Public authorship

Public authorship, Jochen Gerz @ 2017

New work may be commissioned by administrations, governments, urban institutions, associations or communities, or by publicly or privately funded initiatives or foundations. The art market is not dominant in this development. Its place is taken over by civil society. Commissions for public authorship are often the result of discussions originating inside the public sphere even before the artist is involved, for example by a post-industrial region looking for new ways to address shrinking cities, by cities, towns or even villages with problems relating to migration, integration and racism, but also by museums or other cultural institutions. In exchange for public funding, these are expected to offer solutions not only for themselves (for example, to address the absence of visitors) but also for the urban society funding the commission, and to manifest a genuine interest in the state and wellbeing of all of society. The cultural experience of a much larger public than the elites traditionally addressed by art museums and academia is the focus of local, regional and even national policies. The open-ended and untested dialogue with society as a whole is considered by a new generation of politicians and administrators a necessity, a challenge and politically the right thing to do. Even if they operate through cultural institutions, they are the commissioners of the art of public authorship.

While it is new for the artist to address society directly and beyond the traditional cultural mediation and boundaries of galleries, museums and art media, a similar challenge faces the commissioning political or cultural administrations from the local to international levels. The first negotiations take place inside administrations, among people who translate the ambient public debate in the media about living in a cultural society into their own workplace. Whatever their occupation inside their department, art and creativity, almost all of a sudden, are part of their brief. These first discussions inside and between administrations regularly turn to the state of the public, to local habitations and real people in real neighbourhoods. It is clearly understood that the codes of the art world are a barrier rather than a bridge not only for new immigrant suburban populations, while the cultural divide inside the cultural urban centres is bigger than ever. Yet at the same time the discussions often show the widely shared “modern” belief that art, all art, should in principle at least be able to address and heal social woes.

Society is doing the commissioning here, not the prince. It is often a long, winding, chaotic process, but whatever happens can be a constructive element of an artistic process, a new work. Creativity, theory and practice as well as all of the concrete considerations leading to the decision to realise a public artwork are part of the discussion as soon as the artist is invited and involved. How does this happen? The lack of experience, of a precedent, is almost a natural, accepted circumstance of an experimental situation. The meetings during a short period of time happen almost by chance and spontaneously (inside and outside of working hours), which is surprising given the ritualistic nature of administrative decision-making. What happens during these first contacts is nothing less than the beginning of a routine, a language, an understanding. People speak together and start to trust each other. They seem to like what they see.

The new and inexperienced partnership and collaboration is stimulating for both sides. Artists understand and explain their intentions in a different way, while at the same time politicians or civil servants start to measure the change they are about to experience: art is indeed part of their brief. They need to explain and admit in a more radical way to themselves the needs of “the city”. And they need to prepare for a long-term relationship and engagement, for a long-term strategy and budget, and for a slow process with little visibility and no immediate political profit. The one thing the commissioners are aware of at the outset of the process is the risk it could bring for their position in the workplace and even to their career.

They need to engage with people “from outside”, creative people – the artist and his group – and with fluctuating populations participating in the art process. They see the need for public authorship. Who will accept the invitation? Nobody knows. Even the artist does not know. This could mean local media scrutiny, arguments or public controversy – all of which politicians, administrations and institutions try to avoid. Often participants do not read the local newspaper, or do not or cannot even vote. The speechlessness that qualifies them for participation disqualifies them as a political lobby. The decision of society to enter public space as commissioners of public authorship is not an easy one. Public authorship is first and foremost a risk for the elites, for the political and the creative “authorities”. Who will share the doubts? It exposes the often hidden frailties of decision-making in democracy. The immediate chances to succeed are slim. But who asks a water feature, a fountain or a sculpture to succeed in the city?

