The Contemporary City: Constructions and negotiations

“The economic function of public art is to increase the value of private property”

The Contemporary City attempts to fulfill both the means of interaction and the facilitation of services with the inhabitants and visitors of a city. Urban planning is the balance between the necessities of density, transport, recreational space, prestige and sometimes aesthetics. Marketing is the apparatus by which to open the city up to the influx of liquid capital in the forms of tourism and inward investment. For the most part the functions fulfilled by these two apparatus are determined in a top down approach meeting primarily the needs of the capital institutions of a city rather than its citizens.The Situationist International organisation (1957 – 1972) would have posited  that the “Psychogeography” of a city is that of alienation, constraint and exploitation for capitalist means.

“translating into spatial terms, in the clear language of the organization of everyday life, its fundamental principle of alienation and constraint.”(Guy Debord, McDonough,(ed), 2002)

Daniel Jewesbury goes further and says of the city in reference to his curating of the recent “Headless City” – 2016 TULCA exhibition in Galway that it…

“is a captured space; nowadays it’s simply a huge financial instrument, an abstract device for producing profit. It is entirely privatised, not just in the sense of its physical spaces but in terms of the potential for us, as citizens, to ‘be public’ together”(Jewesbury, 2014)

This antagonistically repressed concept of how people relate to the city are addressed by the Freee Art collective in their work which uses the facilities of capitalism to highlight the inherent inequalities and injustices of the capitalist system particularly that of the production of public art within this system.

In the piece to the left (Collective F.A. 2016) they are using sloganeering of a Marxist fashion to subvert the usual conventions of large format outdoor advertising. The piece is 48 A1 sized sheets printed and pasted in place, this format of billboard is called a 48 sheet. It is both an ironic piece of art and one that links directly to Dada and the Situationists. The Freee Art Collective are attempting to reengage the practice of art in a universally political manner. They are using the lines of communication that are made available to them in an open market and are using Marxist language to bullet point their ideology. I’m not entirely sure that any problems are solved, but questions are being raised in a public manner.

The reasons I have chosen the piece of contemporary  protest art above is that I believe that Freee are trying to open channels of critical dialogue about a system that is becoming increasingly flawed. The weight of evidence is mounting that contemporary artists need to engage collectively and positively with all the lines of communication that are currently destabilised in order to gather their loosening strands. As artists there is both a prerogative and an obligation to query and create a framework for positive change in society. These systems of outdoor advertising are particularly pervasive in an urban environment. It is interesting to see these artists and activists use the established media in constructive manner. Another example of which would have been the culture jamming exercise of the Brandalism collective at the COP21 summit in Paris in 2015 where 600 individual advertising sites were hijacked in the immediate run up to the talks. (Brandalism, 2015) Actions such as these are small in the scale of the challenge that is faced with climate change, mass consumption and inequality in the world. But they form part of a collective dialogue that is needed to attempt to repair some of the damage that Adam Curtis, the documentary film maker, blames on the rise of individualism and self– expression in the world.

the very idea of self-expression might be the rigid conformity of our age. It might be preventing us from seeing really radical and different ideas that are sitting out on the margins—different ideas about what real freedom is”(Abrams, 2016)

If we are to live in urban spaces and negotiate a collective rational of what that means as global citizens then it is necessary to become part of that herd. Even as I write this there is a tiny conditioned voice inside me squeaking ”but i am a special snowflake” but the rationale behind the argument is fairly solid. Collective action that does not alienate is the means by which to include the marginalised. There are serious issues that need to be addressed now and the possibility of screwing up a hundred years of progress is very real.

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