Wednesday, September 4, 2013

#iTOMB: Redefining the Concept of Public Art

#iTOMB Maribell 04.08.13
I have been working in the venue of public art for two years now in New York - first as a painter of protest signs  at Occupy Wall Street, nearly two years ago, but more currently as the creator/curator and chief protagonist of the I Think Outside My Box (#iTOMB) project  on The High Line in New York - and different from the idea that the government will take our tax money and decide what kind of art "the public" will get, we simply get the public to make art, and then serve it up to - you guessed it - the public.

How simple is that? How American is that?

So it seems the delineation between public art, art that our government says you should experience - and art that we, the public make is a real line of demarcation. A visitor last week to #iTOMB remarked, "Wow, a new definition of public art!", upon seeing the art created by a random populace. And even I didn't see it as that in the beginning - but that it has become. Because, to my knowledge, no government or publicly supported entity really encourages you to communicate freely with no strings attached. But we do.

At #iTOMB, we are simply in the non-profit business of facilitating the citizens at large to make art, to exercise their First Amendment rights - to express whatever they like - without censorship. Just like America was envisioned by our founding fathers - without the hundreds of millions of dollars our administrators set aside for supposed public art projects. 

So what should "Public Art" be? The best iteration I've seen in New York recently would have been "The Gates" in Central Park, created by Christo and Jeanne Claude - an installation that actually required the public to interact to make it work. And it worked - albeit for too short a time. So in my best-of-what-could-be definition of public art, I would like public art to be interactive - to not just provide a viewing experience or something that can be easily sponged up by the iPhone/iPad paparazzi, but to be an involvement that requires a response - a two way communication. And I have been told that we and The Gates are similar. One woman called us "The Little Gates"


But the other day another woman railed that she didn't like The High Line at all - for not serving neighborhood needs and turning her home into a tourist attraction. "I thought this was going to be a neighborhood park". she said. "But it's turned into a tourist trap and that pisses me off", she said "I liked it better the old way - now all they care about is fundraising".

And although I don't agree with her, I can see her idea. Now things are being spit-shined to such a degree (and escalating real estate values) that it's losing it's New York-ness - its neighborhood feel.

So how do you bring that back - or keep what was good, depending on your POV. How do you foster community involvement amidst an urban renaissance?

In a recent conversation on community creative encouragement I said, "You can dictate things, you can plan things, or you can nurture things", the question is, how comfortable can you be with understanding that sometimes people don't do what you legislate or organise - but what they do do, naturally, is actually a communication on the affirmative in response to being encouraged. Can you be flexible enough to allow that? Can you encourage and celebrate happy accidents - through the trials it takes to create them?

Leo Burnett, founder of one of the world's most successful advertising agencies, The Leo Burnett Company (Marlboro Man, Tony the Tiger, Keebler Elves, Jolly Green Giant, Pillsbury Dough Boy, etc.) said two things that still ring true for me. "You cannot sell a man something he does not wish to buy." and, "Any idiot can change an idea, but it takes a real genius to keep his hands off a good one."

So it seems that everyone in the business of dealing with public art needs to have an even throttle on what to let go, and what to let grow - and in the case of the High Line, a park that grew up upon an old bit of governmental infrastructure, that seems simple. But simple it's not. Before, you had nature as the boss - now you have  humans. And humans are much less predictable than nature.

Colin Huggins, Piano and Orchestra - Washington Square Park 08.16.13

Last Sunday night I had the pleasure of hearing Colin Huggins at grand piano backed by a ten piece orchestra in Washington Square Park at 10pm. And no, this wasn't planned by a conservancy, nor given any millions by the city to promote the arts. This was public art, created by artists and managed by artists for an adoring crowd - and it was lovely - a true representation of public art and what we strive to grow at #iTOMB as well.

If you have enjoyed your public art experience at #iTOMB, please send a note to the High Line and let them know. We'll just Keep Calm and Carry On:)

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