Limits of art in public space. Do artists have a right to our yards? / Joanna Erbel

More and more art projects have appeared in Polish cities in the last few years. Nobody wonders at a new mural, installation on a square or pavement, a renovated neon sign, an artificial plant or a strange object floating on the river. Public space is treated as a field of social debate, while artistic interventions are one of the ways of voicing one’s opinion: both critical as well as aiming to facilitate official national remembrance policy or promote government’s programmes. Especially the latter may be visible during anniversary events: Chopin, Marie Curie-Skłodowska or Miłosz Year, European Culture Capital, Polish presidency in the EU, celebrations of historical events which constitute an element of remembrance policy and many others. Currently, there are virtually no voices opposing art’s right to be present in public space – even if its presence is a provocation. Contrary to some theoreticians’ (1), predictions, public space has not lost its meaning altogether. What is more, it is again becoming synonymous to public sphere. Both left- and right-wing parties supporters take advantage of this. A question which arises does not concern whether public space should be politically neutral or not, but if there are limits to artistic and other interventions in urban space whose aim is to pinpoint some important social problem. If they exist, where is the borderline of intervention? How far can artists interfere with the fabric of the city without asking the inhabitants or users of a given space for permission?

The difficulty of determining limits of intervention, as well as giving a sharp definition of art in public space, concerns both the approaches derived from Habermas’s idea of public sphere as well as those based on the agonistic perception of society. In case of the former, as Karol Franczak notices, there is tension between public sphere and private sphere: ‘Many misunderstandings stem from contrasting public sphere (associated by many theoreticians with consensus, coherence, universalism) and private sphere (which is usually characterized by pluralism and variety).’ (2) Public space is an area where actions are directed at building agreement between its users and refraining from particularistic settlements. The issue whether highlighting differences and generating conflicts is justified remains controversial, but the key question is the question about methods of reaching consensus and whether ‘public space is a place which belongs to everybody and an area where non-violent discussion is possible, whether it is possible to recognize the legitimacy of disputes on subjects which may or may not be socially important?’ (3) In the case of agonistic conceptions – public space is tainted with conflict and struggle for hegemony. ‘Public spaces – Chantal Mouffe writes –are always striated and hegemonically structured. A given hegemony results from a specific articulation of a diversity of spaces and this means that the hegemonic struggle also consist in the attempt to create a different form of articulation among public spaces.’ (4) The impact of public art, which takes on a political character by virtue of its interference with public space, is vital. ‘Artistic practices play a role in the constitution and maintenance of a given symbolic order or in its challenging (…).’(5)

Both consensual and agonistic visions of public sphere perceive public space as one of its dimensions. They assume that actions in urban public space are subject to different rules than in private space because they are connected with the production and reproduction of democratic order. However, both theories, by concentrating on contrasting public sphere and private sphere, or focusing on public space, fail to include spaces which cannot be included in either of the categories. A number of spaces are neither unambiguously public nor private – they become difficult to classify. After all, there are many semi-public spaces, such as yards, playgrounds, the inside of housing estates, or even building facades, which belong to private owners or housing cooperatives. Similar in character are properties owned by the city but used by a given community. Their public status changes according to how they are used and how visible and publically-available they are. A mural on a building facade which criticises the political situation makes the building take a stance in public debate. An enclosed yard which becomes an area of artistic activities also changes its status.

One of the features of urban space is that the public status of a given place is never permanently defined, but described by actions. By definition, urban space is not public space if it is not used socially. Frequently it is private spaces, e.g. cafes, that have a larger social and political potential than areas owned by the city (which are by definition common). Jeb Brugman, when describing the phenomenon of Barcelona as a model for other cities due to the intensiveness of social life in common spaces, uses the term espai public. Espai public is not synonymous with public space (understood as common space, because it is urban). It is also different from private space. (6) It consists of common places (streets, squares, building facades, shops), some of which are urban spaces (i.e. public), some are private property. It is a kind of what Manuel DeLanda calls assemblages. Their characteristic feature is that ‘a component part of an assemblage may be detached from it and plugged into a different assemblage in which its interactions are different.’ (7) Moreover, an assemblage constitutes a greater whole not because of its immanent features but via its relations of exteriority. It exists as a whole because it is used that way. Its boundaries are fixed, but define themselves in action.

