(return to Los Angeles essays)

NB Images for this essay are not available yet.

(This essay is a transcript from the 3Cities Project Conference 'New York, Chicago, Los Angeles: Cultures and Representation', Birmingham, Sept. 3-4, 1999)


Although there has been a massive increase in the number and diversity of works of public art in recent years, this has not been met with a concomitant intensity of thought over what might constitute the “public” aspects of this “public” art, and in particular its dialectical relation to the “private”.

In this paper we offer some new operative and interpretive strategies as to how works of public art represent, or might represent, the collective nature of the city and its residents. In doing so, we consider the urban and public nature of the artist, the site, the audience and the critic. Strategies and tactics considered include: the everyday life of the metropolis, public art as fragment, the dialectical image, the detail, displacement and montage, thought-images, the experiencing subject, use values and the gift economy.

In this we are particularly concerned with the notions of time and memory in public art, and how these conditions may be addressed through such concepts as frozen time, erased time, discontinuous time, collective memory, the event, motility, narrativity and spatial stories.

In what follows, most of what we say is conceptual. The paper intersects with the writings of, among others, Walter Benjamin, Michel de Certeau, Luce Irigaray, Henri Lefebvre and Maurice Merleau Ponty.

In the imagery which you are about to see, particular reference is made to city-based works in New York and Los Angeles, but also to other cities in the US and worldwide. We also refer to urban imagery which has not been made by artists, but which nonetheless, we believe, is a form of public art.

This paper is not, therefore constructed in the manner of a conventional conference paper. It hovers between the conceptual and the observational, the theoretical and empirical, between subject and object, and between word and image. It is a dialectic of poetics and politics.

Private Reflections/Public Matters


I think this sense of what it means to be a social persona and the fact that every social person has a private person inside is vital to the sense of community and to any meaningful sense of “public” - of public service. The way to get to those issues sometimes is organizational and structural, but often it has to do with compassion with play, with touching the inner self in every individual who recognizes that the next individual has a similar self. And it is that community, whether the literal or metaphorical, that is in fact the real public that we as artists might address.[1]

“Private property” (JR)

“Open to the Public” (JR)

The terms are public and private are cultural constructions whose definitions change both historically and depending on context. “Public” or “private” are not neutral descriptive categories but rather denote specific value systems. The words mean different things in everyday language, in theoretical discussion and according to discipline as social and spatial metaphors in geography, anthropology and sociology, as terms of ownership in economics, as political spheres in political philosophy and law.

In public art discourse “public” refers to ‘site’ both in its physical state, as it is represented, and as it is understood conceptually as a terrain for interventions. A public site might be defined in terms of morphology (outdoors), in terms of activity (out of the art gallery). However, this ‘public site’ is rarely taken apart to reveal problems of ownership and accessibility.

In public art discourse “public” also refers to ‘the public’ as audience, viewer and user that idealised group of people whom public artists aim to understand, represent and communicate with. However, this public audience is rarely considered in terms of difference or heterogeneity, passive and active, initiated and coming-in cold, viewer and user, or in terms of the public’s various class, gender, race, age and so on.

One other point here. In order to understand ‘public’ it is necessary to place it in relation to private, to take these two in dialectical relation - seeing how one informs the other. For example, public art outside the private institute of art housed inside the gallery may still be within the corporate world of private property and finance, and further still inside the private world of the lite group of artists who get the commissions. Alternatively, public art may bridge the private worlds of those who create it and the private lives of those who view it, or it may render public themes into matters of personal concern.

The Possibilities Machine


Space is broad, teeming with possibilities, positions, intersections, passages, detours, U-turns, dead ends, one-way streets. Too many possibilities indeed. [2]

Wall St bull (IB)

Statue of Liberty interior (IB)

At the run-up to the millennium, we find a noticeable increase in the funding of public art projects. But despite the increase in quantity, qualitatively much of the work is reductive, both in terms of its production and its reception.

Public art requires critical re-siting - theoretically and practically - within the context of everyday city life and at the intersection of critical debates concerning spatial and urban culture and critical and gender studies. This dialogue sets in motion possibilities for rethinking “public art” as possibilities, that is, public art that works against, within and for the whole range of possibilities that the modern metropolis can offer.



