The indirect exchange of uncertain value Summer School – Guest Blog by Shona MacNaughton

Day 1 – Civic responsibility

On the first day of the Public Art Summer School we learned about the most traditional of public art forms – the commemorative monument.

Meeting in the Broughton High School art department, the base of the Public Art Summer School, surrounded by the remnants of secondary education, mood boards and still life parts, unit indicators and disembodied dolls, the participants met each other and were introduced to the project. Likes and dislikes of public art were shared; figures standing in water, giraffes, defunct funnels, marble steps and shopping mall turds. Issues of participation, popularity and the successful life of a public art work were raised.

Then Ray McKenzie gave a brief overview of his research in public art before taking us on a tour of Edinburgh’s New Town examples. He laid down the facets of narrative context making for a cultural object; the urban, the political and the visual, making the point that their existence was never neutral, it was always a political act. Ideologically driven, the end result is an outcome of power struggles and subject to competing factors. And as was actually emphasised by the bank removing us from this grating, “public” art is forever entwined and restricted by private ownership.

The case of Sandy Stoddart ‘s statue (2008) of physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) seemed to encapsulate several ideas surrounding the manipulation of history and the responsibility that incurs. There seemed to be a number of contradictions in the commemoration of someone from a certain time who was not formerly commemorated, in the style of that time as if they were commemorated. So essentially this could be seen as a fake monument which seeks to fool the public, by re-writing history as it should have been. Is it then by that logic a thoroughly accidental post-modern act? In seeking to be anti-gaudy does Stoddart in fact create something which has more in common with the replications of antiquity available in Las Vegas, adding a pretender to Edinburgh’s historical theme park. In the context of the frequently corrupt history of these statues does it not, instead of elevating that figure to its rightful place, situate it within those values of power, and therein position itself in the defiance of a craft, with the emulation of the values it represents.  As one of us asked when contemplating the immortalised swaggering playboy himself George IV, “why are they still here?” Perhaps because as markers of history, a fascinating history as told by an eloquent enthusiast such as McKenzie which cannot be reset lest it be forgotten, they are the result of a specific set of circumstances which tell of that time. Messing with the timeline of these markers either adds a new post-modern layer of reality or is an arrogant act in line with the dominant power elite which righteously plonked in the first place.

Day 2 – Textual Spectacle

On the second day of Public Art Summer School we learnt about using decontextualised sources towards making collaborative works.

You have 45 minutes to witness or take part in a textual spectacle not meant for you…

Chris Evans gave instructions to auto appropriate in the immediate environment. Looking over metaphorical shoulders participants roamed the school and the surrounding area, lifting text from disparate sources such as instructional posters, discarded gift cards, Waitrose comment books, and 4×4 vehicles. Given the choice to manipulate or leave as found, gleaning poetry from decontextualisation, the texts were then thrown in a communal pot to author swap.

There is no shame in illustration…

A further layer of interpretation was added, whereby participants were asked to visually represent the fragments of text. An intensive scribbling and cutting followed, and the results were projected alongside reciting the texts.A kind of three way authorship collaboration, from the unaware appropriated original, to textual spectacle to a non shameful illustration.

Later we began to work towards videos for display on the Festival Square BBC screen. In a further multi collaboration the title The Indirect Exchange of Uncertain Value was intuitively responded to with quick fire rambling, and then passed to the next author round the table to be honed into a standout phrase, which in turn was turned into a text work by the next author. Discussing the screen’s site in terms of its function as a square and a communal meeting place, we also began to think about its wider context. In groups we came up with some initial ideas. Positioned at an odd angle within an under-used “square” and in the Edinburgh high culture heartland, the screen was a difficult proposition if your objective was attention seeking.  Perhaps a more subtle (textual) spectacle would do…

Day 3 – Man A Passerby

On the third day of Public Art Summer School we learned about The indirect exchange of uncertain value.

Appearing before us an absurd figure object, confrontational, looks back at the viewer “what do you think?”

