An artist recently described to me the difference between art and design as a difference in levels of comfort: Art is meant to rub people the wrong way, whereas design is often called in to smooth the path to clarity and understanding. It’s an oversimplistic statement, but I admit there’s something to it. Much of the art I’m attracted to is challenging in nature, using the tension of the out-of-place to provoke new perspectives on common situations.
As a graphic designer, I’ve looked to artists and artworks, including the following three projects, to redirect my assumptions about visual language and communication.
In late 2007, I moved to the Netherlands to become a member of the Jan van Eyck Academie, a “postgraduate institute for research” in art, design and theory. As a design researcher, I joined Traces of Autism, a long-running project whose title came from the work of Fernand Deligny. An early researcher of autism, Deligny studied his patients by simply observing their behavior as they roamed freely about his large farm in rural France. He then drew detailed maps to record his patients’ paths and activities. Deligny’s process inspired the methods Traces of Autism took to understand the geography of public space around the Jan van Eyck, the city of Maastricht and the surrounding areas.
When I arrived, the team had just completed an inventory of public space through “long, non-touristy walks” during which they concluded that public space was losing ground to gentrification and control. An association of civic leaders asked the group to make a proposal for an old industrial site at the edge of downtown. The city was looking for a new art space—preferably something that incorporated live-work studios, stores and galleries. They were hoping for something attractive, interesting and marketable.
Instead of unveiling plans for a building, as was expected of us, we proposed to renovate an abandoned stretch of train tracks. Two train cars would ride back and forth in an end- less loop across the short strip of land. These trains “going nowhere” would house artists, underlining the nomadic existence of the artist as a true condition for making art. We inserted our definition of public space — true public space is not governed by market interests — into the project brief.
Over time, I’ve come to understand that providing an absurdly alternate vision, like a type of science fiction, can leave a powerful political statement. The final presentation, excerpted below, was, and still is, one of the more jarring things I’ve had the pleasure to be a part of. Imagine a video playing, the camera moving forward slowly, the screen filled entirely with a few feet of train tracks. A voiceover reads:
The “artist-in-residence” is a contradiction. It means confining the artist to the institution or the asylum. Residency kills the artistic condition… Being in a state of homelessness necessarily means being in public space. Public space is the opposite of privatized space. Public space is the space of loss. Public space is the space of powerlessness. In public space one is exposed, not protected. Being exposed is being a stranger. A stranger has no place. A stranger has no place to go to. A stranger wanders. A stranger walks. A stranger neither buys nor sells. Today, that is political. Today, the artist is a stranger. You don’t choose to be a stranger: You are expelled into a permanent state of deportation, which we propose to accept.
There was halting applause as the lights went up. An Israeli researcher had earlier told us our proposal reminded her of the trains servicing the concentration camps of World War II. We hoped that our proposal would be heard out, perhaps sparking discussion on the use of arts as tools to sell condos. Instead, our presentation did little more than make the civic leaders confused and angry. To open a space for response and dialogue, we held a public forum a couple of weeks later. People showed up expressing their disapproval and, in a few cases, fury.
The train going nowhere never came to pass. We knew it wouldn’t. We had offered a dramatic, “No, but…” as a critique of the original brief. Refusing to answer the question, we had thrown up a wall to shed light on a related and important topic of our own choosing.
Kristin Posehn’s project Reclamation is an intervention whose challenge emerges in more subtle ways, underlining the tension between the physicality of an object and what it stands for. While a researcher at the Jan van Eyck, she was commissioned to create a public, outdoor work in the city of Almere. The site was the last plot of undeveloped land in the city center. Almere is one of the most highly planned cities in the Netherlands, dating only to 1976, with an air of the clinical among its subdivisions.
Kristin’s response was a reminder of greed and false hopes. The sculpture Reclamation relocates a ruin from the former boomtown of Metropolis, Nevada, to Almere. The installation is a 1:1 scale replica of the last standing façade in Metropolis. This one remaining brick and masonry arch was remade viahundreds and hundreds of photographs applied as self-adhesive vinyl to a wooden structure. Situated in the middle of an empty field, Reclamation is a new ruin.
Metropolis was founded in 1910 by real estate developers who sent pamphlets lauding the city’s (entirely fabricated) resources and amenities. It was then abandoned in 1925 due to lack of water rights. Its parallel is not difficult to find in Almere, with its sales pitches and marketing brochures. I doubt city officials took note of the connection between Metropolis and Almere implied by Reclamation. After all, they included a photo of the artwork in a glossy advertorial magazine. In any case, city officials let it stand, strange and out-of-place, perhaps unsuspecting that this façade among the sub-developments carried a message from the future. Reclamation was an interruption in the otherwise serene façade of the planned city.
Traces of Autism and Reclamation used black humor to draw attention to problems inherent in commissions; Jaroslav Kyša’s The Barrier presents a more light-hearted way to disrupt everyday behaviors and expectations. In the video documentation for The Barrier, Kyša is in a London park feeding breadcrumbs to a large flock of pigeons. He continues to feed them as he starts walking, leading the ravenous birds from the park to the street (where they politely stay on the crosswalk) until finally he deposits them in front of the entrance to a big-name store. While the pigeons continue to scramble for crumbs, store customers are forced to break through the live barrier to exit or enter. Passing through the fluttery mass of birds, some recoil in disgust or fear. The Barrier effectively uses the city’s most ubiquitous citizen, the pigeon, to reclaim space from the city’s other native inhabitant, the giant corporation.
I once referred to The Barrier as “pigeon disobedience.” Disobedience is also apparent in the Traces of Autism proposal and the installation Reclamation. All three projects willfully ignore and redirect — even hijack — questions and assumptions to address current social conditions in new ways. All three inspire me to think harder about how a strategy of “No, but…” can throw expected responses into stark relief, forcing priorities to be reexamined and alternatives to be contemplated and explored.