A dynamic shift of boundaries between what is public and what is exempt from public use is one of the features of urban space. Private space in the city, especially cafes and clubs, is sucked into the city by people who use it, crowds who are not interested in respecting boundaries between what is private and what is urban. Urban space in turn loses its public character when it can no longer be used that way. However, Brugman stresses that espai public is not only used, but it is also an object of discussion of many social actors (inhabitants, organisations, city authorities), in which private and public interests interweave. In Brugman’s vision of the city there is no boundary between what is private and public. The city is a complex system and this boundary is fluid. The space of social life is not ‘public space’ but espai public. It is espai public which is an area where we deal with so called ‘art in public space’.

If we were to draw consequences from Brugman’s proposal, it would have to be assumed that every space which is socially used – irrespectively of whether it is urban or private – has a chance to become public space (in the meaning of espai public) and therefore to enter the area of public debate. But should it? Should public utility and stimulating public debate be the final argument in case of urban interventions? Do artists have a right to enter every space they find important because of the possibilities it presents to art or potentially beneficial effect it might cause? Is the willingness to revive the city or the discussion justification enough for artistic interventions? Especially if it ignores the resistance of local inhabitants?

If we look from the perspective of the field of art – the answer would probably be affirmative. Art, and critical art in particular, not only has the right, but in a way it is obliged to penetrate new areas, cross boundaries. It should not be concerned with the resistance of a local community because, as it was shown by Warsaw  projects such as Paweł Althamer’s Guma (2010), which was a monument of a local alcoholic who had died, or Rajkowska’s palm tree (Pozdrowienia z Alej Jerozolimskich, 2001), whose aim was to remember a forgotten history of a Jewish settlement New Jerusalem (and which was read as a strange object, a funny holiday tree), a local community very often needs time to get used to a given object. The initial disapproval vanishes and a given object becomes a permanent part of its surroundings, is respected and looked after. What is more, as a 2010 study on the influence of art in public space showed (8), a large group of people who participated in Warsaw art projects rooted in urban space trusted artists more than city authorities, architects or non-governmental organisations. The respondents saw innovative potential of the art projects and concluded that it should be artists who are first to diagnose urban space and make an intervention in it. They also emphasised that such solutions is only acceptable for temporary projects whereas long-time spatial solutions should be consulted with the society. Art would serve to recognise the situation, initiate discussion and move it to a different level.

However, positive reception of art concerns only those projects which either improve the quality of public space without gentrifying it or give a new identity to a place, elevate it instead of criticising. In the first case, the situation is rather clear –the appearing of art in urban space should not result in a radical change of the social profile of the whole district. Gentrification, as Rafał Rudnicki puts it, ‘has a class character – people who move into a gentrified area usually have a far greater financial potential and higher social position than people who lived there so far.’ (9) The arrival of new, richer inhabitants is usually accompanied by an increase in rent and prices in local shops. Cost of living rises as well. Artistic interventions which make an area familiar, increase its symbolic capital, remove the label of a ‘dangerous neighbourhood’  and make it fashionable are usually in the avant-garde of the change. If they are combined with actions whose aim is to educate the inhabitants then, as Mikołaj Iwański and Rafał Jakubowicz notice, ‘seemingly distant and uncoordinated projects, initiatives and actions meet at a certain level. They become joint by a common aim – gentrification.’(10)

A majority of art projects which take place in potentially attractive districts leads to their gentrification, but it does not have to be a rule. There is a number of initiatives which enter public and semi-public spaces that do not carry negative effects but result in an improvement of the quality of space and strengthen neighbourly bonds. The best example of such a project is Paweł Althamer’s Wspólna Sprawa (2010). Its material effect was a joint effort of the artist and the inhabitants to renovate a stairwell in a block of flats at ul. Krasnobrodzka 13 in Bródno, Warsaw. A neglected stairwell was enlarged (the original shape of the common space on the ground floor was restored) and renovated in such a way that it looked like a spaceship. The idea to turn the stairwell into a spaceship was the result of a discussion among the residents of Krasnobrodzka 13. An immaterial effect – strengthening neighbourly bonds. The renovation was preceded by a series of actions which successfully promoted the project. The most well-known of them was a flight of Golden People (the artist, residents of Krasnobrodzka 13 and other people wore golden suits) to Brussels on the twentieth anniversary of regaining independence in 1989.

