03/08/17 • ◠ Focus: Public Art : Sally Müller

The City as Canvas

03/08/17 • ◠ Focus: Public Art : Sally Müller

The City as Canvas

The definitions of the terms public art, fine art, urban art and graffiti are coming under growing scrutiny as the practices are increasingly in dialogue with one another. In the below essay, German curator Sally Müller uses concrete case studies to explore and challenge preconceived notions of these distinct disciplines.

Crossover between contemporary art in the public realm, public art, urban art and graffiti is becoming increasingly common. The lines of definition between the different categories are obscure and often merge into one another. As confusing as this might at first appear, this blurring of prescribed boundaries gives all of these subcategories more options and at the same time presents new possibilities for artworks to be realized, thereby providing opportunities for further intersections to occur.

Strolling around the city of Cologne, Germany, one will notice a huge variety of murals, stencils, paste-ups and other pieces to explore. Currently most of the artworks are found in districts like Ehrenfeld, Mühlheim, and sections of the inner-city areas. However, from autumn 2017 onwards, there will also be more to explore in the area around the Ebertplatz, located in the north of the city. In all these districts the urban art festival CityLeaks, a biannual festival producing urban art in cooperation with invited local and international artists, has been active for the last eight years. One of the festival’s central tasks is to creatively develop the city of Cologne while at the same time question who has the right to create the city: the citizens, politicians, artists, architects?

Sepe & Chazme, Transurban, Cologne-inner city, CityLeaks 2015. Photo: Robert Winter.

Every citizen is asked to think about his or her environment and is also to an extent made responsible for the appearance of the city in which they live. Creating awareness and activating the individual is not only a core concept of this festival, but is also present in movements like Agora Köln. With their event Day of the good life (Tag des guten Lebens), initiated in 2013, they actively encourage alternative use of city spaces and the strengthening of collaborations between neighbors and communities. For one day, whole districts of the city of Cologne are blocked off and free of cars, and everyone is asked to create and use the streets according to their imagination. As such, Agora Köln is striving to influence and expand the possibilities of the city planning and improve the laws regarding climate protection through a variety of events, artistic, and politic work.

Although organized urban art and street art festivals that operate as events that encourage engagement are increasingly common, it is not only in the preceding decades that art – both visual and performative – has taken place in the public realm. The movement of art out of galleries and into public spaces has a long history, and the motivations to be active in the public realm are as diverse as the players themselves. Some simply use the public arena to promote themselves, others focus on the bigger picture and strive to change their environment for the better with their contribution. When taking a closer look at the different art styles making cities more colorful and diverse, it is legitimate to question the difference between contemporary art in the public realm, public art, street art, graffiti and urban art. The terms and movements overlap and have, throughout their individual histories, influenced one another.

Street art is generally defined as a non-commercial art form found in the public realm that has its roots in graffiti. Street art strives to communicate directly with the viewer through its often unique combination of symbols, illustrations and text. Contrarily traditional graffiti has a far lesser concern for the image, and rather focuses on signs and tags that demarcate specific areas and spread the artist’s name as widely as possible, often in highly visible and challenging to reach places. Trains have been historically popular venues amongst graffiti artists since there the tag is in constant movement and can be seen by a large number of viewers while the train traverses the city, carrying the message with it. Similarly frequented spaces include walls close to railway tracks, which train passengers go by automatically.

From a linear perspective, one could summarize that street art has developed from graffiti and urban art has further evolved from the street art movement. Urban art strives to actively communicate to people by shaping opinions and addressing contemporary topics. At the same time, urban art is provocative, and uses whatever means necessary to communicate an idea including categories and styles such as détournement, adbusting, cultural jamming, and urban hacking as well as performances, happenings, installations, video mapping, light and sound works. Many of these methods have also become common categories in public art over the last several years. Genres continue to blur.

The terms public art and contemporary art in the public realm are often used synonymously. Public art however, is most often comprised of artworks that have been commissioned or donated. Contemporary art in the public realm can be more fluidly defined – on the one hand the term can be defined as above, and on the other hand it also encompasses artworks placed in the public space guerrilla style, not registered and often installed without the necessary permission. When used, the term public art most often refers to a permanent sculpture in a public space. Public art has historically focused on permanent artworks of certain media, but has recently seen development and the opening up of possibilities for new formats and spaces to be considered.

Myriam Lefkowitz, Walk, Hands, Eyes (Gamlegard), performance, Kristianstad, Public Art Agency Sweden, 2017. Photo: Rikard Estay.
Myriam Lefkowitz, Walk, Hands, Eyes (Gamlegard), performance, Kristianstad, Public Art Agency Sweden, 2017. Photo: Rikard Estay.

Whereas urban art mainly centers on city streets and squares, public art, as the Public Art Agency Sweden describes it, also includes further public spaces and “environments such as youth detention centers, prisons, schools and embassies”. 1

  1. (2017-04-19)
Existing since 1937 the Public Art Agency Sweden renewed its vision in 2012 and “began moving from working with permanent artworks and a large collection in government buildings to also exploring free formats, urban development projects and not least of all, discussions and research that is focused on new forms of public art practices.” 2
  1. (2017-04-19)

The Public Art Agency Sweden extended their program immensely in recent years and has opened up for a range of temporary art forms such as video projections and performances. Myriam Lefkowitz’s performative work Walk, Hands, Eyes (Gamlegard), commissioned by the Public Art Agency Sweden, and taking place in June 2017 in Kristianstad, exemplifies the evolving attitude towards public art. Lefkowitz has designed a walking tour where the participants have their eyes closed and are led through urban space by performers. At certain points the participants are asked to open their eyes and experience the unexpected view.

