that provide information about the game but the added information of the marked cards. Let us call the marked card in our picture by the name introduced – ‘art in public spaces’.
But let us remember beforehand how this game of ‘design’ became modern again – i.e. as a result of the public’s criticism of the destruction of their space in the city and the criticism of ‘modernism’s’ intentions. In Schuster’s work, the cards ‘art’ and ‘public space’ are marked. It is not just one game that is being played with them, but many games are possible in one, many games with many different rules of play. These new games give the players the possibility of re-reading the spatial and artistic spaces, the formal, historical and economic spaces of this single space, and weaving the ambiguity of these signs into many different explicitnesses.