New genre public art is a type of social practise coined as such in the 1990s which may also be referred to as dialogical art. Described by Suzanne Lacy as Socially engaged, interactive art for a diverse audience1 , the practise focuses not so much on the art object but processes of collaboration, dialogue and participation employed within groups of people or an individual who, in some cases, takes on varying levels of responsibility for the work, however, may assume the role of collaborator/volunteer in others in terms of its realisation.
New genre public art holds similarities to ideas of public or site-specific art in the sense that they exist within the public sphere with, more often than not, some sense of site specificity, however, it departs and takes a clear stance against these notions in the sense that they are formed not simply in the public but with the public and exist outside modernist and institutional frameworks.
The foundations of this new genre public art are thought to have been laid as early as the 1960s , when the classic bronze memorial was overtaken by large abstract sculptures in public spaces by the likes of male artists such as Henry Moore & Isamu Noguchi under the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) art-in-public-places program which subsequently opened the floodgates for discussion and debate around the nature of public art and its place within society but more importantly its place within a place, if you will.
Succeeding this came a model coined art-as-public-places, which concerned a more design focused type of urban sculpture blurring the lines between landscape and sculpture.
Finally, came what was coined by Arlene Raven as art-in-public-interest2 which was further theorized upon by Lacy as new genre pubic art with artists who identified with this practise beginning to be considered within the same disciplinary canon in regard to critical theory. Prior to this, if by any means their work was offered a context it was simply considered as socially or politicly engaged within the confines of medium-specificity; performance, video and installation for example.3 The work of these artists became somewhat ratified by the removal of Richard Serras Titled Arc from the Foley Federal Plaza in Manhattan, NY. Although from some perspectives the removal was seen as a gross destruction of the work itself, it is considered to have had the most profound impact on the direction of public art practise in the 1990s4 leading to calls for greater public accountability by artists.5
In the subsequent paragraphs I will discuss three works by Anna Halprin, Peggy Diggs and WochenKlausur within the framework I have outlined in this introduction in an attempt to trace the evolution of new genre public art and evaluate the effectivity of this community focused art practise.
When searching for the definitive foundations of the social practise that is now so widely known as new genre public art, Joseph Beuys ideas of social sculpture would have had an unparalleled influence on the practises of so many artists concerning themselves with these ideas of democratic, anthropological and dialogical art making processes in the 1960s. Instead of looking at the so widely theorised work of Beuys for this section, however (although his influence of course warrants a mention at least), I want to look at an artist who hinged much of her practise on the belief that the creative potential of the individual can be released with much more intensity when interacting in groups, what she coined collective creativity . Indeed, Anna Halprin is now considered a pioneer of avant-garde dance, however in the 1960s she was, along with her husband Lawrence Halprin, the renowned landscape architect, an integral part of a liberation which was taking place within visual and performing arts born out of the progression from observer to active participant vastly informed by participatory social protest and performance in the form of marches and riots etc. An example of this is Halrpins 1969 workshop Ceremony of Us. An early and quite radically agitational example of new genre public art, the work was simply categorised as politically engaged dance/performance at the time. Taking place after Los Angeles Watts Riots in 1965, Halprin was invited by Studio Watts to choreograph a performance; an opportunity she decided to use to explore racial relations through dance which challenged the norms of racial stereotypes at the time. She held two separate workshops, one with an all-white group and the other with an all-black group, both practising the same dance score in San Francisco for several months, before inviting both groups to practise the score together and as Halprin herself later said collectively create their performance around the experience of becoming one group. In the end, the audience was faced with two doors in the theatre, one the all black group of dancers and the other with the all-white group, after the performance both groups took the audience members and formed a conga line which danced out into the plaza outside the theatre. The Ceremony of Us workshop was one which was controversial and politically radical, described by Janice Ross as not so much dance as a lived experience6. For Halprin, it marked an important stage in her practise which she now feels were her raison d?tre as a creative, probing the question of how to connect dance with peoples individual political, racial and cultural histories. This workshop highlights the fundamentally activist nature of new genre public at quite an early and important stage of its development. However, the results and impact of such a workshop (although radical in its essence considering that both the groups of white and black performers had never before had an intimate relationship with the opposite races) are arguably unquantifiable. This seems to be the case with a lot of Halprins workshops and performances, it would be fair to say that it is an aspect of their character that they are open ended thus allowing for a more free type of audience participation, however, as Lacy states that intentions suggest real or potential contexts for art,7 can good intentions ultimately harvest good results and if so, how are those results evaluated when many of the levels upon which art operates and takes effect (especially in the case of Anna Halprin and other examples of new genre art) lie in belief systems and the unconscious?
