Terra Incognita: What is publicart and how do we understand it?

Submitted as part of MRes in Human Geography at the University of Glasgow, June 2016


This paper was written in preparation for my research project 'How does it make you feel? Public art project as a catalyst for social change', examining how we define public art, and how its definitions effect its function and expected uses. Drawing upon my experiences of working in public art as an administrator, producer and practioner, this paper explores various definitions of public art as seen in policy papers and other literature, and was used as a method to position myself politically in how public art is understood. 


How do we define public art the nature of which is oftenelusive, transient[1], and evokesemotional responses? How do we define public art and its function, and how doesthese definitions affect the shape its potential form and impact? In this paperI explore, from my perspective of an artist practitioner / researcher, howdifferent ontological and political stances dictate the intention of public artpractice.

Through critical review of existingliterature and sources, I will examine how use of language to define public art practicehas influences the way it functions within and effects public space. I will mapthe various ways in which public art practice has been understood by exploringthe ontological frameworks that aim to define it through particular politicalstances. I will do so by drawing upon articles and policy papers published inthe United Kingdom, Europe, and United States of America.

This is a question of how public space is understood, and how itshould be used. It’s a question about how place and space are defined and howwe interact with that definition. Public art is ultimately about how we definepublic space and how we think it should function. What that definition is, andwho get’s to define it, will be the core question at the heart of this paper.

[1] Even if the work is a permanentpiece of sited public artwork, and not a performance or intervention, it willhave a lifespan. 

Setting the scene – myontological framework

Unlike geographers Gillian Rose and Doreen Massey who were, “nota part of those dynamics and have in consequence approached the subject from adifferent angle.” (Massey & Rose, 2003, p.2), I am unable to separatemyself from public art practice - positioning myself from an insider’s perspective.As a result of my role as a public art practitioner, I do not have theprivilege of the outsider’s eye.

My professional working life and artistic practice centersaround the production of public art that invites audiences to reconsider theirenvironment. As an artist,

“I make moving image work thatexplores the layered and complex relationship between people, place, andsociety. I embody and process the issues by making non-linear narrative films, videoessays, photographs, or projected installations in public spaces.” (Crabtree,2016).

My work pulls on interdisciplinary methods; bringing togetheraesthetics of documentary film making, geographical conceptual theories onspaces and places, and activist projection techniques alongside a leftpolitical and feminist position to create works that aim to intervene andinterject into a person’s experience of their surroundings and their placewithin it.

I work professionally as a public arts producer for anindependent video projection collective Picture Window, “… an ongoing publicart project based in Glasgow that temporarily transforms shop front spaces withmoving image artwork directed at the street.” (Picture Window, 2014) and as aproject assistant and office manager for public arts organization NVA whosemission, “…is to make powerful public art that reaffirms people’s connection tothe built and natural heritage.” (NVA, 2016)

As a researcher, I position myself as an intersectional feministthat values visceral and emotional responses to artwork and the contextualunderstanding of the audience members. My research ontology is directlyinfluenced by my experiences and observations in while undertaking these roles,and how they intersect and overlap.

Despite being unable to separate myself from the subject, I doalign with Rose and Massey’s thinking that how public space is defined is tiedinto understandings of place and identity, and that definitions of public spaceinfluence how public art is understood (Massey & Rose, 2003).

In the sections below, I will map different ontologicalperspectives on public art and its function within the space it occupies,establishing how public space is defined directly impacts how public art isconceptualised and therefore how it is understood and measured. 

Terra Incognita

“…what exists in the space between the words public and art isan unknown relationship between artist and audience…(Lacy, 1995, p.20) Thespace between ‘public’ and ‘art’ is where many get lost in the sea of potentialdefinitions, adrift in the attempt to categorize the relationship between the implementerof the work and the receiver of the work. The ontological map of public art isunfinished, and “…evaluating the social impact of participating in the arts haslong been a sort of terra incognita, acontinent whose existence is know, but which remains unexplored and filled withdangers for the unwary.” (Matarasso 1997, cited ixia, 2005, p.19) ixia[1]continues this analogy, stating in 2005 that, “seven years later, the terra may not be so incognita any longer but the dangers seem to remain the same.”(ixia, 2005, p.19). I argue that ninteen years on, the terra is still incognita,as the difficulties to accurately clearly map that which remains undefinedcontinue to plague the genre. “Projects of a social and political naturestretched an already elastic term.” (ixia, 2005, p.7) and the terra and become ever more incognita as a definition expands beyondmonuments in outside spaces, as “its tradition usage to denote ‘sculpture inthe open air’ refers now only to one kind of subgenre of ‘public art’ alongsideothers.” (ixia, 2005, p. 6).