Tom O’Sullivan without Joanne Tatham, due to heavy rain the previous day causing last minute art leak, presented the practice on which the Summer School is resting. The indirect exchange of uncertain value is a confusing title, it could mean nothing and everything, your head trapped inside the phrase, endlessly searching for a key meaning, which as the present half of the artist duo explained is deliberately unforthcoming. The figure object wants us to think for ourselves. The figure object also wants us to take part in a whole experience, one which cannot be separated from its surroundings.

Fettes – an imposing structure representing a privileged education. Chosen due to its iconic yet literally private status the aim of The Indirect Exchange of Uncertain Value is to open up the site, not in jolly-hockeysticks satire of a pompous building, but in order to pose it some questions. The space around the figure object will be the grounds and the building’s facade.  In theatrical terms the site is not just a backdrop but an active prop. To avoid the site stealing the show the figure object must be bold, physical, obstructive yet transparent enough to be looked through. Not interchangeable, at home here but not passively.

Our afternoon excursion was again to a private space housing a whole artwork, but a more intimate and intended environment, indeed an environment conceived for artwork. Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta, situated an hours drive away in the Pentlands is hard to write about, most obviously because it is about a physicality of words and ideas. This blog format also seems inappropriate, like taking these photos was on my mobile phone. In the timeless scene of quiet preservation, the specific trappings of Now seem rude, intrusive because they are so temporal.

Site, context, the context of site. These words are repeated again and again as valuable considerations. Where does that value lie? What do we get from an artwork that successfully responds to a situation?

Man A Passerby was one of Hamilton Finlay’s phrases that particularly struck me. A simple musing on the irrelevance of man positioned with such careful consideration to man, forcing self reflection. In an experiential artwork the viewer is the most considered thing, perhaps this is part of the site specific appeal, allowing an at once physical and subjective traversal. This event cannot ever be documented in its full ‘truth’ no matter how much fun versions of it are, it can only be remembered. The experiential in a non thrill seeking sense can be confrontational, whether that be a Hamilton Finlay’s sudden carved grenades interrupting the calm or Tatham and O’Sullivan’s deliberate obstructions to the visitor forcing activity. Value is gained from passing through and by, completely embroiled.

Day 4 – Added Value

On the 4th day of Public Art Summer School we learned about the meaning of value.

Angela McClanahan took us on a tour of three works sited in Edinburgh. Sandwiched between Stephen Balkenhol’s Everyman and Sandy Stoddart’s David Hume, was Martin Creed’s Work No. 1059. A new form of navigating the way from generalism to rationalism has appeared.

As a citizen of Edinburgh of recent years you get used to your ways of traversing the city having to change. The Balkenhol’s Scotman Steps were a mixed blessing ventricle, convenient in times of desperate train catching but in “smelly decline” (as described in the Steps estranged newspaper) and with fear at every corner. Post- two year Work No. 1059 marble makeover, the descent is a much more pleasant affair. As I used the steps for the first time again, carried away by the opulent ease of the revamped decline, the architectural paranoia the steps had previously caused melted away, the ventricle became new and with that the city a more accessible landscape. A successful public intervention, art done good.

But with every work of art there is the issue of value and preservation. Reaching the bottom of the steps there was a gate. A heavy security gate. Perhaps it had existed before but now it seemed to suggest: You are trespassing on a work of art. Had what was previously a public, albeit murky, thoroughfare, in its transformation become more private?

The definition of public space is broad, the steps sit within the classic civic definition of this, but as their name suggests were never really public, but were reclaimed as such by neglect. Gentrification is an effect which is hard to maintain and is a dubious claim for public art works. Soon enough anyway the Old Town breaks any Enlightenment aspiration and as the artist himself acknowledges its futility in that respect, for a “beautiful toilet” is still something. In a moment when the commons are increasingly narrowed in a physical sense, works such as this offer not a solution to decay in public spaces, but a re evaluation of their importance

Day 5 – INDUSTRIA

On the fifth day of public art summer school we learned about the performance of public space.