Quod a me expectatur? (Nos) The cultural department of the city says: We do not need a new sculpture. The department of public works says: We do not need a new bridge, a new house, a new street. What do you want from me? asks the artist. Help would be the honest answer. The gallery shelves are full of goods; all other shelves are full of goods. The city built bridges, streets, houses but now it needs to turn to the people, to listen to them, to remember democracy, the constitution, to remember: We, the people… People say: We no longer recognise the vote we have cast. The first challenge is to make the commissioners themselves aware of what they are doing; to convince them to participate in a long and open process, to believe and to doubt, to share information, to act and to sign in public, to sign first and foremost for themselves. They are people. It is not easy to leave the hideouts of culture and politics. Only they themselves, the commissioners, can communicate what they want to achieve and why they want the public to be involved. They are the public and their coming out creates the political setting and helps the artists understand what can be envisioned, the future work. They are the authors. All of this is unusual. The lines are blurred. All of this has the potential of creating conflicts as much as being consensual.

On the basis of this first set of negotiations between the commissioner and the artist, the challenge extends to the difficult process of defining in situ and more or less together the topic and the extent of authorship. This sometimes requires all those involved to imagine the unexpected and to recognise people as participants outside of an artistic or even other defined context, and to approach them with a defining question that is both provocative and persuasive enough to engage individuals from very different strata of society, or communities opposed to each other.

This question may be asked in as many individual encounters as there are participants, constituencies or communities involved in a work. The question may be personal, public or secret. In some cases newspapers or social media ask the question and collect the answers. In most cases the artist meets each participant, asks the question, and listens to, discusses and notes the answer. Participants are not helpers of the artist. Here, the answer constitutes the only way forward and outcome for the artwork, which cannot happen without the authorship of a public, a multitude. Whatever the question or the other circumstances, public authorship means people at all stages of the artistic work process. They create together – as commissioners, artists, participants, as the contributing or not contributing general public, as readers of the printed press, as users of social media or as citizens of a city, a region, a country or the world – the same dynamics formerly at play in a studio between one single person and his or her work of art.

Public authorship nurtures and makes a flurry of ideas, options, opinions and expectations interchange and co-exist, all of which in turn creates and contributes to democracy. Diversity needs rethinking. It is not a “dog’s dinner”. In many places it is not seen as an attractive aim or even a democratic outcome. Commonly the democratic focus is on obtaining and securing majorities and quite often there is just one majority possible at a time. The biggest majority possible at any given time is secured by totalitarianism, the opposite of democracy. Totalitarianism does not tolerate diversity. While diversity is based on authorship, authorship in turn is at the base of democracy. Democracy rather than art as it is known from the past is the aesthetic and social purpose of public authorship. It is the new (plural) gestalt. Many individuals have many voices. Each voice contributes competence, equivalence and legitimacy to democracy. Democracy needs both: majorities and diversity. Diversity saves society from itself.

Publicly authored artworks suggest unexpected perspectives on today’s realities. They introduce disputed topics or taboos into public space in the guise of national history, as it is preserved in individual trauma, in denial and in the conflicting memories of minorities. They address friendship, migration, cultural and religious divisiveness as well as fatality, inequality, homelessness and life in deprived communities, basic rights, tolerance and private myths. Many of the contributions express personal responsibility and an acute sense of authorship. This is what they have in common. They turn frustrations and denial into a vocal public contribution. They take art to a new place, to unexpected social playgrounds. Again, what is at stake in these works is democracy. They not only express the confidence that democracy can be won by everybody but also the fear that it can be lost at all times.

The construction of a fitting network for every future work, including local, regional or national institutions – media, museums, academies or universities, parliaments, corporations and associations – is another task. For this to happen, a project management office with collaborators and students needs to be assembled on site, which, each time, is in a different place and often in a different country.

Involved are inhabitants of and visitors to cities or rural areas in France, Great Britain, Germany, Austria, Ireland, Italy, Denmark, Canada, the US or Switzerland, or individuals from art communities all over the world. Since the end of the 20th century, the Internet has provided access to less and less well-defined constituencies.

Looking back from the beginning, the cradle of the promise of modernity was technology, not art. “New media”, hailed as a new art in the seventies (and since then mutating more and more rapidly), were in fact already in existence in the late 19th century; they were invented for purposes other than art.

