B. Graham: Selected Writing/Articles. Back to Home Page

©1993 Beryl Graham. This 3,000-word article first appeared in SF Camerawork Quarterly (San Francisco) Fall 1993 special issue "Maximum Exposure: Photography as Public Art". Beryl Graham was guest editor of this issue.


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Go to list of Artworks referred to

If I were Ann Landers, I might worry about photography's relationship with public art. Public art projects involving photography have usually been brief affairs: 'one night stand' outdoor projection pieces, or artists' billboards jostling with the rough trade of commercialism until the next poster is pasted up.

Whilst advice columnists might roll their eyes at 'these post-modern relationships,' the artworks are of course based on photography's strong bond with advertising practices and the ever-changing iconography of magazines and billboards. Temporary public art practices deal in the mobile guerrilla warfare of topical political issues, and often characterize permanent public art as 'bureaucratic exhibitionism'1 upholding the status quo. But are permanent pieces necessarily doomed to be dull monuments to (or by) white manhood? Photography certainly relates to billboards, but what about photography's other relationships: to the imaging of histories, to concepts of reality and documentary, to popular forms and domestic snaps? What about more permanent relationships between photography and public art, and why have there been so few?

One reason could be the rather sordid past of photography as public art, a past not entirely innocent of episodes of bureaucratic exhibitionism. The mention of the words 'photography as public art' tends to conjure up memories of dull local histories in dank underpasses. Fortunately, the art doesn't have to be quite as pedestrian as the subways it frequents ...

Bruce Williams' Kiss Wall is a series of photographs of people kissing, transformed via computer into a dot-screen and drilled through a thick sheet of aluminum. Sited on the promenade at Brighton (a British seaside resort with a large gay population), the images change as the sea and sky surge behind the holes, conjuring up not only giggly references to From Here to Eternity, but also serious points about family and sexual love of different orientations. The work is physically as solid as a battleship, but still manages to look light and dynamic. It has become a trysting spot for lovers, a playground and a landmark. When public art works with both its social and aesthetic surroundings, the results can be both convivial and powerful.

Perhaps photography's dubious reputation for technical impermanence is another reason for the rarity of permanent pieces, for the specters of peeling edges and ghostly fading images haunt artists and organizers alike. There are nevertheless numerous commercial and technical processes by which photography-based images can be sprayed onto vinyl, digitized, drilled into metal, baked onto ceramics, or indeed etched into stone. Athena Tacha's Green Acres piece in New Jersey, for example, uses photo-based images sandblasted into granite, placing ecological icons as floor tiles in a pedestrian area. The piece is not only rich in texture and aesthetic pleasures, its title also injects a sense of mischief and irony too often missing from public art.

The actual blasting/etching process involved in Tacha's work, however, is a relatively inaccessible commercial technique. This brings up another problem for aspiring public photo artists: processes are expensive or obscure, and public art agencies often ignorant of their existence or feasibility. Some processes by which photographic images can be made permanent and durable are no doubt still waiting to be discovered in the pages of obscure trade magazines or in the brains of architects, building technicians, printmakers, sculptors and computer nerds. Good networking could be very important for the future of photography in public. In many ways the landscape of photography as public art is marked by exciting possibilities suggested by other disciplines, rather than the landmarks of actual realized pieces.

Choreographing the gaze

The technical challenges of drilling through metal, blasting stone, and encoding silicon chips, unfortunately are as nothing when compared to the problems of attracting and engaging an audience: it's the most delicate dance between the public, the artist and the environment that exists. The artist must compete for attention with malls, billboards, skyscrapers and a thousand other stimuli, in comparison to which the under-funded artistic product often tends to look a little malnourished. Fortunately, there are strategies other than the use of sheer size for communicating with members of the public. Some of these involve a rather more human-scale choreography of the viewer and the viewed.

To see Ellen Zweig's public piece A Barrel of Her Own Design, in Artpark, anatomies other than one's eyes must come into contact with the artwork first. The viewer must sit astride a large wooden barrel, and then peer into a tube which reveals, in the manner of a reverse periscope, pinhole images related to the first person to survive the Niagara Falls in a barrel: a highly eccentric and interesting woman! The piece is one which, although public, has an intimate relationship with its viewers which more grandiose objects may never achieve.

Photographic installation artists such as the Canadian practitioner Kati Campbell are particularly adept at choreographing the viewer's movement through a piece, so that a narrative and a 'position' which is political as well as physical is understood. Her piece Dyad includes a photograph of a pair of baby's eyes, dot screened onto a mirror. If you were a standing adult viewing the piece, it would reflect your crotch. If you were a child, it would reflect your head, reflecting in turn on the themes of gender, power and parenting in the piece. Such careful awareness of the viewer's physical presence could be used effectively for public art, opening up tactics of denouement, interaction and engagement rather than a short upward glance. John Baldessari's temporary piece for a waterworks building in Toronto was carefully designed with scale in mind. Images of staff from the plant were presented above a control panel and window, a tool of the trade. The effect was a little like an altar: if the viewers approached to gaze, they could also see through the dark window to a more distant set of silhouette images, in an individual interaction rather than a group glance.