There is a strong need categorize the genre is within anontological framework, and “debates about public art have not been immune fromthis desire to define.” (Massey & Rose 2003, p.12). This desire to label,refine and identify the role and effect of public art practice has resulted ina mixture of responses to the terraincognita. We can agree that public art is no longer just as simple, andeasy definable, as monuments in parks and squares, and that “artists are nowmore often acknowledged by the public and by professionals as working withindynamic ‘contexts’ of complex natures rather than physical ‘sites’ alone.”(ixia, 2005, p.7). But what is public art, if it is not simply situated‘outside’ or presented in sculptural form? Definitions shift to the spacebetween the artist and audience, as pointed out by Rose and Massey, and focuson the relationship that is generated in that space – often highlighting thepositive impact generated by the manifestations of this relationship. Forexample, with the advent of ‘new genre public art’ that is “socially engaged,interactive art for diverse audiences…” (Lacy, 1995, p.12), the emphasis is notplaced necessarily on the location of the work or its physical form but therelationships developed within that location and the impact that has on theenvironment, whether culturally or financially. For example, Lucy Lippard’sdescription of public art as “accessible work of any kind that cares about,challenges, involves, and consults the audience for or with whom it was made,respecting community and environment” (Lippard 1995, cited Massey & Rose2003, p.12). This is an ontological stance that places value in the mutuallyrespectful and reciprocal (potentially idealized) relationship of equalsbetween artist and community. Another example from Malcolm Miles points towardpublic art practice as “activity engaged with and intervenes in its audiences”(Miles 1997, cited Massey & Rose 2003, p.12). This ontology is morechallenging, a definition that emphasizes not just a relationship (as withLippard’s point), but an active, provocative one.

How public art, and the relationships being generated by it inthe public space, rely on how the practice is situated politically and sociallyby those who have creative and economic power over it. Public art reflects howthe makers and commissioners and critics of the work think society (and publicspace) should be improved, run, or catered for - whether this is to influencepublic space through community benefits, economic benefits, or aestheticallyimproving or neutralizing spaces.  

“The problem is complicated by the fluid borders of public art”(ixia, 2005, p.20), and although “definitions are contradictory… the litany ofits merits is relatively constant…” Public art might be in a status of flux interms of its purpose, but the merit of the practice as having a positive impacton public space and communities of that place is very clear.

A positive impact is agreed, but what is the impact and effectactually being generated? In the following sections, I will map out a selectionof ontological frameworks that attempt to pinpoint the land-unknown – adefinition of public art that encompasses function and effect and impact. Iwill do so by exploring how public art is framed in various ways: aestheticssensibilities; its humanizing qualities; as part of economic regeneration; as atool for social relations and inclusion; and as part of an activist andanti-institutional agenda. I will examine the power dynamics of theseframeworks, seeking to pinpoint what benefit each definition brings toachieving the political agenda wrapped up in each ontological stance.

[1] “ixia isthe public art think tank – it provides guidance on the role of art in thepublic realm” based in the United Kingdom.(ixia, 2016, par.1)

Public Art’s Multiple Identifies– a selection of ontological frameworks


Suzanne Lacy gives a definition of public art that differentiatesit from other public activity by aesthetics, where artists are “working in amanner that resembles political and social activity but is distinguished by itsaesthetic sensibility.” (Lacy, 1995, p.19) The physical manifestation andaesthetic qualities of the public art are what allows its audience to know thatthey are looking at art – rather than another form of social intervention orcivic activity or structure.

