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Urban Encounters: Art and the Public

Book review of: Martha Radice, Alexandrine Boudreault-Fournier (ed.) Urban encounters: Art and the public.
Léa Sallenave and Hugo Bonin

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1The result of a 2013 conference held in Halifax, this collective book brings together scholars, artists and many more to see how “the interactions between art and the public actually play out in the urban social context” (p.3). Crossing boundaries between artistic creations and social science research, focused mainly on Canadian cities, this provocative project will appeal to anyone, both inside and outside of academia, seeking new ways to study the relationships between artists, publics and their spatiotemporal dimensions.

2In their introduction, anthropologists and co-editors Martha Radice and Alexandrine Boudreault-Fournier underscore the dialogical aspect of public art: most of the performances and artworks at the centre of this book are both transformed by their public dimension but in turn transform their publics. With the exception of the first chapter, this is due to the ephemeral temporality of most of the objects studied: being time-based or time limited, these public artworks and performances are less likely to fall into daily oblivion. Radice and Boudreault-Fournier link this profusion of short-term temporalities to both a potential for experimentation and a lack of financial resources for art. However, seeing how the Creative City (Mould, 2015) thrives on “pop-up” infrastructures, one might see larger processes at play, such as the acceleration of time inherent to neoliberalism.

3Distinguishing between three different meanings of “public” (as “spatialized realm, discursive sphere, and addressed audience” (p.8)), the editors also emphasize the diversity of “the public”, now understood as being configured by different social relationships (class, race, gender, ethnicity). This heterogeneity of the public is reflected in the diversity inherent to the urban space – both in terms of people but also of resources, density and mobility. This space is therefore much more unpredictable than the gallery or the studio. Art in public(s) can therefore but rejected or ignored; however, it can also (re)appropriate the streets, squares and interstices of the city, subverting the mainstream uses and functions of the urban landscape. Between subversion and outright rejection lays the path of institutionalization: using the images of the festival (as a top-down structure) and the carnival (as a bottom-up practice), Radice and Boudreault-Fournier argue that, for public art, “the trick may be to foster works of arts that are […] multipurpose, rewarding both fleeting and in-depth engagement” (p.13).

4Divided in three parts, each brilliantly introduced in a few pages by the editors, the chapters of Urban Encounters deal respectively with events and performances (chapters 1 to 4), urban fabrics (chapters 5 to 8) and plural receptions (chapters 9 to 11). Part 1 is concerned with artistic performances that transform everyday life and conventional visions of urban space. This is done by studying punctual musical events around public statues in Montréal (Vernet), through collective action in the form of pranks and flash-mobs in Toronto (Shawyer), by blurring the patterns of social interaction through dance choreographies (Matthias) or by reworking past and present temporalities in an abandoned Hippodrome with digital tools (Bean and al.), both in Montreal. Part 2 presents attempts to make and remake, both practically and theoretically, the city through public art. These take different forms: for example, a critique of an urban art festival as gentrifying downtown Hamilton (Bain and Rallis), shinning a light on interstitial spaces in Winnipeg and Halifax through cinema (Bird and Nagler), monitoring body rhythms in Paris, Halifax, Regina and Saskatoon (Moffat and Morgan) or capturing Vancouver’s back alleys through audio-visual recordings to show their artistic potential (Boudreault-Fournier and Wees). Finally, Part 3 addresses the relationships between artistic offerings and public reception and how to conceive these exchanges: as democratic, antagonistic, or, for the editors, as a form of “gift exchange” (p.216). This can be seen in Christophe Migone’s Door to Door events in which art is brought to the doorstep of the citizens of Mississauga, in the Halifax-based Fieldwork Residency Projects, and their concerns for the engagement of the public on regional and environmental issues (Johnston), or even more clearly in the use of ethnography to interrogate the artists and the few participants in the case of the Situated Cinema in Winnipeg (Radice, Harvey and Turner).

5While the aforementioned chapters differ widely in style, length or objects, there is nonetheless a coherence to the whole, mainly because all contributors – some more willingly than others – blur the line between research and creation. The large use of digital techniques and objects by the artists and researchers also highlights the possibilities these tools offer for a better understanding of the spatial and temporal dimensions of the urban landscape. However, it is worth noting that such a “digital turn”, in both the social sciences and the creative arts, is not synonymous with dematerialization and does not free us from paying attention to the politics of the body. For example, the experience of the city for feminized, racialized or disabled bodies is still crucial both for the production and the reception of public art. Whereas Radice and Boudreault-Fournier write that the city is an unequal space and regret the lack of attention to this dimension of urban space (p.9), one wonders what type of public space is built and/or analysed by some of the chapters. A more (self)critical approach to the public sphere might allow researchers-creators to underscore the distinctions between which art can be accessible and inaccessible, depending on the bodies at play.

6Nevertheless, Urban Encounters offers a collection of multiple perspectives and experiences on the articulation of art and the city. Often thought-provoking, beautifully illustrated by various photos and stills of the artworks, the book is well in the spirit of the times. Indeed, by focusing on the cracks and the not-so-visible spaces of the urban fabric, it is part of a larger movement in urban studies that is crossing boundaries, spatial, artistic, and disciplinary.

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Bibliography

Mould O. 2017 (2015). Urban Subversion and the Creative City. London & N-Y, Routledge.

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References

Electronic reference

Léa Sallenave and Hugo Bonin, « Urban Encounters: Art and the Public », Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 19 | 2019, Online since 04 February 2019, connection on 22 March 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/4106

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About the authors

Léa Sallenave

Léa Sallenave is a PhD student and a teaching assistant in Geography at the University of Geneva. Her research topic focuses on popular education and outdoor educational spaces, in a project inspired by Elisée Reclus. She also works on public space through street art and graffiti, particularly in the city of Grenoble. Contact: lea.sallenave@unige.ch.

Hugo Bonin

Hugo Bonin is a PhD student in political science in the Université du Québec à Montréal and in the Université Paris VIII. He works on democratic theory and contemporary political practises. Contact: hugo.cg.bonin@gmail.com

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Copyright

Creative Commons 3.0 – by-nc-nd, except for those images whose rights are reserved.

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