Interventions in common and semi-public space bring about positive results if they are an element of a long-term process and are based on cooperation with the local community. Other examples of such projects are actions undertaken by the Lipowa Odnowa association, which since 2008 has concentrated around ul. Lipowa in Łódź. Their aim is social revitalization and ‘making the inhabitants conscious that it is worth acting and working to improve the surroundings. An ordinary citizen does not believe that his actions can contribute anything to community life – the project’s aim is to persuade them that it is possible to have an influence on the appearance, infrastructure and character of the place we live in.’ (11) The priority is joint work with the community, not a one-time artistic action.

It does not mean, however, that short-term interventions in a neighbourhood must necessarily be harmful. Site-specific actions may constitute a greater whole and become elements of a long-lasting process which is directed at improving not only the quality of space, but also the quality of life of a local community. AN example of such a project could be the KNOT held in Praga, Warsaw, which is a mobile urban centre of art, culture, thought, sport, science and recreation. (12) The KNOT stopped in the Praga Północ district of Warsaw, in the previously closed garden of the Konopacki Palace. Thanks to the project, not only was the green area made available to people, but a number of ideas about how to revitalise it were put forward. After the KNOT, a group of sociologists, artists and social workers established the PRECEL – Praskie Centrum Rewitalizacji Społecznej (The Praga Centre for Social Revitalizaion) (13), which continues the action in the district in cooperation with local art galleries, restaurants and organisations.

A continuation of action is also an important element of those projects whose aim is not working with people, but directing attention at a problem. The question of exclusion is an attractive topic chosen by people who are not interested in improving the quality of life of a given community. The boom for ‘socially involved’ projects was caused not by the issue itself, but also by the availability of EU funds spent during the European Year for Fighting Poverty and Exclusion (2010) and by an increase in money spent by cities on such projects. In Warsaw, the most controversial of them was Grzegorz Drozd’s Universal, carried out on the Dudziarska housing estate. Dudziarska was built in the early 1990s in response to the problem of a lack of flats for evicted troublesome residents. Cut off from the city by railways from three sides, it quickly became a ‘district of poverty’. At the top of the blocks of flats, Drozd and Alicja Łukasik created paintings which referred to modernist works of art. On one wall, a paraphrase of Malewicz’s Black Square in a White Background was painted, on another – Mondrian’s works. The project was perceived by the residents of Dudziarska as preying on their misfortunes (the black colour was supposed to emphasise that they ‘live in a black hole’ (14) ). Drozd himself did not consult the project with local residents. He felt no obligation to do so due to limited funds and artist’s autonomy. One year after opening the project he wrote: ‘I did not think I could repair decades-long influence of this housing estate on its residents, simply because I would not know how and I do not believe I could help them. All I could do was to wake up a beast which was dormant for years and show those blocks through paintings. I did not want to refer to the issue of the residents’ life, although I admit it was difficult. I did not think either that I have to adapt the idea of my realisation to anybody’s tastes.’ (15)

Beyond doubt, the three black squares, visible from afar, reminded about the existence of Dudziarska. Probably many people who would have never gone there otherwise visited the place. A question arises: is this cognitive aspect worth investing 60 thousand zlotys spent on the paint used to make them? Especially if the people who live there, who now have to live with it, treat it as an insult, and the project in its present form serves mainly the artist’s interests or the pleasure of an educated minority who derive perverse delight in recognising and interpreting references to Malewicz’s Black Square, multiplied on the walls of a social ghetto in a faraway corner of Warsaw. Drozd and his project have shown that we should not think that art which takes on socially important issues will provide through itself an answer to the problem. Art projects which interfere seriously with an area used by a given community and revitalize are few and far between. Unlike Paweł Althamer, not all critical artists are willing to work with people and many interventions, which use various formal means, simply show topics of social importance.