In Cologne, artist Will Dorner participated in the CityLeaks festival 2015 with his performance Bodies in Urban Space. In the work, a group of performers temporarily move in the public realm and interact with their surroundings or create sculptures with their own bodies. Thus opportunities for art in the public space are no longer restricted to sculptures on pedestals and paintings on walls – neither in urban art organized by individuals or festivals, nor in public art commissioned by governmental institutions. The possibilities have grown and the media of art pieces in the urban and public space have become increasingly diverse. The phenomena of including more performance, light and sound works has also been happening in fine art, foremost shown in exhibition contexts. From this perspective urban art has taken a cue from the fine art world by incorporating these elements into their world.

Cie. Will Dorner, Bodies in Urban Spaces, performance, Cologne, CityLeaks 2015. Photo: Silviu Guiman.

While urban art begins its creative development in considering the urban space as a starting point, the genre can also envelop more traditional formats such as canvases and small sculptures with the potential to be shown in a museum or gallery settings. On the contrary artist Katharina Grosse is a prominent example of traditionally labeled ‘fine artist’ employing methods of street art and urban art in her work by blasting the canvas and letting color explode into the exhibition space as well as outside areas.

Katharina Grosse, Rockaway!, 2016. Presented by MoMA PS1 in collaboration with the Rockaway Artists Alliance, the Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy, the National Park Service, the Central Park Conservancy, NYC Parks & Recreation, and the Rockaway Beach Surf Club. Image: Art Media ARTNEWS.
Frauke Dannert, Ausstellung Collage, 2016, Kunstmuseum Luzern. Photo: Sebastian Freytag.

Artist Frauke Dannert has as her starting point collages, prints, photos and drawings of urban architecture, and from there expands her work into the room via enlarged sections of prints, carpet flooring, and painted walls thereby creating a unified scenery. While she mainly presents her work inside institutions, the artist also creates architectural art (Kunst am Bau) inside and outside private buildings as well as public institutions. Drawing inspiration directly from the urban environment and long forgotten or destroyed buildings, particularly brutalist architecture, Dannert seems to have a similar starting point as urban artists: the urban scenery. When not using historical images of buildings, this contemporary artist gathers her material through dérives and walks through the cityscape with her camera capturing her view of the city. An additional example of the appropriation of urban art methodology is Vera Drebusch’s work Nothing but the truth at the Art at Cologne advertising pillars (Kunst an Kölner Litfaßsäulen); a collaboration by the Academy of Media Arts Cologne, the Ströer Group and the city of Cologne.

In the work, Drebusch transferred a pattern, originally shown as a carpet, onto the much larger medium of an advertising pillar. “The color swatches of the carpet reference an aerial view of the chromatic fields on the hillsides of a volcano wherein arable farming takes place. Out of the deathly lava arises a blooming yet precarious landscape, which is constantly threatened by the next eruption, none the less, for now life-giving.” 3

  1. (2017-04-20)
Having been been inspired by her surroundings, the artist created a carpet floor piece and then enlarged the image of the work to the size of an advertising pillar, thereby inserting the image back into the urban space.

Vera Drebusch, Nothing but the truth. Photo: S. Rupieper.

Katharina Grosse’s, Frauke Dannert’s and Vera Drebusch’s work are all prime examples of artistic practices that are rooted in contemporary art, yet borrow heavily from urban art approaches by exploding previous boundaries and allowing the artwork to spread into the room itself. At this point one might question the relevance of these different terms since they seem to so often influence and blur into one another. Should they not totally merge and generate a new style?

A new artistic method that blends and complicates the labels of urban art and contemporary art are audio and videowalks. They are dependent on the active participation of the audience. Many of these works create new scenarios by using the city as scenery and are thereby responsive to the surrounding area. George Miller and Janet Cardiff’s videowalk Alter Bahnhof Kassel, shown in 2012 at dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, invited visitors to take part in a walk using a smartphone and headphones inside the train station in Kassel.

The pre-taped video and sound work guided participants from the hall of the train station onto the platform and into different parts of the building. By holding the phone at the exact height that one would to film the same surrounding, reality and fiction merge into one another. Watching the video while at the same time observing the real-time happenings, passersby at the station, waiting in the hall, and actors playing their roles, a story with different characters unfolds and the viewer is simultaneously included in the work while experiencing it. Film, sound and the close link to one’s urban environment merge in this engrossing work and allow it to exist within the categories of contemporary art, public art and urban art at the same time.

In their work The Unknown Cloud on its way to Europe, the Swedish artist duo Lundahl & Seitl also utilize smartphones and headphones that visitors must use to fully experience the work. “Unknown Cloud uses a smartphone app to create an interaction between a person’s immediate environment, their physical movements, the rotation of the earth and the relative positions of celestial bodies in the solar system. