Buckle your seatbelts for a wild, multi-disciplinary ride to explore why all urban space is art... why every individual entering public space is an artist.... how the design of public space either feeds or inhibits this artist.... how professional artists involved in the production of 'public art' should therefore respond.
This is an interactive article - a journey of discovery in which you participate. So take a moment to reflect on these two questions: What is your view of cities? And what is the role of 'public art' in the life of cities?
Does your answer contain one of the following two notions: Public spaces are an ideal but 'blank' display area for art? Or, urban environments are a hostile and ugly setting which can be made a little more tolerable through art? If so, you may be unwittingly abetting other cultural forces which shackle the creative genius, not just of artists, but of all inhabitants of the city. You may therefore be contributing (unknowiingly of course) to the undermining of the creative potential of the city itself.
So buckle your seatbelt for a wild, multi-disciplinary ride as we explore in 2,500 words:
" why all urban space is art
" why every individual entering public space is an artist
" how the design of public space either feeds or inhibits this artist
" how professional artists involved in the production of 'public art' should therefore respond.
Why all public space is art
I want you to take a moment and pretend you are an anthropologist examining the African tribal compound of the Ambo people (see diagram). What can you tell about the beliefs, culture and mythologies of the Ambo people by looking at this diagram?
There is a lot you can tell about the Ambo people by looking at a map of their Kraal. You may have observed one or more of the following: They put a high value on cattle - invaders must first get past the boy's sleeping huts before they can steal the ox or calves. They are a polygamous society - indicated by the second wives' quarters, other wives' quarters and the bride sitting place. Conversation and social interaction are of primary importance to the life of the kraal - the meeting place is central to the compound. Alcohol is a highly valued commodity - the brewery is closer to the Kraal Head's sleeping quarters than the first wife's sleeping quarters.
Everything we build - from our individual house to large cities - contains a 'body language' that tells us about our beliefs, values, and mythologies. And because beliefs, values and mythologies also shape social relationships - the environments we create will reinforce these patterns of social relationships. The women and children in the Kraal compound do not need to get up every morning and ask themselves, "What is my place in this society?" It is written for them in the very structure of the compound.
The arrangement of space is more than just an 'indicator' or 'artifact' of social relationships and thinking patterns. It is an 'incarnation' of those relationships and thought forms. Incarnation is a theological word meaning 'God made flesh'. It carries the notion of an invisible spirit taking on a bodily form in order to communicate and make visible their essential nature. Similarly, societies can only exist as they take on a physical and material form in the spatial realm. A built environment is not just an artifact of a society. It is the 'body' of that society which facilitates both internal and external relationships.
However, in the deepest sense, cities are also pieces of collective 'art'. They are both overt and covert attempts at 'meaning making', every minute detail conveying social and cultural images that contain specific encoded messages. We shall return to this when we discuss how the design of urban space - for example, even bolting seats to the ground, can feed or inhibit the creative potential of the city.
Why every individual entering public space is an artist
This proposition can be argued from two perspectives. Firstly, I am convinced that every brain is physiologically constructed first and foremost for creativity. The human brain is a product of the creative genius of nature. Its primary function is to extend the creative processes inherent in nature.
Science tells us that 99.9% of all life-forms that have ever lived on earth are now extinct. Picture for a moment the incredible diversity and colour of life we see right now on planet earth - parrots, tropical fish, exotic fruits, wild flowers, whales and dolphins, tigers and zebras, microscopic bacteria, giant rainforest trees. This represents less than one thousandth of the diversity and colour that nature has created over time.
Nature is hellbent on taking disorder and converting it into order and life. This is not mechanical order or production-line life. Every creation is stamped with its own unique personality - full of colour, pizzazz and sensuality.
Proof for this proposition that every brain is built primarily for creativity comes from the latest research into dreaming. Every night our rational brain goes to sleep and for about two hours each of us creates the most fantastic story films during periods of REM sleep. Scientists have found that during dreaming, all our sensory channels are being randomly activated. The mind is forced to try and create order out of this neuronal chaos, and from the chaos we create our story films. Hobson, author of The Dreaming Brain, refers to dreaming as the mind in 'autocreative' mode. He sees it as proof that every brain is built primarily for creative activity.
During REM sleep, the brain and its mind seem to be engaging in a process of fantastic creation. It is obvious that our dreams are not simply the reliving of previous experience. On the contrary, we are often actually fabricating wholly novel ones. Thus new ideas and new feelings, and new views of old problems, can be expected to arise within dreams. These may be carried forward into the conscious mind or remain unconscious as part of our deeper creative repertoire... Thus the brain of one and all is fundamentally artistic. Dreaming is therefore a nightly rehearsal of the very core of the creative drive of nature; the creation of order and meaning from chaos.
In a forthcoming work I argue that we all have at least nine creative geniuses in our head - five as a result of the evolutionary process and embedded in the physiology of the brain (Dreamer, Storytelling Romantic, Jester, Mystic, Sensual One) and four as a result of our own life experiences (Marginal Person, Child, Critical Parent, and Wise Old One).
But there is another sense in which every person entering public space is an artist. We are forced to become involved in collective meaning-making. How we dress, where we sit, how we interact with others, which side of the road we walk on, whether we walk or drive, at what speed, are all decisions which have 'artistic' implications for the shape, colour and texture of public space. They are subtle acts which influence how we, and others, experience public space and the messages we read from that space.
