Public Interference
Symposium, SKOR / NAI, Rotterdam, 13 November 2002



As a critic and writer about design and art I wonder what this term can mean: 'art in public space'. A good method to gain insight here is a more or less detailed analysis of each of the constitutive words. Three words and their combination — what can they mean?



Traditionally, art is seen as a means to ‘uplift’ people, to make them better persons. Art, so the argumentation goes, inspires thoughts about the meaning of the artwork; about the relationship between the work and the beholder; about how the work and the beholder relate to the space in which both are present.

Further than such primary questions, which play between object and subject, a good artwork inspires thoughts about what philosophers call ‘meta-questions’:
What does the meaning I read from the artwork mean to me?
How do I relate to what the artwork tells me?
Does the work change the way I relate to my surroundings?
Do I see the world in a different light, now that the works is there?
Does the work change me?

These may be big questions, an perhaps we have forgotten how to address such questions on the basis of the awareness that they have already been substantially answered in us and around us:
in our association with a cultural identity, an ideology, a belief;
in our awareness of previously formulated bridges between dream and reality;
in our certainty that we understand the language of the artwork just as the artwork understands us…

This complex of related questions and answers — this rhetoric game of complicity — provides the context for the assumption that art betters people.

The assumption that people understand art, obtain a deeper insight in themselves and the world from that understanding, and thereby become better people, is at the same time the foundation of the idea that art in public space is more than mere decoration: art casts a different light on a place, adjusts its balance; art causes a surprise in an otherwise routinely perceived environment.

By breaking the routines of perception art animates curiosity, which had maybe dozed off in the daily experience of public space. By taking a stand vis-à-vis its surroundings art provokes the passer-by to do the same. The neutral pedestrian becomes a critical spectator. In Walter Benjamin’s terms: the artwork changes diversion into attention.



What is the public domain if not an intersection of individual experiences? A cross section of what commonly moves us, as a collective? The common denominator of our differences? The common multiple of our shared desires?

The phrase public domain once implied a consolidation: the space of freedom, equality, fraternity; the space of shared interest, of common benefit; the ‘agora’ – the marketplace of ideas and convictions – on which the public person – the citizen – promoted his opinion, both in debate and in solidarity with that common denominator: the public interest. ‘Public’ means: to share, meet, discuss, exchange, take a stand, listen, criticise, enter a conversation, measure oneself against the other, differentiate oneself from the other. All of that, within the common denominator: the shared interest in an inhabitable society, the desire for company, the desire to be yourself amidst others, the necessity of freedom of speech. Public life connects two seemingly contradicting human ambitions: to be an indivisible individual and to be part of the collective. The public domain warrants both. 

That, at least, is its basic idea: that we can be ourselves in a domain that we share with others who can be themselves as well. That we, as integer individuals don’t collide because we share certain essential values. ‘Public’, therefore, primarily designates a mental space, not a physical one: the public domain is the space in our heads, which we share — want to share — with others. The corporeal, physically experienced public domain is a reflection of that. Without this mental space, public space is in fact non-existent.




What is space if not: balance? Genesis states it in the most elementary way: God separated light from darkness, space from infinity, water from land - Without this space the earth is, as the Bible declares, “desolate and barren.”

Apart from separation, space therefore always also means: relationship.
Between fore- and background,
between standpoint and horizon,
between centre and periphery,
between inside and outside,
between place, domain and surroundings.

For thousands of years already, such relationships have given rise to interpretations.
The distance between fore- and background suggests a road, a route: which path is the best?
How does this inside relate to that outside?
How to mark the boundaries between a place and its surroundings?

Every intervention by people (and not only people) in the space they occupy represents an interpretation of that space: is this space safer than an other? More comfortable? Better fit for our purpose? More beautiful? More meaningful? As soon as a place has been defined by its delineation, appropriation and interpretation, everything inside that place has meaning. It will tell something about that place, or remain silent; it will confirm, criticise or deny that place.

The ‘genius loci’ is a spirit with a mind of its own: the character of a place; that which detaches a place from its surroundings, with which it enters into a specific relation; the contour which outlines, interprets, identifies its environment.

Inside a meaningful place, there is very little room for obscurity.


I summarize:


Art changes diversion into attention.

The public domain is the space in our minds we share with others.

Within a meaningful space, there is very little room for obscurity.

This leads me to the following conclusions – statements, actually – about art in public space:

Art in public space focuses our view to the specifics and distracts from the generic aspects of a place.

Art in public space is understood on the basis of what we, as individuals, share in public.

Art in public space always has a meaning related to that space.

I confess: most of what is formulated in these statements relates to definitions of terms, which today rather show signs of semantic erosion. To quote Hans van Houwelingen, to whom these considerations and conclusions are largely applicable — they have been essentially inspired by his work: “art in public space is dubitable, even the very notion of public space should be questioned.” Why, if we were to think along for a moment with this lament by Hans van Houwelingen from 1991, would that be the case. 

From Van Houwelingen’s texts and work emerge the contours of his doubt, and the questions he poses himself as an artist committed to the quality of the public domain: Can there be mention of ‘public space’ at all if we see the world increasingly as a puzzle of disparate, partly overlapping and frequently conflicting private domains? Can there be meaningful space when everybody is free to interpret and experience that meaning without bothering too much about the significance others, using the same space, may project onto it? What is the meaning of ‘public’ when it is merely defined as the sum total of a random amount of individuals? And can art still be meaningful when it is only allowed to represent the common divider of our desires because otherwise it won’t be understood, nor accepted by the atomised collective? What, in short, can art express if its space has to limit itself to consensus? Hans van Houwelingen answers the last question with an unequivocal: nothing. 

On the other hand: Art which ventures into public space takes part in public life, which means that it primarily engages with public matters and less with individual ones; the Benjaminian ‘diversion’ is not completely neutralised by the concentration the work demands, but in public space it can also not be too arrogantly sure of undivided attention. The work is, in sum, not ‘autonomous’ anymore as soon as it wants to meaningfully enter public space: it has become a discourse, a dialogue, a proposal to the space, to public life; the work of art not only communicates with itself anymore.

The artwork in public space serves two, at times conflicting, masters: art and the public domain. Consequently, the challenge faced by artists who want to anchor their work in public space is: to root the individual in the public domain; to engage in the debate between individual and collective; to relate personal significance to the public meaning of a place; to regard the work as ‘social statement’ in stead of ‘private expression’. 

That is what makes art in public space ‘applied art’ in the best sense of the term:
the application of general values to a specific expression;
an individual message socially directed at fellow users of public space;
a design that expresses a proper point of view on the basis of an insight into its collective sources;
a work that activates the potential of a space and its users;
a personal reply to a common question, which suggests meaningful answers vis-a-vis the significance of a space. 

Art in public space is idiosyncrasy applied to the public domain and generated from an analysis of its social and cultural environment. Designed from the awareness that the artist in public space is a medium at the service of public cultural interest. The quality of his work is essentially defined by the measure in which he succeeds, to use an antiquated phrase from the 1960s, in ‘making the personal politic’. If these insights and requirements have been met, art in public space can meet its original aim, and that of her patrons:

To uplift citizens.




This essay appeared as the introduction to "STIFF, Hans van Houwelingen vs. Public Art", Artimo, Amsterdam 2004. It is an adapted version of a presentation during the symposium ‘Public Interference’, organised by SKOR in the NAI, Rotterdam, 13 November 2002.

max bruinsma