This definition relies on the idea that the physical presence ofpublic art and its aesthetic sensibilities are what effects its environment andthe people inhabiting it. Although this is obviously true to a certain extent,quite often we can distinguish public art from other interventions by theaesthetic tools employed by the artist to gain our attention or relay amessage, I would argue that Lacy’s emphasis on aesthetics does not carry intocurrent forms of public art practice. Eleven years on from Lacy’s writing onnew genre public art, and with the advent of digital media and the internet,interdisciplinary practices play into familiar forms of public intervention(from commercial advertising to protest, for example) and are not necessarilydistinctly recognizable by their aesthetic sensibilities or physical form alone.Therefore, public art cannot be defined by its aesthetics, but its definitionmust consider its intention. So what are the intentions?


 “Art in publicplaces was seen as a means of reclaiming and humanising the urban environment”(Lacy, 1995, p. 21). This is still the intention of many public art projects,where public art, “… is credited with…humanising the built environment,promoting tourism and “creating employment and confidence.” (Selwood,1995,cited ixia 2005, p. 19).

This idea of humanising the urban environment can be a positivepresence. A humanising intention can have softening influences on sterileenvironments that require a high level of welcome messages in order to performtheir social function, such as schools, town halls, or hospitals. For example,using public artwork to remove the harsher edges of an environment that mayread as clinical, making a space more relatable, “…art has the additionalquality that can help to humanise and give meaning to an institution andworkplace.” (Todd, 2010, p.520) By adding ‘humanity’ to a space perhapsotherwise devoid of personality, or potentially threatening to its intendedusers, public art can be used as a tool to welcome and care.

Linked with this notion of creating a caring space throughpublic art’s intervention, is the notion that public art practice as a nurturingpresence. For example, as seen with a series of public art interventions in adeprived area of Phoenix, Arizona, “the temporary art projects addressed theoverall need to nurture our community in terms of the physical space, and thepeople who occupy it.” (Rebecca Rothman cited Institute for ComprehensiveCommunity Development, 2014, p. 5). Through public art intervention, the publicspace is being seen and understood by users as cared for, and therefore the communitieswho use it are understood as being taken care of.

However, there are definite negative associations with theontological stance that portrays public art as embodying and bringing humanizingqualities and effects. It could be read as smoothing over the undesired oruncomfortable characteristics of public space to make it more palatable andconsumable for other potential users (such as for tourists, for example). Theintention to diminish social problems arising in public space consideredundesirable is a trait seen in many local and national public art policies. Forexample,

“In the Design Guide of the Welsh Development Agency (2004), identity andinnovation, along with nature, are the elements that define good landscapedesign and “quality in the public realm” means places that “are attractive,safe, uncluttered and work effectively for all in society…” (ixia, 2005, p.21)

By removing any elements that may clutter, appear to beunattractive, or seemingly unsafe, public art as part of urban redevelopmentand landscape design acts as a solution to public spaces that are consideredunsociable. By altering the space physically, social activities can be shiftedor removed, replaced with a physical environment and social interaction that ismore attractive.

The idea of humanizing public space begs the question of whatwas ‘unhuman’ or ‘uncivilised with it to begin with. Rather than adding a senseof care to a space in order to make it more welcoming to vulnerable users, suchas in a school or hospital, it can imply the humanity and activity alreadypresent in the public space is socially unacceptable. It is problematic toconsider public art as a tool for humanizing public space and the communitiesthat inhabit it – an uneasy relationship that echoes colonialism: forcing,through cultural intervention, a normal or acceptable way of being onto a spaceand community. It suggests that the public space and its users requireimproving. Although there is no doubt that many public spaces could be improved– whether this be to encourage more equality of use at all times of day, orprovide more accessible facilities for users – it is essential problematic toapproach the space as broken, requiring improvement, and suggest that publicart practice could be the fix.   

Economy and Regeneration

Improvement and regeneration arebedfellows: by identifying public space as a site for improvement. The economicvalue of public art and its capacity as a tool for regeneration is highlightedby Caroline Davis in a research paper commissioned by ixia (think tank forpublic art), where Business Improvement Districts “…are using arts and culturalactivity to try and power their business areas and as a regenerative andprofiling tool.” (Davis, 2013, p.1). The merits of public art are oftenpresented by, “its contribution to urban regeneration.” (Selwood, 1995, cited ixia2005, p.20) Economic value is held as the paramount example of success. In acapitalist system, all beneficial outcomes of public art practice as assigned amonetary value, suggesting that the presence of public art will revitalizequality of public spaces overall.