People are invited to contribute in different ways to public authorship commissions. They may be asked to figure in an exhibition, to publish a statement in a newspaper, to physically participate in a public manifestation, to answer a question, to ask for money in the street, to write a book with others, to alter a street, to move to another location, to conduct research in public, to have their name engraved in a square, to keep a secret, to visit a prison, to vote, to donate a tree, to cook and eat in the street, to share and take responsibility for a public decision, or to develop a concept for their community. The physical means and results of these works include a variety of public, ephemeral or permanent, visible or invisible, manifestations such as words, names, photographs, enamel plates, signposts, objects, light installations, contributions to newspapers, books, posters, postcards, flyers, radio jingles, entries in the worldwide web, or also spontaneous, short-lived events in real time that leave no trace.

Public authorship changes the artist’s life radically. The workplace is no longer the studio but is located in the midst of a social framework in a far-away place, quite often in another country that can only be reached by intense travelling. In addition, the collective and collaborative nature of public authorship signifies that time cannot be an abstract, given part of the concept. From the early commission and concept state to completion, each of these works takes several years. Most of them take longer than initially planned and budgeted for; others, like the recent Square of the European Promise in Bochum, Germany, are inaugurated eleven years after being commissioned and after having been interrupted many times. Still others, like 63 Years After in Graz, Austria, are removed at great cost only a few years after being commissioned, realised and inaugurated. The artist has left, the administration or the political landscape has changed after local, regional or national elections, and the work has become part of what a new parliamentary majority considers urgent to change ­– a provocation. Public space is not a safe place.

The option to say “yes” is as important as the freedom to say “no”. For different reasons, almost half of the commissioned works are not realised. The reasons for accepting a new commission are also different each time. It is necessary to be able to say “no”. Many discussions are needed before a concept is agreed upon, but whatever happens during the negotiations, even before the work is commissioned, is public authorship.

Public authorship starts with the desire of people to talk. These are patient discussions engaging individuals rather than institutions, and during this delicate early phase people with backgrounds and interests other than art have a say. For once, materiality and function are not prioritised over people, as the topic of the search for understanding and common ground is also people. Negotiating one’s own ideas, one’s own art with oneself or with others is different. The subject is not the utopian’s utopia either. Utopia does not have a zip code; it does not live in a street. Utopia lives in the minds of people. It means many things at the same time. Again, the subject is the authorship of society.

Public authorship shares certain aspects and issues with other artworks in public space – the issues of maintenance and restoration, of its agreed or open-ended time-frame, of its materiality or its immateriality. The political reasons and public circumstances leading to controversy or even to a work’s abandonment or removal can also be similar to those for all types of public art. Public authorship is art in as far as it can fail. Its specific risk is the sameness it shares with society itself. The risk here is from the beginning synonymous with public entitlement. Cultural societies are vulnerable. People are as free to withdraw from public authorship as they are to vote or not to vote. In both cases this raises the question: What are the consequences of giving up your rights?

The result of public authorship is no longer a conventional artwork, nor would that be its goal. The goal is to make creativity a part of the social fabric and the intimate competence of more and more people, and through that to emancipate society itself. Art is no longer an end in itself. It dissolves into society – a society that identifies with authorship, and in this case identifies with itself and is ready to provide “reliable frameworks for the invisible social stage on which everyone is welcome” Pfütze 2010. The artwork in this case can be seen as an opportunity to experience and become part of an increasingly large public practice and thus develop in situ a shared public life. All of this is normal and happens all the time. Creativity is indeed everybody’s gift. It is therefore not only the gift of a few; it is social (and not only artistic) by its very nature: this is the message. Public authorship aims at the transformation of everybody’s own gift of creativity into as many contributions to the commons of democracy.

The role and the status of the artist cannot go unchallenged if all of society is to become the site of creative contention – if society is to become both, the new artist and the new work of art.

My name is Jochen Gerz