In any case, what is delightful here is the dissimilarity itself between the object wished for and the object found. Thus trouvaille, whether it be artistic, scientific, philosophic, or as useless as anything, is enough to undo the beauty of everything beside it. In it alone we recognize the marvellous precipitate of desire. [3]

Timber on wall (JR)

PS1 sculpture wall tiles (JR)

The idea of fragment offers multiple possibilities for public art. It can provide the inspiration for public art. It can become a component of the work, or indeed it can become the work itself. Or it can provide, as we suggest here, a way of understanding not only public art but the whole urban fabric as a kind of art.

In this way, an urban fragment, an everyday object and an everyday description of that object reveals philosophical or historical ideas.

Indeed, if the city can be understood in this way, then we might ask what is the need for art as made by artists, when urban fragments say it all. All we need is Walter Benjamin to see the world as it already is - afresh. “Every fact is already theory”.

If existing public art is understood as an urban fragment, and if the urban fragment is understood as public art, then the monumental gesture has no more resonance than the microscopic accident. Debris is sculpture and sculpture is debris.

Dialectical Image


The eternal is in every case far more the ruffle on a dress than an idea [4]

Dresses in LA Shop (1998) [get duped] (JR)

Walter de la Mare, piece in DIA Foundation, NY (JR)

An urban fragment, in Walter Benjamin’s work, can be a dialectical image, that is, at once material and ideational. A dialectical image is a thought. Whether arcade, fashion, flaneur or dust - occupies a threshold position in space, time and consciousness: the dialectical image is a constellation of antiquity and modernity, dream and awakening.

The Detail


Finding in each of life’s details the totality of its meaning.[5]

Funchal pavement (JR)

Hayden/Mason/Leaf/Portrait/Mark (SF)

The detail is that small part or fragment, the artwork or of human life which speaks of the larger whole as entire art work, larger issue or whole city. These details dwell on “the smallest things, meaningful yet covert enough to find a hiding place in waking dreams” [6] this displacing significance of the work away from pure form or theory.

Benjamin even considers that such dialectical images as details can capture the original subject in ways indiscernible to the natural eye. [7]

Either way, the detail helps to re-live the work, re-produce the urban, re-create history.



Could montage as the formal principle of the new technology be used to reconstruct an experiential world so that it provided a coherence of vision necessary for philosophical reflection? [8]

WTC bridge reflections (IB)

Seurat mural, NY (JR)

At its crudest, dialectical imagery can mean rendering pairs of images, such as juxtaposed material in the city, or the placing of the work of art in the city in such a way that the site and meaning are recontextualised. This technique allows the conventional periodisations and causal explanations of historians to be destabilised and displaced. Meaning is then produced not by logical interpretation of facts and documents, but from a collision of politics, events and ideas, shocked out from objects through their displacement in time and space.

Text image


Antique spoon One thing is reserved to the greatest epic writers: the capacity to feed their heroes.

In One-Way Street, such as with this quotation, Benjamin plays on the contradiction between sub-title (here “antique spoon”) and the content of each prose piece.

Do not block driveway/Wellfleet Ch (IB)

PS1, Only Just Begun, Lawrence Weinberg [JR]

Similarly, where art work and text come together, meaning is displaced into the ambiguous state that hovers among in-between matter and script.

This can occur, for example, whenever we focus on scripts in the urban terrain as a way of rethinking and rereading that terrain, or whenever an artist uses words to displace the existing or perceived meaning of site and/or to reinscribe new meanings.

In Benjamin’s terms it is the “optical unconscious” where “a space informed by human consciousness gives way to a space informed by the unconscious”. [9] The meaning of the work with both matter and text is an indefinable supplement, deliberately unknowable and ambiguous but present nonetheless.

Calm and Adventurous Travel


By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring commonplace milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film, on the one hand, extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action. Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst the prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go travelling.[10]

Building fire hydrants, LA [JR]

DKNY sign, NY [IB]

So far we have moved from considering public art work in its everyday context to rethinking this relation in two ways: either by considering the everyday context as artwork in and of itself, or by considering particular pieces of work which intervene in the built environment of the city, thus transforming it.



In this paper, we now move on to consider dialectical imagery in relation to temporality.