For example, a public art initiative in Phoenix, Arizona, mentionedabove,

“The National Endowment for the Arts’Our Town grant program supports creative placemaking projects in communitiesthat improve the local quality of life, encourage greater creative activity,foster stronger community identity and a sense of place, and revitalizeeconomic development.” (Institute for Comprehensive Community Development,2016, p. 1)

The lists of aims assigned to public art are wide-ranging andambitious. Public art is placed as a tool to adjust and alter, and perhaps evenfix, the socio-economic challenges urban spaces are facing. “Knowing vacantlots could trigger a host of socioeconomic challenges, the city moved torepurpose them as sites for temporary installations…” (Institute forComprehensive Community Development, 2016, p. 1). Here, public art is presentedas a tool to address the problem of empty lots in the urban landscape, which“disrupted the neighborhood’s sense of community, increased the potential forcrime and exacerbated the longstanding issue of homelessness.” (Institute forComprehensive Community Development, 2016, p. 2) which are therefore barriersfor economic development in the area. By inserting public art practice into thesespaces, it helps elevate problems and create a clear pathway towards economicregeneration.

This is not only seen in the USA, but also in Scotland. Forexample, Glasgow City Council’s Stalled Spaces initiative (now being rolled outnation wide as an example of good practice) also places value on public art andtemporary installations in vacant, or ‘stalled’, spaces that litter theGlaswegian urban environment.

“This project deliversan innovative approach to dealing with issues relating to poor environmentalconditions that have become more prevalent due to economic downturn. Theproject focuses on the temporary use of vacant land, under utilised open spaceand sites earmarked for development though stalled.” (Glasgow City Council,2016)

Stalled Spaces suggeststhe potential uses for such spaces include, “pop up sculpture, exhibition pace… artsproject… or any innovative idea.” Power is given over to community organisersand arts groups to develop ideas on how resolve the issues of vacant spaces. By presenting these spaces aspotential platforms for creativity, the use of these spaces visually plus inconvenientlocations and encourages commercial redevelopment. However, power actuallyresides and remains with the landowner – often a private landlord waiting oninvestment for the commercial redevelopment of the space - the local councilacting as a go-between.

Here we see public art practice benefittingthe private sector. Although a public body – the city council – is negotiatingthe use of the spaces for public use, the power remains with the privatelandlord who dictates when use of the space can be revoked. Value is not placedon the activity and impact generated by the public art practice, but continuesto remain with the potential commercial redevelopment, even if the only thing actuallyrealized on the space thus far is public art rather than a building.

As Deutsche points out,

“The real function of new public art,however, was to “present as natural the conditions of the late-capitalistcity”, that is to say, a city progressively fragmented by corporate interestsand redevelopment schemas.” (Lee, 1998, p.83)

The Stalled Spaces project demonstrateshow public art practice has been consumed by and “is implicated in the processof redevelopment” (Lee, 1998, p.83). Despite the labour (emotionally, oreconomically) poured into the spaces by those who take it on, they are,essentially, the safe keepers of the space until commercial redevelopmentbecomes viable. This is not to undermine the hugely beneficial projectsundertaken, but to highlight how their labour is valued little in comparison toeconomic assets to be gained from commercial developments.

Public art is also brought in forredevelopment projects by including artists as part of urban planning anddesign teams, “…artistsare called in, at some appointed stage in the proceedings, and asked to depositan object or other contribution to a larger strategic process of urban change.”(Vickery, 2012, p.3). Vickery highlights the common agenda points required ofpublic art in such positions through a survey of local authority public artstrategies, the following terms highlight the emphasis placed on public art todrive the regeneration process, “Art as a stimulus to economic recovery… Art as‘investment’… Art as commerce” (Vickery, 2012, p.9) among others.