These immeasurable outcomes are the focus of a reoccurring question within art theory surrounding new genre public art, and one which, since Halprin and the 1960s, artists working within these frameworks have been striving to answer.
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Peggy Diggs Domestic Violence Milk Carton (1992) tackles ideas of audience and intervention by utilizing a pre-existing, institutionalized system as a vehicle for social change8. Through meetings with psychologists, therapists and discussions with two victims of domestic and sexual abuse who were both prisoners of a maximum-security prison in Rhode Island, Diggs evaluated the scale of the domestic abuse crisis at hand which she believed victims of which were vastly ill-represented within social activist movements during the period the project took place. With this in mind, it then became Diggs intention to condense the stories of the many abused women/stories into an indisputable public image7. Her idea to print 4 different types of graphic on the side of milk cartons was an attempt to create a device through which she could intercept the routine and pattern of womens private lives with a subtly subversive form of art distribution8.
Each design had the telephone number for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, including varying imagery of explicit and violent imagery and also referring to acts commonly associated with domestic violence i.e. physical and psychological restraint, hitting and escalating arguments. Eight major diary companies were approached by Diggs with the proposal for the project however in the end it was Tuscan Dairy, a New Jersey based company with previous history of addressing issues of social and public justice, who agreed to run the printed milk cartons for a two-week period. Sponsored by Creative Time Inc., One and a half million milk cartons were distributed in New York and New Jersey in January of 1992. Even with increased activity reported on the NDVH hotline its difficult to measure any evidence of real positive results. With this in mind, however I find it hard, personally to dismiss this intervention as a work of symbolic action just because the results are considered to be speculative as if 1 out of 1,500, 000 milk cartons inspired a victim of domestic abuse to take the steps to help free herself then is the whole process not then justified no matter how small the results seem?
In any case the speculative nature of the project fails to demonstrate any actual interaction, however, in contrast to Halprins workshop through which she was attempting to challenge racial attitudes through the collaboration of performers, Diggs milk cartons have the potential of lending a genuine helping hand to the oppressed community in which the context of the project resides. Its also interesting to note that the community Diggs is attempting to reach out to is immeasurable in-of-itself thus the effectivity is somewhat immeasurable from the beginning, something that Im sure Diggs was aware of. So with this is mind, the activism lies in the exploitation of the idea of the private becoming the new public space9 in taking advantage of a subtle device in-between these extensive information systems, Diggs gives an individual who may feel trapped behind closed doors an option, maintaining, like Halprins workshops, an open-endedness whereby the collaborator (domestic abuse victims) must choose to take part and empower themselves in order for the intervention to be realised to its full potential. I find this interesting as Diggs takes an antagonistic approach to her intervention which leaves her collaborators free from the influence of the artist and consequently free from the influence of institutional and social pressures.
Critics have made points in the past, however, which disagree with the idea of individual transformation as a measure (or in this case, fundamentality) of a projects success. Grant Kester argues that such a reliance on intimate personal change normalises the conditions of marginalisation of a social group and presents them as a result of their own lack of initiative or self-esteem. Although these points were made mainly about work dealing with economically deprived communities, the social implications of this are not a far-cry from that of the conditions under which institutionalised sexism and the oppression of women continue to survive which undoubtedly has its connections with domestic violence statistics. In this regard, to the pessimist and for sake of argument it could be applied to Diggs work. This is to say that as accurate as Kesters evaluations may be, I tend to reject these comments under the pretence that they over-simplify the practise of community-based art.10
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Since its inception in the winter of 1992, Austrian group WochenKlausur have conducted over 30 social interventions by alternating teams that have involved a total of 50 artists to an end which they describe as concrete interventions. Rather than creating work that requires a moment of epiphany or individual transformation, they produce work in which aesthetic and understanding reveals itself over time through dialogue and exchange. The basis of their projects begin with an art institution inviting the group to their space which provides them with an infrastructural framework and cultural capital. With the exhibition space acting as the headquarters form which the intervention is co-ordinated, the issue to be addressed is typically preconceived after thorough research by the group itself into the political and social background of the location at hand, from which a proposal is then subsequently made to the institution for the intervention itself.