A tour of Fettes set the scene. Sudden, dutiful spaces appearing, the chapel, the old library, alongside almost ordinary looking classrooms. History is ever present here, the pressure of expectation from former successful figures haunting the building. Which they seem to revel in. “Shall not grow old as those who are left remember them.” Death and history along with an idea of better former things, another time with principles to be upheld. What follows is a brief summary of some of the points picked up from the symposium The indirect exchange of uncertain value: the performance of public art, which took place in this loaded setting.

The space of a poem is a condensed present. Tom Leonard started the symposium with what he described as an ontological act. Lighting a candle could have been seen as a gesture to give his recitation a material life, of now. He linked this to suggesting an ontological rather than power based politics to locate oneself.  His readings oscillated between a very local Glasgow context to more universal themes, words for objects representing lives, occupying the page space.

Being, without baggage suggests there is still a reality to be grasped. Fiona Jardine messed with our perception of this, speaking of an Edinburgh related narrative of educational models with the visual aid of a series of photographs navigating us to our current location. In a time reversal back and through to the present, the fictional, in the form of Miss Jean Brodie lead the way from idealogical learning methods to an actual reality of an institution, where we sat.

Miss Brodie’s pedagogy of leading out of what is already there, applied in relation to a re-learning of dominant discourse is interesting in relation to Elizabeth Price’s work, which she located within institutional reconstruction. A re-narration of the archive could be linked to a reparation of the powerful version of history, indeed the artist avoids end points, her cache material involved in constant reediting. The modes of expression within institutional structures are used by the artist as tools, the use of video coming from her previous use of the lecture format.

Similarly these modes of expression were used when we then became part of a Chris Evans work. A discussion took place in the other room with certain people from the audience. The remaining audience watched a Rosemarie Trockel video work, alongside a live video projection of the discussion which was around the Trockel work.  This put the audience in a disenfranchised position, made to sit and watch. There was something about the discussion format and not being within the physical space of that caused a frustration. A strange disruption of hierarchies was occurring. Although not able to join in, the audience had the privilege of being able to see the art work. Distanced from a usual presentation power relation of being educated, and of people performing for you but without the responsibility of direct reaction, the audience became an abandoned entity, feeling the lack of power relations.

Owen Hatherley took us through the new ruins of Great Britain resulting from a different set of power relations, those involved in the blurring of the public and the private realms. The remnants of cultural and idealogical instrumentalisation, from 30 years of Thatcherite/ Blairite non planning, are now punctuated with signs advertising new building, wasteland behind them. The projection of an ideal in stark contrast to its reality, the marker of a quick fix to de-industrialisation, for economies built on speculation. This kind of shallow planning has seen a rise in private space that looks public, open until you do something and significantly unpicketable. If the public is definable as a place of debate this facade of planning is symbolic of neo-liberal supposed freedoms, a gating and zoning of democracy. These changing ideas of value, building being seen in economic rather than social terms, can manifest themselves in a disjointed architecture, for transient, uncaring residents.

The other end of design was demonstrated by Vito Acconci in the last event of the symposium. Acconci’s talk morphed effortlessly from early ideas within conceptual art to utopian urban design proposals. The artist seemed to have avoided the problem of living up to his canonisation by logically stepping through spheres towards a collaborative design practice. Problems of supposed usefulness or a more instrumentalist practice were ill-founded by the theoretical, experiential nature of the proposals and actual constructions. Mainly appendages to buildings, fanciful organic looking growths, they all had the body and its navigation within space at their centre, as in his early work.

Acconci’s ‘following piece’ where the artist followed a stranger in public until that person entered a private space spoke of two distinct spheres, the public and the private. How would that look now? When a crisis of the commons is coupled with a increasing knowledge of our private lives these spheres are no longer so defined. As intruders in this space of privilege, sitting in a classroom designed for passing A-levels, with the very real possibility of having schooled one of our most recent representatives of power, we are complicit in an abstract value system. The performance of public art can perhaps most effectively take in the multiplicity of conditions inherent in site, and as traditional boundaries collapse, find ways of acting critically within it.

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