Although including art practice as part ofurban regeneration is not necessarily a negative thing, it is problematic whenthe public art is used as an object as part of a wider economic (capitalist)agenda to redevelop spaces. When the emphasis is on capital gain, rather thancommunity benefit, social relations, or creative endeavors, public art becomesanother object in the urban landscape of regeneration, an ineffective symbol ofrapid change rather than cultural and community investment.

Social relations

“Some attempts (at measuringimpact of public art) have focused specifically on economic impact, but thisdoesn’t tell the whole story, or even the most important stories.” (Becker,2011 cited Gressel 2012 p.1)

In contrast to the language of economic regeneration, others claimthat “inherently public art is a social intervention.” (Hanson cited Lacy, 1995, p. 19), a process throughwhich social relations are developed with the catalyst of public art practice.This is a socialist ontological framework playing emphasis on people, ratherthan a capitalist framework emphasizing the value of economy and ‘improvement’.

This definition of public art fits well with Rose and Massey’sgeographical analysis of of public space, “public spaces, then, do not simplyexist. Their existence depends, instead, on what happens in them, what kind ofinteractions take place to create them.” (Massey & Rose, 2003, p.6) In Roseand Massey’s definition, negotiation produces public space, and “sincenegotiation can take different forms, so too can public space: it can takestronger and weaker forms”. For example, rather than feeling welcomed, peoplecan feel tolerated. As thus, “art galleries are in consequence often ratherweak public spaces.” (Massey & Rose, 2003, p.7). Perhaps, as sited above inthe section of humanizing qualities, it is public art’s role to make spaces notnecessarily more human, but perhaps more tolerable to differences throughnegotiation. Public art, within this ontological framework, be defined as aplatform for the social relations that create and develop public spaces.

Drawing on Lee’s reference to Henri Lefebvre’s description ofspace as “…a social production and not a perceptual given…” (Lee, 1998, p.81) means  “…space is… inseparable from theconflictual and uneven social relations that structure specific societies atspecific historical moments.” (Deutsche 1996, cited Lee 1998, p.81). Therefore,within this ontological framework laid out by Rose and Massey and support byLee, public art is not the fixer-upper of unsightly public spaces, nor a toolfor economic regeneration, but a platform and catalyst in which to negotiatepotentially conflicting social relations. This kind of public art could takeany form, as long as its intention was to generate this dialogue. For example,referencing Ernesto Laclau, Lee asserts that “…social space is understood asalways structured by conflict and oppositionality, the basis of democraticspatial politics. Public art should follow suit: in its most viable form, itserves less to resolve the conflicts underlying social space than to exposethem.” (Lee, 1998, p.85) Form, perhaps to quote Bauhaus, must follow function –the function to expose and stimulate, creating a platform for, dialogue around“conflict and oppositionality”.

If we understand public space as a site of negotiation, publicart is the catalyst for conversation – and perhaps, a catalyst for socialchange. In this ontological framework public art as humanizing or healing isinaccurate. Rather than smoothing over the rough edges or ‘broken’ elements ofsociety, public art highlights and draws attention to conflicts in public spacethat other ontological stances would claim require improving or fixing.

However, this definition of public art has the potential to bealienating through its emphasis conflict and negotiation, promptingreflectivity and self-awareness on the part of both practitioners andaudiences. How can public art achieve its intentions while promotinginclusivity? 

Tool for inclusion

Rose and Massey reference Lefebvre, suggesting public art couldact as a “’collective mirror’, ‘offering each member of society an image ofthat memeorship’ while leaving those who are not allowed to be members unseenand unseeing (Lefevbre) (Rose and Massey, p.6, 2003). The power dynamics ofpublic art practice – the ability to both include and exclude – are seenreflected in public art policy. For example, the public art think tank ixiamention in their recommendations for good practice,

“Any project which is aimed at thepublic or community as a whole may want to have monitoring in place to ensurethat particular groups, e.g. ethnic minorities or disabled people, have beeneffectively included. For effective inclusion of black and minority ethnic groups,for example, any written material should be represented in minority languages,and interventions should be sensitive to gender and religious traditions.”(ixia, p. 14)