These artists' awareness that a physical position may also be a political one points out another tender area for public art: Tread gently, for you tread on someone else's territory. When Barbara Jo Revelle was working on her Denver Convention Center piece (see artist's page) the arguments over whose face should or shouldn't be included reached the proportion of threats of violence. As Krzysztof Wodiczko points out, public spaces are already a dynamic and creative political space, complex beyond the reach of any one theory. He suggests that the only result of much public art is to: "contaminate this space and experience with the most pretentious and patronizing...aesthetic environmental pollution. Such beautification is uglification; such humanization provokes alienation; and the noble idea of public access is likely to be received as private excess."2

This is where permanent projects can perhaps have an advantage. Suzanne Lacy points out that: "In the very recent past we've seen a shift in artists' use of public space, from what may be termed the 'plunk theory' of public art to the 'chat them up theory.' "3 Billboard projects may not necessarily have to deal with the long-term response of their audiences (and in fact may need the press coverage created by controversy for their memorialization) but for a major permanent project, funders may be persuaded that investing in proper community research and development work may be better than having to tear down a 'plunked' project at some later time.4

A Podium for Dissent

Careful community/audience preplanning does not necessarily mean planning to please everybody (or even a vocal majority), otherwise public art would indeed be in for a slow 'death by committee' and a strictly white-bread diet. Many (if not most) of the public art pieces by artists of color have received fierce opposition from some sections of the white community, and the landscape of permanent pieces is still a predominantly WASPish one - 'playing safe' in the field of local politics. As celebrations of place and publics, it seems that some publics are better served than others by art landmarks. Community research could mean the gathering of information for "engagement in strategic challenges to the city structures"5 as Wodiczko would have it, rather than chasing an illusion of consensus. Similarly, other artists have made direct political and functional interventions with public art.

Dennis Adams' 1985 piece A Podium for Dissent was exactly what its title suggested: a speaker's platform over twenty feet high, with a huge photograph of President Reagan's head, split crazily around the mouth where the speakers would stand. Created with architect Nicholas Goldsmith for the "Art on the Beach" event in New York, the platform was the venue for, amongst other things, a performance by Ann Magnuson. Adams' works are often designed as functional public utilities as well as showcasing his photographic images: he has designed many bus shelter pieces, drinking fountains, and has even worked on a plan for a urinal in Paris, all of which sport images which relate to the politics of their function and context.

However, if the podium piece had been permanent one, the fact that Reagan's face would now date it so exactly brings up a major problem for permanent public art: How can artists deal with the political issues du jour if the piece is going to stay around long enough to be yesterday's news?

Political permanencies

The answer to this problem, if there is an answer, lies in hitting a delicate balance between topical specificity (which dates quickly) and a 'death by committee' blandness of subject-matter. In Los Angeles, an unpromising parking garage and shopping complex has been transformed by the public art project Biddy Mason's Place6, celebrating an African American midwife and community-builder who lived on that site many years ago. Sheila Levrant deBretteville reworked an eighty foot long concrete wall with photographs on limestone, metal letters, carved slate panels and debossed images. A history of Biddy Mason's life enfolds in a journey along the wall, in a symbolic and challenging way rather than a school-book history. The artist Betye Saar made an elevator lobby truly 'inhabited' with her mural/assemblage Biddy Mason's House of the Open Hand. The piece combines large photo images and a real picket fence with a 'house window' to peer into (with period curtains and bottles, and a photo portrait on a plate). Together these pieces are highly engaging and political, yet unlikely to date too badly. Whatever the future of that neighborhood, its past is unlikely to change. This strong sense of place and past can be a positive element for photography in public, and need not be nostalgic or cobwebbed. In the Amsterdam Nieuwmarkt metro station the decor (complete with ceramicized photos and a real iron demolition ball) documents the political protests against the destruction of the old area where the station itself now stands7 - a rather more radical approach than many sanitized public histories.

Good political intentions and good research, nevertheless, do not necessarily make a good piece of public art. As far as relationships with the public go, some photographers seem to be under the impression that they should be strictly in the 'missionary position' (for the political education of a lumpen populace) and that any visual pleasure may be vaguely sinful. Even the most Victorian of counselors might advise that in building relationships, the pleasures of touch and sound as well as sight may encourage your audience to stick around for the message. A piece of public art may be politically informed and archivally permanent for a thousand years, but if it is ugly and dull, then the public may wish that it had been made of rice paper.

