Art in public spaces: Setting things in motion

“In times of rapid urbanisation, art should become part of urban planning,” says Swiss publicist, curator, and university lecturer Christoph Doswald, who created the PRIX VISARTE, an award that recognises outstanding works of art in architecture and in public spaces.

Christoph Doswald, why should art be shown anywhere else than a museum?
Art in public spaces – especially in a city – has a bigger chance to be seen, allowing more people to benefit from a cultural encounter. Art should be accessible to everybody; it is important not to show it merely in elitist environments. Where art can be seen, it creates meeting points and starts conversations – even, or especially when works are not easy to like or understand. As such, it enhances the identity and livability of public spaces.

Art should be accessible to everybody.

Christoph Doswald

What is more challenging: creating art for public spaces, or displaying it in the public domain?
Both – the latter means that art needs to stand up against any type of external hazard: rain, bird droppings, or even vandalism. For an artist, the public space creates great uncertainty. The audience is different, not necessarily art-loving as it is in a museum. This can create confrontation – in the best case a productive one, but it can also provoke negative physical reactions. Contrary to a museum, the context is never neutral. Therefore, it becomes part of the ’story’ told by art, and even part of the artistic process. Further, anything shown in the public domain can be politicised – which per se is not bad: if the ensuing discourse is constructive, it sets things in motion and allows art to have an impact on society, as it should. A great example for this is “Les Réverbères de la Mémoire” in Geneva – an artwork by Melik Ohanian, one of the winners of this year’s PRIX VISARTE.

Stefan Banz, Alternative. Copyright: PRIX VISARTE. Courtesy: Stefan Banz

Anything shown in the public domain can be politicised...it sets things in motion and allows art to have an impact on society, as it should.

Christoph Doswald

According to UN estimates, by 2050 two-thirds of the world population will live in cities. Should art become part of urban planning?
It is highly desirable and important that solutions to booming urbanisation do not just address questions of infrastructure but equally factor in artistic aspects. If they don’t, we will be living in faceless, uniform spaces across the world – and who wants that? Art creates differentiation and quality of life. When we develop new neighbourhoods and districts in Zurich, for instance, art is part of the planning concept.

Ruth Erdt, Eine Chronik für Freienwil. Copyright: PRIX VISARTE. Courtesy: Ruth Erdt.

But how can art have a ‘real’ impact?
A case in point is Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim museum in Bilbao: it has given art a home that has transformed the city from a depressed place to a blooming touristic hot spot. Art can also change remote areas: the Bernese artist George Steinmann realised a ’growing sculpture’ in Saxeten, a small village in the alps. It consists of a footbridge over a wild river, and a very modernly designed cabin that hikers use to rest or simply to contemplate the landscape. It has become a magnet for many people, which benefits the village, where years ago even the post office had to be shut down. The work was awarded the PRIX VISARTE in 2017. And even temporary installations can have a relevant impact: this summer, with an intervention by Swiss artist Heinrich Gartentor called ‘Islands in the City’, in Zurich we were able to demonstrate how the climate on a paved city square changes if it is transformed into a park. It was not just a lovely spot, enjoyable for city dwellers in the summer heat, but also a way to contribute to the current debate on climate change and how it can be addressed in urban spaces.

Heinrich Gartentor's installation ‘Islands in the City’ invites passersby at Zurich's Münsterhof to reflect on how a temporary park in a city square can transform a city's climate.

About Christoph Doswald and PRIX VISARTE

Christoph Doswald is a Swiss publicist, curator, and university lecturer. Since 2009 he has been chairing the City of Zurich’s Work Group for Art in Public Spaces. He is also a board member of visarte.ch, the Swiss professional association of visual artists. In this role he created the PRIX VISARTE, an award that recognises outstanding works of art in architecture and in public spaces. PRIX VISARTE has been supported by the Julius Baer Foundation from 2015 to 2019.

 

Lead image: Melik Ohanian, Les Révèrbères de la Mémoire. Copyright: PRIX VISARTE. Courtesy: Melik Ohanian, Sandra Pointet.

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