There is a requirement to consider inclusion and consider publicart practice as an inclusionary tool. However, by pointing out the exclusionarypotential, there is the unmentioned fact that public art practice (in the UK)is dominated by white, able-bodied, English speaking people, both as makers andaudiences. Although this policy paper might not be the place to play out andexamine every divisionary boundary found in public space and its uses, by notmore explicitly discussing the potential divisions between makers andaudiences, between commissioned makers and other makers not included, andbetween different audiences within communities of place and interest, thewhite, able bodied, English speaking population is presumed the ‘norm’ and therest the ‘other’. The language of inclusion is problematic because it isexclusionary. Otherness dominates, lumping together identity characteristics aspotential boundaries to overcome, rather than as potential sites for creativity.

Such paragraphs occur in most examples of best practice publicart publications, where the unseen may be seen, but they are hardly recognizedor acknowledged for the complexity and nuance they posses as human beings in acommunity or society. Such sweeping points encouraging practitioners andstakeholders to reflect upon their potential audiences does not leave space forcomplexity or intersectionality, “for social groups and individual people havecomplex and multiple identities too, cross cut by a whole range of differentlines of commonality with and in relation to others.” (Massey & Rose, 2005,p.8) If public art is to be considered a tool or catalyst for inclusion –negotiating the differences and conflicts found in public space – then thepolicy that advises it must accurately and critically reflect its ownpositionality and privileges.

This ontological framework for public art practice isproblematic, because in its very nature it is contradictory. Through thelanguage of inclusion, people are automatically excluded; simplifying people byparticular identity tick boxes reduces the complexity of the kinds of work thatcould be made – from the variety of artists who are commissioned, to theaudiences who are identified.

“It isn’t enough simply toacknowledge the diversity of audiences… it needs to have some potentiality fornegotiation of social differences. If negotiation among diverse socialidentities is not invited, then the artwork is not public.” (Massey & Rose,2005, p. 18)

In order to challenge the gaps between social groups we mustfirst challenge the language being used to describe public spaces and publicart practice – if a national think tank on public art still presumes andperpetuates this sense of otherness, how will these differences be tackled inpublic space itself, and how can public art practice begin to reflect diversitywith more integrity and ambition? If its not talking the talk on paper, there’sno way it can walk the walk in public.

Activism and public artoutside the institution

Thus far, the examples of public art practice are drawn from‘official’ interventions into public space - commissions contributing to anoverarching intention, whatever its ontological framework. But this is not the onlyway public art exists. For example, artist / researcher Matthew Cornfordadvocates for rejecting “…being bound by bureaucratically determined ‘goodpractice’ agendas.” (Cornford, 2008, p.2) He advocates for artist led projectsthat value creative intention at the forefront of public artworks. It creates aspace for public art practice to function out with the restrictions imposed bythe ontological frameworks of public art stakeholders – which, as seen above,can be as wide ranging as there are demanding and perhaps unachievable.

This can be seen in three public art projects referenced byCornford,

“Their projects involved thepublic and took place in the public realm, but were not responsible to any one.This avoided the need to fulfil various stakeholders’ agendas and needs…”(Cornford, 2008, p.2)

By rejecting the boundaries and agendas that accompanies manypublic art projects, Cornford demonstrates how artists can lead on public arts’intention.

An example of this kind can be seen in projection bombing – theact of using projected imagery in public space. Chris Rogy, member of theprojection bombing collective The Illuminator Art Collective, said that “weneed a critical dialogue, and the potential use of public space to be a meetingground of art and politics is essential for me.” (Rogy,2015, p.2) This is adefinition of public art mapped by its ability to bring together art practiceand political activism.[1]

The use of projection in public space, “provide an opportunityfor us to reach audiences outside of our networks and engage on topics we areabout.” (Rogy, 2015, p. 4) Public art practice as a tool for social relations,but more explicitly a tool for communication and active political actions forsocial change.

The Illuminate Art Collective were able to bypass theinstitutional parameters of public art practice, while not acting necessarilyillegally (projection is not a criminal act, as it does not deface propertythrough “permanently affixing material to property … New York City legalboundaries on projections are not completely set.” (Rogy, 2015 p.4)).Circumnavigating institutional boundaries of public art practice throughcollaboration – from borrowing the equipment necessary for such a large-scale installation,to working one-on-one with the local family, “she opened up her home to us.”(Read, 2011, p. 2) – the collective are able to intervene into public spacewithout the restrictions of other (potentially conflicting) ontological models.