Freezing Time

Erasing Time

Dialectical imagery tends to destabilise time, making it discontinuous, pushing it outside of historical, periodised time. How then might we pursue this clue, and further consider the issue of temporality in works of public art?

Horace Greeley, f. of NY Times [IB]

Socrates Sculpture Park, Queens, NY [JR]

An image of a work does alternatively two things to time. Firstly, it can freeze time, rendering the work prisoner of a particular historical moment.

Second, it can erase time altogether, such that the work of art is without any historical period.



Yet works of art are neither fixed in time, nor are they atemporal things. Rather they are part of social reproduction, part of the way people live their lives, of the way cities evolve, part of the way art itself changes. Works of art can therefore be temporal in two ways: event and motility.



To live is to leave traces. [11]

Washington Square advert/art [IB]

Washington Square advert/art [IB]

Here we see a piece of sign-writing in the sky over Washington Square. Clearly this is an event and therefore temporal. The work is in motion and there is a sense of time even within the photograph of the event.

But beyond this very short temporality, there is also a much longer one being alluded to, and this, curiously, is made explicit by the moment of erasure. As the white vapour disperses, as you can already see happening here on the right, the work ceases to have ontological meaning in terms of its presence, and so becomes a work of art whose meaning comes from its temporary presence demarcated most explicitly through the ending of the materiality of the work and its onward existence as trace, memory, record, documentation and so forth.

Furthermore, the very that the photographer has chosen to record the moment of creation and simultaneous dispersal suggests that the event is significant, that something has happened that is significant and meaningful.



[B]ecause movement is not limited to submitting passively to space and time, it actively assumes them. [12]

People walking up Brooklyn Bridge, NY [IB]

WTC public art, NY [JR]

Another response to the problem of time in public art, is to consider a sense of movement and passage around and through a work, showing its spaces not as isolated spaces and surfaces but as relational entities, encountered in differing sequences, glances and memories.

The aim here is frequently to concentrate on the moving subject’s experience, showing how different parts of the work and of the city are encountered, how they emerge and present themselves to the motile subject. [13]

Spatial Stories


In wide arcs of wandering through the city
I saw to either side of what is seen,
and noticed treasures where it was thought there were none.
I passed through a more fluid city.
I broke up the imprint of all familiar places,
shutting my eyes to the boredom of modern contours. [14]

SF Drift and Dream

Chicago blurred man

So urban fragments and dialectical images can locate us physically and conceptually in both space and time. They allow us to make momentary sense of the world. Such fragments and images are an intrinsic element of spatial storytelling - for exploring city and self.

In contemporary urban and architectural discourse, we are increasingly obsessed by figures which traverse space: the flaneur, the spy, the detective, the prostitute, the rambler, the cyprian. These urban figures are metaphors of our quest for knowledge, they are voyages of exploration, passages of revelation, journeys of discovery in, and of, the city, in and of the self. They are‘spatial stories.’ [15] Between public and private, outer and inner, past and future, real and imagined - we all tell spatial stories, we exchange narratives in and of the city.[16]

Narrative is then a form of space and time, an unfolding of space through time and vice-versa, an unfolding of time in space.

SF tower text 1

SF tower text 2

Another issue raised through time is the temporality of the everyday, that is as normal, routine encounters of works of various kinds as might happen day in and day out.

With regards to architecture, this is a point that we have made in the Strangely Familiar programme, showing how architecture is not just the product of architects, planners and built environment professionals, but is also the product of users, subjects and metropolitan dwellers of all kinds. The same is true for public art. Art is not just produced by artists, but is reproduced by viewers and audiences.

Birth of the User


Use value, subordinated for centuries to exchange value, can now come first again. How? By and in urban society, from this reality which still resists and preserves for us use value, the city. A weakened but true vision of this truth is an urban reality for “users” and not for capitalist speculators, builders and technicians. [17]

By considering works in use, we can suggest that they are embedded within common human history - and thus that works of art are not static art objects. This can occur in two ways:

Pamela Wells, Consumables, Shoreditch [JR] [•]


- fabricating the work through a process which involves the public. This may tend toward the choreographic, where the public works within a framework set out by the artist.