It may be concluded that artists are under no obligation to work with the community on whose area they are operating. However, they should not ignore the negative effects of their work, such as gentrification or humiliating a given community by showing its lousy living conditions without providing them with any tools to change their situation. Projects which deal with socially important issues should have their continuation in a broader public debate, further research, launching social programmes or any other form which would contribute to social revitalization of a given area. If caring about the continuation of projects is not artists’ duty, it should be the duty of curators and the organisations which helped to carry them out. Otherwise, the artists’ right to enter squares, streets, yards and housing estates, where people might not wish to be objects of contemporary art, could be legitimately questioned.

Joanna Erbel (1984) – a sociologist, photographer, urban activist. She is writing her doctoral thesis in the Institute of Sociology at Warsaw University on the role of art projects and other non-human actors in changing public space in Warsaw. She is member of the editorial team of Krytyka Polityczna and the Duopolis association. She works at the meeting of the field of art and science.   

1. compare: K. Nawratek, Miasto jako idea polityczna, korporacja ha!art, Kraków 2008, s. 74.
2. K. Franczak Demokratyczny potencjał sztuki w przestrzeni miejskiej, in: O miejskiej sferze publicznej.
Obywatelskość i konflikty o przestrzeń, M. Nowak, P. Pluciński, korporacja ha!art, Kraków 2011.
3. Ibid., p. 260-261.
4. Ch. Mouffe, Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces, last visit: 24.10.2011.
5. Ibid.
6. J. Brugman, Welcome to the Urban Revolution. How Cities Are Changing the World, Thomson Press, London 2009, p. 231.
7. M. De Landa, Philosophy of Society, London/New York: Continuum, 2006, p. 10.
8. J. Erbel, K. Herbst, Sztuka w przestrzeni publicznej. Raport z badania, in: Liberated Energy, J. Baranowska, P. Sztarbowski (ed.), Instytut Teatralny im. Zbigniewa Raszyńskiego, Warsaw 2011, p. 154-171.
9. R. Rudnicki, Gentryfikacja: przyczyny, mechanizmy działania i warszawskie przykłady zjawiska, ‘Odzyskać miasto – burżuazja wraca do centrum’, ‘Przegląd Anarchistyczny’, nr 11, spring-summer 2010, p. 62.
10. M. Iwański, Rafał Jakubowicz, Rewitalizacja czy gentryfikacja poznańskiego Chwaliszewa, ‘Przegląd Anarchistyczny’, nr 12, p. 257.
11. “O projekcie”,, last visit: 28.08.2011.
12. Curators of the project: Markus Bader (raumlabor), Oliver Baurhenn (DISK/CTM), Kuba Szreder (independent curator), Raluca Voinea (E-cart). The KNOT was at the core of The Promised City project, which was carried out in 2011 by Goethe Institut. Compare: The KNOT. An experiment on collaborative art in public urban spaces, M. Bader, O. Baurnhenn, K. Szreder, R. Voinea and K. Koch (ed.), Jovis, Berlin 2011.
13. Among the members of PRECEL there are: Maciej Czeredys (former Voivodship Conservator of Monuments), art curator Kuba Szreder, political scientist Natalia Romik, local activist Kasia Kazimierowska (director of the Warsaw Is a Woman festival), graphic artist Krzysztof Grzybacz, artist Piotr Kojta Kowalski (Nowa Praga association), activist Magda Mosiewicz (cooperates with, among others, the Museum of Contemporary Art), journalist Natalia Bet (writes about historical architecture) and sociologists dr Irena Herbst, dr Krzysztof Herbst and a social anthropologist from Cambridge University – Michał Murawski.
14. A. Kowalska, Artyści zmieniają jedno z najgorszych osiedli stolicy, ‘Gazeta Wyborcza. Stołeczna’, 5 October 2010.,102725,8464877,Artysci_zmieniaja_jedno_z_najgorszych_osiedli_w_stolicy.html, last visit 07.07.2011.
15. G. Drozd, Obudzić śpiącą bestię, ‘Miejsca transformacji’, ‘Krytyka Polityczna’ 27-28/2011, p. 58.