Sensual pleasures

In Arles in 1990, Maryvonne Arnaud took black and white photos of the facade of the historic three-story Chapel of Saint Martin du Méjan, mounted them on thin Plexiglas sections, and then tied the top corners of the sections to the scaffolding in front of the building itself. Et voilà - Templum Merinos, a life size replica of the building facade, which you might have taken for the real thing - until the wind took the sections, and the whole 'building' rippled and sighed, or rustled like a huge tree. Very eerie.

In Oregon, proposals have been made for transit station lobby pieces where sunlight would project images of birds (etched on skylight glass) onto the stone floor (etched with maps and images). Every day, as the sun moves, the bird images would move across the 'landscape' on the ground, tracking migratory patterns of movement. Hardly the monochrome, static and two-dimensional options which too often appear as public art. The subjects of the work need not be fluffy birds or mythical temples: again the possibilities for exciting, issue-based public work exist, but seem mostly unexploited.

Global intimacies

The close association of photographic images with new computer-based technologies makes the possibilities for public interaction even more diverse. Digital images, interactive compact discs, videophones, video games, virtual reality, etc., have not only opened up a burst of aesthetic possibilities, but are redefining our sense of what indeed is 'a public space'.

Clive Gillman's projection piece The Pirates Lament, at the British Teleport in London, questioned whether the potential power of new communications technologies will lie in the hands of the mainstream, or the fists of the 'pirates' and other outsiders. In Montana, Native American artists addressed the problem of communicating over long rural distances by starting the American Indian Share-Art Gallery, a kind of computer bulletin board where images and designs can be added to the collection, or borrowed, over telephone lines.8 In San Francisco, the artist Abbe Don designed an interactive piece concerning Jewish family snap history. On a computer monitor the public could see snaps, push buttons to hear the people of their choice in the snaps speak to them, and scan in their own family photos with spoken commentary to form an ongoing accessible archive. In T.P.T.V. Don turned a 'photo-booth' into an interactive ideas terminal, where people could see artists' work, record an image of their face with their opinions on specific issues, and hear other people's comments.

The possibilities for public, intimate, user-friendly, interactive machines, which can put you in touch with things thousands of miles away (like an automatic bank teller machine, only rather less depressing), are very alluring. The most exciting ideas perhaps lie in the field of direct interaction with an audience - a recurrent theme for public art. Abbe Don's family album piece was based in a museum, but given durable enough equipment and careful design, then a mall or lobby could be the site of a permanent point of interaction, where the content of the piece would grow and change, actually created by 'the public'. Simon Schofield picks up a major issue for this democratic ideal, though, when he points out that "Multiply-authored HyperCard stacks or electronic mail networks attract the same graffiti that public sculpture and murals have had to endure."9 One person's graffiti, however, is another's 'challenge to the hegemony', and if the piece is 'created by the public', who's to tell the difference? Interactive technology may not change the basic premise of public art, but could change the form of its longtime companion - graffiti.

Without a careful awareness of audience, no doubt the new media will provide just as many opportunities for bad public art as the old media have, to wit very many incomprehensible computer networking projects and excruciating psychedelic digital meanderings. Nirvana may not have arrived quite yet.

Getting engaged

Faulty technological utopias notwithstanding, the possibilities for photography as permanent public art are genuinely exciting, not least because of the relative rarity of existing pieces, and the whole fields of practice as yet unexplored. The sheer conviviality of photography as a popular or domestic form has much to offer the 'relationship-building' aspect of public art, for photography seems to engage people in a way that huge chunks of metal perhaps cannot. Exploiting photography's relationship to popular forms does of course bring up major issues for public art. As Allan Kaprow asks pointedly, "Finally, who is to say, even determine, what is 'art in the public interest'? Is it populist or popular? If it is neither, can it still be in the public interest?"10 This question, like many in public art, is a difficult one to answer, but the particular experience of photographic artists working with history, domestic images, and empowering community work, may hold some clues to the development of the future of public art in general. Perhaps if more photographic artists are able to make permanent pieces, the monuments on the face of the city may memorialize more diverse presences than conquerors on horses. Landmarks continue to be important. 'Making visible' is also still important, and permanent pieces are difficult to 'paste over' - even if histories are re-written, the works are still there to be re-read.

The relationship between public art and its publics involves enough problems to knit the brows of a whole platoon of therapists. Permanent pieces in particular may find it difficult to achieve a visual excitement or political interest that is durable. However, because permanent pieces face the most harsh questions about art and audience, they also form the field of practice dealing with the most important questions. Long-term relationships need to be both disciplined and creative.

If artists using photography can dance the delicate choreography of the relationship between artist, environment, and public, then some happy long-term relationships, with photography as an important part of the household, may result.

