From Site to Community in New Genre Public Art

Kwon, Minwon. 2004. Chapter 4: “From Site to Community in New Genre Public Art: The Case of ‘Culture in Action,’” in One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity. Cambridge: MIT

In this chapter, Kwon focuses on a series of art interventions called “Culture in Action,” held in Chicago, as one of the foundational pieces of what has become known as “new genre public art” (NGPA).  Kwon traces some of the origins of NGPA, discusses contesting conceptions of “community” and then critically unpacks the “Culture in Action” intervention with these questions in mind.  It’s a great intro to NGPA, both because of its discussion of influence, its detailed case study, and its method—the author actually looks at the concrete relationships and outcomes of these projects (how they worked themselves out “on the ground”) rather than just celebrating (or criticizing) public statements and theories about the art.

NGPA was differentiated from ‘public art’ as a practice that was more participatory, more engaging, and focused more on interactions and collaborations between artists and communities.  The “Culture in Action” series was facilitated by Suzanne Lacy, and featured a eight different exhibits/collaborations with different artists, collaborators, and audiences.  It saw the whole city as a site for intervention, and sidestepped the prevailing dependence on architects and professionals for doing site-specific art.  “Culture in Action” privileged process over product: it “was defined not in terms of material objects but by the ephemeral processes of interaction between the local participants and the audience.” (104)

Kwon discusses these in some detail here, but I’m going to skip over these specificities.  I think this case study is less important than the general points about NGPA and community.  Kwon reviews many of the prevailing differentiations and distinctions of NGPA, such as it influence by Marxism and feminism; its shift from audience to artist, object to process, and production to reception; and its critique of ‘sites’ as too abstract, privileging instead notions of space and community.  Community often signifies marginalized groups (the Latino community, women’s groups, etc) but it can also signify abstract communities of the dominant order (business community, scientific community) or reactionary middle-class interests (the ‘real’ community of families, posited against deviance and crime).  Culture in Action thus tried to be issue- and audience-specific.

Kwon raises critical questions about the Culture in Action project by attending to the conceptual and theoretical differences, which aren’t visible from the public statements, “embedded instead in the specific (invisible) processes of their respective community collaborations, in their enactment of the necessary institutional and individual exchanges and compromises” (116).  Enacted notions of community here range from the mythic and homogenizing category of “Woman” (which ultimately subsumes the diversity of women commemorated a singular unity), to durable, long-term “invented communities” that were the product of relationships and coalitions formed with the help of local artists who used existing knowledge and connections to create meaningful and lasting partnerships.  Kwon shows how some artists identified the communities and the outcome prior to collaborations, and they had to rely on curators because they lacked any local community connections.  Others lived in Chicago and used the art partnerships to leverage resources and create lasting partnerships.

Kwon concludes by insisting that it’s not a simple binary between local/insider/good/successful vs. non-local/outsider/bad/failure.  Local artists have a “head start” with existing connections and local knowledge, but there are no guarantees of success, and likewise, the outsider perspective can lend an incisive perspective (135).

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One thought on “From Site to Community in New Genre Public Art

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