Forming futures within pasts; remembering in public; Journeys through public art

Cities are becoming over ridden with signs and symbols that are no longer readable; no longer a clarity in their monuments hastily put up with government money. A walk through the city centre and what can one find? The city scattered with objects; forms, shapes colors; a language which we are yet to read.

Cities, like history, do not reveal themselves. They contain their past like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings in the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of lightening rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.’ ( Calvino)

The city now, speaking through illusive walks and wanders can be divided as though two parts, resonant and non resonant. The parts and encounters of the urban which speak silently of memory; in celebration or in loss; making the cement walls with sentiment unmoving even when painted over again and again.

The elephant?

The Dog?

The Ball?

The Cube?

The meaningless objects which scatter the city; taking up space and funds which could be spent on hospitals and pavements? To whose agenda does this ‘art’ adhere to?

The art of the city cannot be public?

The value of public art/ architectures of memory can be seen in those which really have function and purpose. To serve memory, personal histories, crafted with a necessity to make public things which should not be forgotten. The art of public art? Making a place in the public realm for reflection, for a sense that some things need more than history books? But then there are the markets, the pubs , the street corners, where the stories are told. Quietly, loudly, they are repeated, past on, marked and remembered; not art, but history.

The past lingers; the past repeats, the past emits messages, signs and symbols. The past is inescapable, yet it can be formed, presented, reconstructed, a malleable entity which is selectively interpreted to a plethora of cultural diasporas. The city contains an imprint of its past, selective and curated by all those who inhabit it. Forming a pliable collage to the nostalgias and grievances of those who inhabit the city flux. The transitions and impressions of the city notate a cultural identity and detain a nuance which impresses individuality contained and framed in time and space and in the minds of the citizens who inhabit.

The city functions as a mechanism shaped by the routines and established and non- established sets of practices of daily life; a vehicle for the population who inhabit it; to go about their daily lives shaped by the factors they collectively and individually determine; the city is both an emblem for their needs and a projection of their various intentions for the particularities of their everyday. Such projections shape the architecture, the transport, accommodations, commerce, leisure, routine and cycle of the city; dictated by the mass in various private and public arenas. The notion which the city’s past can exist as a separate entity from the social projections from the various strata of inhabitation paves the way for a view of the urban landscape as mechanical and void from human touch and interaction; as though the architecture of the city has a function which denies the human significance, rather demotes the role of the human to machine; such brutal impressions of the urban are repeated in narrative and architecture; ‘No camera, no image, no sequence of images can show these rhythms. Once needs equally attentive eyes and ears, a head, a memory, a heart. A memory? Yes, to grasp this present other than in the immediate, restitute it in its moments in the movement of various rhythms.’ Lefebvre is alluding to the seminal function of memory to shape the built environment in a mode akin to the desires and needs of the citizen. The presence of the past in cities becomes symptomatic of the harness and grip of the population on the image and structure of the urban present and future.

How does this relate to theories of the architecture of public art? The ‘people’s stories.’

If we are to consider the city as Levefrevbre suggested; ‘The city as a projection of society on the ground.’ then the society itself can be said to contain the past; a living breathing population of nostalgia and identity which extends into the deep metaphorical crevasses of urban structure. How far can collective and personal memory be projected on to the city; facilitated an impression as to residual histories that may not appear aesthetically within the city. How far is oral history used within urban construction as a means of social reconciliation and how far can this be enabled as methodology for enabling sensitive development of urban memorials.

What can then this reflects as to the function and purpose of public art to address and platform the needs of those who it serves? Does public art serve anybody? How can the value and addition of public art be monitored and registered? For it cannot be compared between cities; each city becomes a container for the stories which make the texture to its fabric.

Public art? public memory? to whom do we adhere for their memory? images which can mean something, everything and nothing; there is no unity in memory; collective memory becomes a weapon of social control and also social power; enabling and disabling through its constant repetition; still this remains on street corners, in the back rooms, in the corner shop.. this is not public, this is not private; this is memory; which holds its own.

My research as to the curation of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the residues of Nazi atrocity within Berlin have enabled me to allude to the seminal importance of the role of memory from those who inhabit cities to how far the past is socially able to manifest in the built environment. Memorial can be constructed; typographies of remembrance can be inscribed over fragments of forgotten traces; yet such objectification of the past cannot culturally and socially resonate to urban citizens if they lack intellectual and emotional awareness towards the past which such inscriptions hold. The city naturally resonates a temporal and distant past through the very means by which it is constructed yet interventions, formal or informal create a level of empathy which the landscape alone may not curate. The nuance of human occupation and intervention in the built environment resonates to a profound level if the viewer has a cultural awareness as to the significance of such action. The past is an all consuming organism; which left uncontrolled; unmediated and unremembered, will manifest; even in hushed voices behind closed doors. The city becomes a larger vessel for the past simply because of the sheer weight of overlapping significant and anecdotal pasts which overlap in a symphony in the various enclaves for encounter which fashion themselves as the city. Memory can become a cultural vessel or lumbering weight towards the notion of urban progress; how the past is enabled or forcibly wills itself to manifest metamorphoses the sentiments of collective and personal emotions and sensitivities towards the past.

This note pays homage to the Bogside Artists. An interview conducted with them this week to me revealed the real value of genuine work which has never been government funded and is funded by the help of the residents of the Bogside in Derry. Their work has made an invaluable addition to a troubled landscape; marking with paint, things that should never be forgotten and making a place in the city for memory. Their work reveals a sensitivity which cannot be found in the examples of the inanimate object I have found, a life force which means as Bogside Artist, Kevin pointed out, there is no government funding, there is no money poured in, yet they bring some of the biggest tourism to the city of Derry; all the murals are on peoples houses; in an area where graffiti is rife; in their time; the murals have been left untouched; no marks, no scars, just their form. A sign of respect and acknowledgement of their real value; which cannot be counted in pounds.

( This post is a example of strands of interest within my current AHRC research.)

~ by beatricejarvis on July 17, 2010.

One Response to “Forming futures within pasts; remembering in public; Journeys through public art”

  1. Thanks for the gong Beatrice,
    We really appreciate it!

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