How public space either feeds or inhibits the inner artist
Earlier I argued that built environments embody and communicate our deepest beliefs and mythologies. I then argued that every brain is built primarily for creativity and has a number of 'creative geniuses' embedded in the brain. What I did not discuss is why some people seem to be more creative than others. My hypothesis is that our natural creative abilities are either inhibited or fed by both cultural and personal beliefs as they relate to the 'creative geniuses' within our brain. For example, in a study done on seven creative geniuses by Gardner (Creating Minds, Basic Books 1993), he found that experiences of marginality were central to the creativity of all seven individuals. Marginality is the experience of having two feet in different cultures. All creativity happens in edge territory where different worlds collide. 'Marginality' is to live at that collision point between two worlds. The seven geniuses in Gardner's study embraced their marginality as a drive to creativity.
Every person experiences feelings of marginality during their life, particularly in childhood. These feelings of marginality may be because of position of birth in your family. If you are a first born, you may have felt isolated as the leader. If you were not the first born, you may have felt that you could never measure up to the first born. Feelings of marginality may be because of your ethnic background, physical or emotional stigmata or it may because your parents were idiosyncratic in some way: religious beliefs, attitudes to education, etc. Every human being feels isolated or marginal at different points of their life. These feelings are stored in the emotional brain and act in consort to form the basis of our 'Marginal Person'. This 'Marginal Person' must be embraced and integrated if they are to feed our creative life. Alternatively they can become a drive to conformity and the death of our creative drive.
Similarly, Gardner found that all creative geniuses in his study had retained an element of the playful child. Yet culturally we denigrate our childhood by seeing it merely as a transition phase to adulthood. Adulthood means outgrowing play, fantasy, and the irrational beliefs of childhood. This cultural attitude, if embraced, shackles the creative genius of The Child that still lives in our head. There are many other cultural and personal beliefs that inhibit the creative genius of our minds: high value placed on certainty; chaos viewed as unproductive; a mechanistic view of the world that sees reality residing in things rather than the relationship between things; the rejection of paradox; distrust of emotions and the elevation of rational thought; etc.
Earlier I argued that our cultural beliefs become incarnated into the environments we create. Therefore, the inhibitors to creativity are not just in our belief systems but in our houses, our streets, our parks, and our public places. They are in the design of everything, right down to the design of the seats we put in malls and parks.
For example, if a society, and in particular the planning professionals, have cut themselves off from the Child that lives in their heads, then this will manifest itself in the way space is arranged. Segregated and specialised areas will be created for children's play. Play and the activity of children will not be integrated into adult space and therefore child's play will not intersect with the serious activities of the adult world. Traditionally, the space where children's play and the adult world intersected was the street. But this has become the exclusive province of adults moving to an adult activity, or a space for driving children in isolation to some organised play activity. This segregation of the child's world is no accident.
Every minute detail of urban design determines whether the creative geniuses in our minds are welcomed or excluded from participation in city life. For example, the orientation of public seating either encourages or inhibits people-watching, an activity loved by the storyteller in our head. The seating at the Paris cafe encourages people watching in the front stalls and the possibility of intimate conversation in the back stalls. Even the fact of whether a seat is bolted to the ground is important. Contrast the seating in the Munich square with that in a Sydney mall. If you decide to sit in a chair in the Munich square you are faced with a choice: 'Will I leave the chair here or move it?' At that moment of decision, you are transformed from citizen into urban designer. You will decide how this square will look for a few moments of time. The artist in you is forced to make an artistic decision. By contrast, the hard granite seat in Sydney shouts many messages, including: "We don't trust your design abilities. We professional designers know what looks best. If we give you a say in design, you will do what the people in Munich do, create a square that is messy and chaotic, lacking in any design sense." It also says, "This seat is hard and cold. We don't want you to sit here too long. We want you to get on with what you should be doing - shop, shop, shop." The Munich seats therefore encourage and feed our natural creative abilities, while the Sydney seat says that the creative genius within can not be trusted.
How professional artists should respond
Planners generally take a rationalist and mechanistic approach to space - spaces must have a single, defined function in order for the urban machine to operate efficiently. For example, streets and roads are defined as space for movement of cars, therefore children playing in this space would make it inefficient. However, if we examine spaces that people find instinctively attractive, they are spaces that have not been rationalised into a single use. There is ambiguity, layers of contradictory meaning, a certain amount of unpredictability, and a using of the space for activities for which it was not originally designed. In fact the spaces are often quite chaotic. They assault our senses with sights, sounds and smell. The Dreamer and Storytelling Romantic within our heads weave these chaotic elements into a meaningful plot. We can return to these spaces time and again, and every time there is a new story to construct. Planners, in their effort to create order and rationalise space, destroy the poetic nature of urban space and turn it into a sanitised scientific formula. Not that we should blame the planning professionals. They are but an expression of the dominant beliefs and values in our society - the deep-seated desire for certainty and the deep-seated distrust of the creative genius within us.
Professional artists can unwittingly reinforce this cultural belief system that inhibits our natural creative abilities. If 'public art' is seen as an 'add on' or a means of making the 'evil city' a little more tolerable, then it reinforces the very rationalisation and segregation which destroys the creative potential of the total urban environment. Professional artists should therefore see their work as contributing to a larger work of art - the entire streetscape. This will mean working with other design professionals to encourage overall design that provokes and encourages the creative geniuses that reside in every head to come out and play.