Pamela Wells, Finders Keepers, LA [JR] [•]


- making the work as something which exists through its transformative interaction with a participant audience. This tends toward the aleatory, the accidental where the work is manifest less as on object and more as an event.

Harry roundabout skate ollie


- considering the way that works are experienced. This can involve any object or space in the city, whereby the artistic element is provided the user who may also operate intentionally or unintentionally as critic.

Birth of the Critic


The problem arises of knowing whether the unity of a discourse is based not so much on the permanence and uniqueness of an object as on the space in which various objects emerge and are continuously transformed.[18]

Miro, NY - straight view [JR]

Miro, NY - reflecting view [JR]

Once we start to consider the user, the meaning of the work of art shifts inexorably away from the artist and the object toward the reception of the work. What, in this light, is the role of the critic? To what degree do the critics’ opinions and observations determine the meaning of the work?

Indeed, if we follow Foucault in seeing all objects and events being constituted by the discourse, we might even pose here the notion that works of art are not the cause or the origin of debates about art, but are the effect or trace of such debates.

These two images, for example, intimate at two very different critical positions on the work, thus in effect making two different pieces of work.

Gift Economy


Participating in your economy, I did not know what I could have desired. [19]



Another way of thinking about this is then to posit the act of theory as a work of art in its own right, or rather to consider that theory is in itself a form of practice.

This is not to deny the practice of the artist, nor that the artistoperates as critic, but to complexify the ways in which we understand the relation of art and criticism, practice and theory, private and public.

We began this talk by stating the public and the private need to be understood dialectically. Public art may bridge the private worlds of those who create it and the private lives of those who view it. As such, it may render public themes private, and private themes public.

Public art is then an economy of exchange, between artists, public, critics. The challenge here is take this an economy not of objects, sold, bought and received as possessions of individuals and corporations, but of giving, desiring and pleasuring - an economy which are is yet unknown.

[1] Kaprow, cited in Suzanne Lacy, (ed.), Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art, (Seattle: Bay Press, 1995), p. 36.
[2] W. Benjamin, One Way Street, London: Verso, 1992, p. xx
[3] A. Breton, Mad Love, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1987, pp. 14-5.
[4] Benjamin, Passagen-werk, cited in Buck-Morss, p. 23.
[5] Georg Simmel, The Philosophy of Money, (London: Routledge, second edition 1990), p. 55.
[6] Benjamin, Short History of Photography, p. 243.
[7] Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Illuminations, (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), pp. 220 and 236-7. See also Brian Mclaren, Under the Sign of Reproduction, Journal of Architectural Education, v.45 n.2 (February 1992), pp. 98-106.
[8] Buck-Morss, p. 23.
[9] Benjamin, Short History of Photography, p. 243.
[10] Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, p. 236.
[11] Benjmain, Paris: Capital of the Nineteenth Century, cited in Colomina, Sexuality and Space, p. 74.
[12] Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, p. 102.
[13] What Adolf Hildebrand called the kinesthetic (Bewegungsvorstellungen) image. Adolf Hildebrand, The Problem of Form in the Fine Arts, Empathy, Form and Space: Problems in German Aesthetics, 1873-1893, (Santa Monica: Getty Center for the History of Art and Humanities, 1994), Harry Francis Mallgrave and Eleftherios Ikonomou (eds.), p. 229. See also Martin Caiger-Smith, Site Work, Caiger-Smith and Chandler (eds.), Site Work, p. 7.
[14] Aidan Andrew Dunn, Vale Royal, (Uppingham: Goldmark, 1995), p. 9.
[15] Michael de Certeau, ‘Spatial Stories’, The Practice of Everyday Life, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), pp. 115-22.
[16] See Iain Borden, Joe Kerr, Alicia Pivaro and Jane Rendell, (eds.), Strangely Familiar: Narratives of Architecture in the City, (London: Routledge, 1995); and Iain Borden, Joe Kerr, Jane Rendell with Alicia Pivaro , (eds.), Unknown City: Contesting Architecture and Social Space, (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 2000).
[17] Lefevre, Right to the City, Writings on Cities, pp. 167-8.
[18] Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge, p. 32.
[19] Luce Irigaray, Elemental Passions, (London: Athlone Press, 1992), p. 61.

Last updated 16th November 2000