However, working outside the restricting parameters ofinstitutional bureaucracy can potentially leave behind beneficial requirements,as well as the negative. For example, responsibility is prioritized in a fundedstakeholder led project, where both the intentions of the work must be met anddocumented and there are responsibility hierarchies tied in good practiceagendas. Although such agendas, as discussed by Cornford, can remove creativeagency from artists, they do allow for a traceable line of responsibility to bedrawn and for the parameters of that responsibility (to whom, by whom) to bemapped and monitored. The acceptance of responsibility could be seen asnecessary for the public artwork to be truly public, as it is interlaced withnotions of social relations and inclusion. Although it may be time consumingand restrictive, institutionalized models of public art practice require responsibilityto be responded to. Such a model can provide potential platforms for voices tobe heard and respected, which could be appropriated by other models of publicart practice.

[1] Rogy is talking about the Occupy movement, andthe use of projected temporary installations to dominate public space duringthe Brooklyn Bridge #N17 march –an event that took place on 18th November 2011 when,

“thousands of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators ended anationwide day of protest by swarming across the Brooklyn Bridge in New York,in a defiant show of support after police forcibly cleared the park that wasthe crucible of the movement in the United States.” (McVeighand and Gabbatt,2011, par 1)

Power dynamics – whoget’s to define meaning

The map of public art practice traverses many definitions andontological perspectives, from socioeconomic regeneration through to activismand challenges to institutionalized structures of power, “but with history aswell as maps, the construction of meaning depends on who is doing the making”(p.21 mapping the terrain) and who does the making will hold the power. Whocontrols these definitions? Who decides what public art is?

“Knowledge about public art, including its definition, is keptas the exclusive preserve of critics and practitioners.” (Massey & Rose,2005, p. 13). This can be seen in many of the examples cited above where thedefinition and function of public art is determined by the policy makers andauthors of academic papers. The generation of knowledge about public art isreserved for those who hold institutionalized power, even in the examples ofwhere those aligning with ‘good practice agendas’ or not. The gatekeepers ofknowledge define what public art is.

There is a  “…powerimbalance between those who decide and those who (passively) ‘watch’”.(Zebracki, 2014, p.10). Zebracki’s paper draws on the expertise of creativepractitioners working in Rotterdam, but ironically, despite the title’semphasis on audience, there are no audiences of non-insider status included inthe research.

“It is strange, then, that ‘theaudience’, or ‘the community’, for all its centrality to current definitions ofpublic art, is never allowed to produce its own definitions of whether and howa particular piece is effective of affective.” (Massey & Rose, 2005, p. 13)

If a core-defining feature of public art is effect on the public (economically or emotionally),then the language surrounding public art is not connecting with its core usersbut rather a selective minority.

It is a powerful position to define public art, because unknownspaces – the terra incognita  – is problematic because the unknown isuncontrollable. It is easy to see the desirability in defining public art,because by doing so it can assist in achieving an ontological or politicalagenda.

Towards some conclusions

Public art and its definitions are adrift; the terra incognita is certainly not beenidentified yet. However, I have established through an exploration of some ofthe responses to this terra incognita that“…public art has become much more than art objects in civic space – it is aboutthe public function of that space.” (Vickery, 2012, p.21), and each ontologicalframework for understanding how public art functions in that space embodiespower dynamics unique to that political stance. Whether it be an ontology ofaesthetics, humanizing effects, economic regeneration, social relations,inclusion, or activism, “the way in which one understands ‘place’, in otherwords, can have enormous social consequences, which can be reflected in policy,and particularly policy towards public art.” (Massey & Rose, 2003, p.3).

From my own position as a self-proclaimed intersectionalfeminist public art practitioner, I indentify most closely with Rose andMassey’s ontological framing of the relationship between public art and publicspace. And I concur that,

“…’we’ – critics and artists –cannot just assume that we know its effects, what it does and therefore what itis. If we want to know what a particular artwork is doing, we need to find outfrom the people it’s doing it with.” (Massey & Rose, 2005, p. 15).

