Public Art - exploring process and product

This blog post was written by the Architecture Centre’s Creative Intern, Isobel Plent 


On the 19th November the Shape My City group met for their sixth and final workshop. The focus for this month's session was public art, and the group welcomed Scott Farlow, public artist, landscape architect, and lecturer at the University of Gloucester. Scott's art practice is concerned with exploring the relationship between people and place, incorporating themes ranging from identity, sense of place, community, connection & disconnection – the extraordinariness of ordinariness.

For the starter exercise the group were presented with a diverse range of images of public art and were asked to discuss and categorise them into the more 'conventional' and the more 'intriguing and bizarre'. Particular images were highlighted by all groups, namely one which featured a long table set for a corporate looking dinner, described by Melvin as looking like "a rather bland banquet".

A geyser placed on a communal green space in the inner city area of Birmingham, received particular interest. Scott explained how this project in particular served to show how public art has a place beyond the aesthetic, and can appear in many forms and mediums, and can even exist in a moment, or a series of moments. This piece of art had been installed after tensions in the local area had escalated, and this feature, designed to shoot water into the air at random intervals had become a source of fun and interest, bringing the local community together. This led to discussion of Anthony Gormley’s ‘Angel of the North’, initially condemned by the residents of Gateshead, it is now considered it’s most prized and prominent feature.

The intro exercise served to challenge pre-conceived ideas about what public art is, offering examples of performance, conversations, projections, street furniture and writing to name a few. It showed that there is no specific formula and that public art projects can be emotive and powerful.

Next on the agenda was a talk from Scott Farlow about his own practice as a public artist. He emphasised the importance of the process itself, the conversations and interactions had along the way, as being just as important as the physical end piece of work. It was clear that it was this element that Scott enjoyed the most. He spoke about a previous commission undertaken in the town of Smethwick in the West Midlands, in which his objective had been to get people to think about where they live and respond creatively. Scott compiled the photo responses onto a self constructed frame, which he then wheeled through the streets of Smethwick as a mobile art gallery. In this way Scott emphasised the potential for public art to evoke a shared experience, leaving the white wall gallery behind and making it accessible and memorable to all involved in the process. 

Scott wove examples of his favourite work into his presentation, many of which were interesting because they left no trace.  A particular example being a piece of work by the Belgian artist Francis Alÿs, entitled, Paradox of Praxis, 1997. Scott explained that Alÿs pushed a block of ice around the centre of Mexico City, until it melted. The subtitle of the piece, ‘Sometimes doing something leads to Nothing’, is particularly poignant. The piece of work related to the frustrated efforts of the residents of Mexico City to improve their living standards and it illustrated the potential of a public art process to outweigh the product in terms of importance, and seemed to be particularly relevant to Scott’s work.

Inspired by new ideas about the diversity of public art, the challenge for the Shape my City participants was to design a memorable and inspiring public art ‘process’ (public engagement) and ‘product’ (semi/lasting element) for the derelict ‘gap’ site on the Bristol Harbourside, in between Arnolfini and the Architecture Centre.The group were encouraged to consider how their project would reflect the legacy of Bristol as European Green Capital and how it would involve a diverse range of people creatively. Would they use the site's proximity to water to influence their creation? Or perhaps the character and heritage of the site, as well as it’s prominent connection with arts and culture? In pairs the group discussed and sketched their ideas, and came up with a range of responses to the design brief.

One group wanted to install a large 3m squared cube, made up of different materials for each face. One face would be a mirror, another an interactive game, while another would be completely clear and act as a large window to the interior of the cube - a space for artefacts to be displayed or perfromances or provocations to happen - whilst being observed from the outside world.

Another group had a very different idea for the space. Based on the belief that sport provides a platform for people to meet each other, have fun and improve wellbeing, the group wanted to install a outdoors sports area in the space, where a variety of games could be played. However, the entire space would be covered in mirrors and hanging from the ceiling would be a giant disco ball. With shimmering light reflected off the mirrored walls from every direction and music playing, the sports activity area would be transformed at night time into a space for people to dance, socialise and perform (and even have a roller disco!).

There was a genuine enthusiasm among the group and the result was a great mix of ideas. Each showed an understanding of the great potential public art has to create both an interesting aesthetic, as well as bring people together to encourage conversation, questioning and most of all, fun.

The session ended with Scott responding to our regular Shape My City questions “If you could give your 16 year old self one piece of advice what would it be?” His reply was to never stop learning, always be curious, and to never be afraid of failure.He added it was also important to “See the potential and beauty in everything, no matter how unpromising this might be. Be inspired by the smallest, most ordinary and everyday things around you. Believe in yourself. Always always.”

Useful links:

Willis Newson - Public Art and Health