Footnotes. to top

(Click on note number to return to your place in the main text)

1 Krzysztof Wodiczko, "Strategies of Public Address: Which Media, Which Publics?" in Hal Foster, ed., Discussions in Contemporary Culture (Seattle: Seattle Bay Press, 1987).

2 ibid.

3 Suzanne Lacy, "Fractured Space," in Arlene Raven, ed., Art in the Public Interest (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989).

4 The controversy over the removal of Richard Serra's Tilted Arc is covered in Robert Storr's article "Tilted Arc: Enemy of the People," in Art in America, September 1985, p.92. The removal of sculptures by John Ahearn/Rigoberto Torres (in the South Bronx) because of community objections is mentioned in Eleanor Heartney's article "The Dematerialization of Public Art," Sculpture, March-April 1993.

5 see note 1

6 The project was organized by The Power of Place, a Los Angeles-based public art agency, formed in 1982 by Dolores Hayden (with executive director Donna Graves), which is no longer in existence. As well as Saar's and deBretteville's pieces, a limited edition artist's book by Susan E. King was commissioned about Biddy Mason's life. For more information on Biddy Mason's Place see Public Art Review, Fall/Winter 1990.

7 The decor includes photo-montage murals, and a statement which speaks of the "... fight for the preservation of a part of Amsterdam which had its own special history of development but was wiped off the face of the earth by the town council of the day," from Marianne Ström, "Photo-Applications in the Context of Public Art in Public Transport," unpublished manuscript, 1992. See also Marianne Ström, Métro-Art dans les Métro-Poles, Art et Architecture dans les Métro-Poles (Paris: Editions Jacques Damase, 1990).

8 The American Indian Share-Art Gallery runs on the Russell County Bulletin Board System, Montana, and was initiated by Big Sky Telegraph. Images on the system can be viewed free, or downloaded for a small fee. For more information on Share-Art Gallery see Whole Earth Review, no. 71.

9 Simon Schofield, "The Exploding Gallery: New Media and Public Art," Creative Camera, February/March 1993.

10 Allan Kaprow, back cover material for Arlene Raven, ed., Art in the Public Interest (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989).


Artworks referred to in the text (alphabetical by artist). to top

N.B. permission is being sought from the artists to reproduce images here. In the meantime, see original magazine, or [Artists' Newsletter (UK) 1993 August, "Long Term Relationships: Photography as Public Art" by Beryl Graham]

Collective work. Nieuwmarkt metro station, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Detail. Photo: Marianne Ström.

Dennis Adams and Nicholas Goldsmith. A Podium for Dissent, 1985. Battery Park Landfill, 'Art on the Beach' event (a Creative Time project), New York. 268 x 225 x 192 inches plus cables. Aluminum, steel, wood, enamel, steel cables, b/w photography.

Maryvonne Arnaud. Templum Merinos, 1990. Arles photography festival, France. Approx. 55 x 42 feet. B/w photographs, Plexiglas-type plastic sheet, metal scaffolding, steel cables and fastenings. Photo: Beryl Graham.

John Baldessari (photographic and installation work carried out by John McLachlin and Wrik Mead). WaterWorks installation, 1988. One of seven pieces, at the R.C. Harris Filtration Plant, Toronto, Canada. Approx. 8 x 10 x 80 feet (through window to other images). Photo: Ian Smith-Rubenzahl, courtesy of Visual Arts Ontario.

Kati Campbell. Dyad, 1988. Silk-screen on mirror, aluminum and plastic film, painted wood. 48 x 92 x 55 inches. Photo: Stan Douglas.

Clive Gillman. The Pirates Lament, 1993. Projection on British Teleport satellite dishes. Part of the River Crossings series of site specific works by the Thames, organized by Camerawork, London. Photo: Peter Barker.

Betye Saar. Biddy Mason's House of the Open Hand, 1990. The Broadway-Spring Center, Los Angeles. 88 x 183 x 3 inches. Sepia toned photomural, clap boarding, picket fence, window assemblage including wallpaper, curtains, glass bottle, photographic portrait. Photo: Julie Easton.

Betye Saar. Biddy Mason's House of the Open Hand, 1990. Detail. 39 x 20 x 2 inches. Photo: Julie Easton.

Athena Tacha. Green Acres, 1986. Department of Environmental Protection, Trenton NJ. 5 x 80 x 90 feet. Brick, green slate, plants, lava rocks, photo-sandblasted granite.

Bruce Williams. Kiss Wall, 1992. Brighton, UK. 157 x 59 inches. Perforated aluminum and car paint.

Ellen Zweig. A Barrel of Her Own Design, barrel camera detail, 1988. Artpark, Buffalo, NY.

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