Going forward, there is a research to be undertaken to establishhow the intentions for public art effect people and places,

 “future research should dedicate itself more strongly toinquiring into the intended and envisaged (in)appropriate and (un)customarysocio-spatial effects – and visceral affects – of public art towards itsdiverse publics.” (Zebracki, 2014, p.13)

There is a huge gap in the definition of public art left byexcluding audiences from the decision-making. If public art practice is acknowledgeas beneficially across all ontological stances, then we need to listen to thereal gatekeepers of knowledge – the public. I align myself with Suzanne Lacy,and also ask, “Can art lead to substantial social change?” (Lacy, 2010, p.xxi)We can only find out by asking.


Cornford, M. (2008) Takin’it to the Streets [Online], ixia, Available at: http://ixia-info.com/new-writing/matthewcornford/ [accessed 24.05.2016]

Crabtree, A. (2016) Statement[Online], Available: http://www.anniecrabtree.com/statement [accessed 05.05.2016]

Davis, C. (2013) Arts & Culture and Regeneration Business Improvement Districts:Where the cultural can drive the economic [Online] ixia, Available at: http://ixia-info.com/new-writing/ [accessed 24.05.2016]

Glasgow City Council (2016) StalledSpaces [Online], Glasgow City Council, Available: https://www.glasgow.gov.uk/stalledspaces[accessed 29.05.2016]

Gressel, K. (2012) PublicArt and the Challenge of Evaluation [Online], Createquity. Available at: http://createquity.com/2012/01/public-art-and-the-challenge-of-evaluation/[accessed 03.05.2016].

Lacy, S (2010) Leaving Art,Durham, USA: Duke University Press

Lacy, S. (1995) Mappingthe Terrain: New Genre Public Art, Seattle, USA: Bay Press

Lee, P. M. (1998) Public Art and the Spaces of Democracy, Assemblage 35, 80-86

Massey, D. & Rose, G. (2003) Personal Views: Public Art Research Project, Milton Keynes: ArtPoint Trust and Milton Keynes Council

McVeighand, K. and Gabbatt, A. (2011) Occupy Wall Street day of action ends in BrooklynBridge march [Online],The Guardian, Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/nov/18/occupy-wall-street-brooklyn-bridge [accessed 30.05.2016]

NVA (2015) About NVA [Online],Available at: http://nva.org.uk/about/ [Accessed 25.05.2016]

Picture Window (2014) About[Online], Available at: http://picturewindow.org.uk [accessed 30.05.2016]

Read, M. (2011) Interviewwith creator of Occupy Wall Street “bat-signal” projections during BrooklynBridge N17 march [Online], BoingBoing, Available: http://boingboing.net/2011/11/17/interview-with-the-occupy-wall.html

Rogy, C (2015) PublicSpace and Video Projections: A conversation with the illuminator art collective[Online], Witness, Available: https://blog.witness.org/2015/03/video-projections-illuminator-art-collectives/

Todd, K. Process and (As) Community in Public Art: AudienceParticipation in Creating Art, Place and Meaning,The International Journal of the Arts in Society 4 (5), 505-521

Vickery, J. (2012) PublicArt and the Art of the Public – After the Creative City [Online], ixia, Available at: http://www.publicartonline.org.uk/downloads/news/IXIA_PublicArt_JV_FINAL.pdf [accessed 27.05.2016]

Institute for Comprehensive Community Development (2014), Temporary Public Art Installations toAnimate Vacant Spaces: Phoenix, AZ [Online], National Endowment for theArts, Available at: http:/instituteccd.org/resources/5062

ixia (2016) About ixia [Online],Available at: http://ixia-info.com/ [accessed 30.05.2016]

ixia (2005) Research onPublic Art: Assessing Impact and Quality, OPENspace, Edinburgh College ofArt and Heriot-Watt University

Zebracki, M. (2014) Public Art as conversation piece: scalingart, public space and audience, Revuebelge de geographie, 3, 1-19

Using Format