I walk the city late at night / does everyone here do the same / the people fill the city because / the city fills the people (Everything But The Girl)
“The public has a right to art. The public needs art, and it is the responsibility of a “self-proclaimed” artist to realise the public needs art, and not to make bourgeois art for the few and ignore the masses. I am interested in making art to be experienced and explored by as many individuals as possible with as many different individual ideas about the given piece with no final meaning attached. The viewer creates the reality, the meaning, the conception of the piece. I am merely a middleman trying to bring ideas together.” (Keith Haring)
There is a line in Cloud Atlas that “truth is singular. Its “versions” are mistruths”, a disarming equivocation of meaninglessness. I don’t entirely disagree with that, with my own doubts about postmodernism and its fervent rabid cannibalistic children currently running amok in the Canadian art world, but I like – I insist upon – the idea of “publics” that overlap or perhaps challenge each other while literally occupying the same space. Perhaps this is because publics are less active, less exclusive, than the idea of histories in the plural (Slavoj Žižek once pointed out, like a Cassandra, that a personal history – criticising bell hooks specifically – is essentially conservative, dismissing empathy or any universality and privileging personal bias or experience). Histories in plural defy and deny universality. Publics, however, suggest we could have our feet in several, as they require less commitment, less official, academic accreditation, and that we act in each space with the influence of the others, or perhaps simultaneously.
In light of that tangent, Cher Krause Knight asserts that “art’s publicness rests in the quality and impact of its exchange with audiences … at its most public, art extends opportunities for community engagement but cannot demand particular conclusion.” That is another way of saying that vagueness of publics, of communities, is inherent when you bring art outside of the gallery and into the public sphere.
This was in my mind as I watched and interacted with Donna Akrey’s students as they pulled or pushed, carried or otherwise moved their works through the downtown of St. Catharines, a place that even without the incendiary accelerant of “art” is a site of contested narratives. This mobile exhibition aspect of Concrete Cloud happened on the 5th of July.
Some of them played upon the notion of interactivity as with Jess McClelland’s A Rather Peculiar Metaphor for Multi Tasking; transforming the wooden flat with wheels that many used as a base of their pieces, McClelland instead cut his into a wide hoop worn around his waist, with various plaster casts of (his own) hands. These either helpfully proffered the pamphlet produced by the students, with a map and brief descriptors, or offered a pen for making notes, or offered direction by pointing, or affirmation in a gesture waiting for a “high five.” Amber Lee Williams’ Chewing Gum and Walking is a monstrous perversion of its title; as she pulled it around downtown and the group paused at various prominent sites (the downtown library, City Hall), the pinkish glob blended disconcertingly well with the trashcan detritus of the urban scenes. Later, when the works were “parked” (Akrey’s excellent description, with nuances I’ll touch on later) in Niagara Artist Centre, Williams’ work became an organic Donald Judd. McClelland’s, conversely, was still interesting as it hung on the wall, but seemed less effective than when he was “wearing” it, like a tour guide awaiting questions from random pedestrians….
This conflation / contradiction between art and activity, the gallery space where the works now “rest” – and where they can be visited, still – is another aspect of public art / art in the public sphere. Several works are gelded there, but were beautiful when resting among the meticulously maintained green lawn of City Hall, or among the cool leafy and tree lined shade of the library. Others, when positioned among the flowers and overgrown stones of the old city hall, across from the Market, seemed either extensions of the floral markers of “the garden city” or more critical examinations of the gap between that name and the concrete heat haze of the downtown.
Syerra Jasmin’s Newfangled, assembled from discarded and dead wood, painted a stark white – even down to the base – was blindingly artificial as it sat in the sun (like the white sterile gallery walls reaching out to nature). Michaela Laurie’s Untitled was a beautiful work (hot glue formed into organic hollows and bowls, “growing” out of black gravel) that she periodically “watered” as we walked; it was one of many smaller “gardens” that blended synthetic and natural elements.
Jill Newman’s my fake plants died because I did not pretend to water them is funny, but caustic on more rigourous examination. On the day of the Concrete Cloud “walk” I was finishing an article on the demise of the Garden City Food Co Op, in downtown STC, and one of the issues was the silence (perhaps hypocritical, perhaps a “fake” posture of support) of civic officials. In light of this wider political discourse, Newman’s work became a more cynical commentary on “place.”
Madison McFayden’s Melting Lemons, made of wax and oil pastel, are just lovely and odd: and they did show some “sweat” in the midday sun (which only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in, I’m told). But the idea of gardens, of nature, manifested in other works: Thomas Denton’s Dead Space employs soil, water and grass, along with plastic and plaster; Chardon Trimble-Kirk’s Liminal is found wood, but with metal and paint, and inspiration for this piece is from the Merritt Trail. Many of the works – flat wooden squares were the aforementioned “bases” of the pieces, a universal starting point for the group – had small “fences” constructed around them. These evoked the idea of tiny, secret gardens, but also echoing the ordered, rectangular oases of flowers or plants that the group encountered as they walked from the MIWSFPA to Service Ontario to the Bus Terminal, in a meandering loop around the urban core of STC.
There was something both eerie and enticing in seeing, at the monolithic, pseudo modernist bus terminal in the downtown, all grey concrete and fumes, several young people pulling their own tiny “gardens”, these little islands of real / false green. Amid the brick and wire mesh, the downtown’s reality – both positive and negative, was highlighted by this: “I believe in the city as a natural human environment, but we must humanize it. It’s art that will redefine public space in the 21st century.” (Antony Gormley)
That’s a wider, broader umbrella: in conversation, Donna Akrey talked about how her ongoing works defined her role as educator with this class. One of the most charming aspect of her recent exhibition Also Also at Rodman were the multicoloured light boxes that shimmered out from the houses along the street leading up to Rodman: not solely for aesthetic joy, but also that the residents welcomed art into their sphere, outside the gallery. My own involvement in ephemeral and temporary interventions like Street Meet Festival: a festival for street, public and graffiti art in Saskatoon or the loose collective Finding City has made the argument (I say in a positive sense) about publics and spaces a recurring concern.
These pieces are “parked” now, at NAC: Ahmed Bader’s Synthetic Seas seems almost sad, in that space, as the “boat” he built had a shiny black garbage bag sail, ballooning up with wind, suggesting both movement and the breeze. His detritus materials meshed well with the “glass and concrete and stone” of STC’s downtown. The cardboard and vinyl bags echoed the recycle bins and garbage Bader passed, suggesting lost possibilities of the materials….
In that respect, the works of Concrete Cloud are – were – more real when outside, at the James Street Entrance of the Library, near other public artworks, among the shade, or when arranged around the “garbage and the flowers” of Market Square or the Courthouse / City Hall.
Again and again, when speaking about art in the public sphere, I return to an idea of how it is, at best, a moment of unexpected joy: this is appropriately – necessarily, with the diversity and discrepancy of dissenting “publics” – vague. Concrete Cloud, the “mobile class exhibition” that wandered the downtown of STC for several hours on the 5th of July, 2017, was that: a bit odd, a bit clunky, a bit off and at times engaging, other times not. Perhaps the best way to see the more successful works are as conversations, perhaps with the public encountered, the people who saw them as they went about their day, and those of us who saw them as punctuations of a larger conversation about place and space, and the city as it is, and as it is not. The concrete happened already, and the cloud is what we remember – or don’t – after the works are “parked” and done at NAC.
All images were shot by the writer: more images can be seen at the FB page for this exhibition, along with some videos of the walk and works.