In 2013, WochenKlausur were invited to Glasgows Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) for a 4 week long project within the frame of economy which was later named Women-led Workers Cooperative. Through dialogue with local organisations the group learned of the deprivation of Drumchapel, an area northwest of Glasgows city centre that has seen the departure of a number of business owners since the 1970s which has resulted in high rates of unemployment within families some of which were in their third generation. With the help of the Drumchapel L.I.F.E organisation, a bridge of contact was made between WochenKlausur and a number of unemployed women from the area. The group had proposed a model for intervention designed to encourage the women to start a cooperative which would employ them within the community.
In a meeting with the women possible business ideas were discussed and after a series of these exchanges and further research it was discovered that Drumchapel has a high mortality rate in part due to bad diet , an issue caused by the fact that there were a lack of fresh fruit and vegetable shops in the area and a lot of the population rely on fast or frozen food as opposed to a freshly prepared, healthier diet.
It was agreed that the women would open a shop in the area and sell meal bags which would be affordable in price to the average Drumchapel resident and contain the exact proportions of fresh produce to cook simple meals that would provide a family with adequate nutrition for the week in order to maintain a healthy diet.
WochenKlausur arranged for the women to be provided with basic skills in business planning, marketing and accounting with the support of local education and business organisations in the form of training workshops, some of which offered a more hands-on approach to helping the women with their business plan. A plan was discussed with a local real estate agent surrounding the possibility of taking over a shop free of charge for the first three months of operation, then at a reduced rent for the 1st year.
A group of architecture students from the Glasgow School of Art volunteered to design and furnished the shop along with students from the Glasgow City College who designed the branding for the ladies. Finally, in order to cement their intervention as something more than symbolic action, assistance was put in place to provide the women with the support and guidance that they may need for their operation to grow.
WochenKlausur, as a current example of new genre public art, devise a means through which the results of their interventions can not only be measured but also maintained within the varying communities they intervene. By doing this they address a lot of criticism directed at prior community-based, activist works of a similar nature; that an intervention was made, however, no contingency plan was put in place to insure its maintenance, thus the interventions effectivity is once again left down to symbolic gesture or in some cases one could go so far as to say a failure depending on what you would class as one.
With this is mind, however, interventions like these although overtly activist and of sound ethics in character are not completely free from the institutional pressure that could prove problematic for some critics. For example, the CCA inviting the group to the city under the them Economy, is in-of-itself a factor which may have affected the groups judgement in negotiating a topic for exploration and intervention. It is my opinion however that the fault lies with the institution itself, rather than WochenKlausur. The CCA ultimately direct the focus of the work by choosing this theme in Glasgow which they must have known would inevitably direct WochenKlausur down a certain route for intervention.11 Hal Foster argues from an ethnographical stance that the quasi-anthropological role set up for the artist by the institution in these cases runs the risk of jeopardising the authenticity of the intervention and evades as often as extends institutional critique12, he also argues that targeting marginalized communities can run the risk of making them an agent of their own self-appropriation in the name of activism.13
Although, similar to Kesters points in the previous section, they are valid and accurate points in their summary of the moral implications of these types community/activism-based projects, I feel WochenKlausur take appropriate ethical steps in both this intervention and ones that have come before and since to avoid the moral infringements Foster refers to in his critique.
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To conclude, the idea of new genre public art is not so much new but ever-changing under the social, economic and political conditions that they are prescribed to explore and discuss. In this essay I have attempted to process and chart how these types of community-based projects have grown to become more measurable in their effectivity and as if by natural progression have become increasingly more activist in their nature. I predict the future of new genre public art may reside in a type of community-based dialogue that attempts to explore emotional issues within individuals from a semi-therapeutical perspective, distant from art therapy in a sense that dialogue and is used alongside artistic expression to aid people in gaining a deeper understanding of their emotional identities in a time when mental health is becoming so widely discussed and activated within public consciousness.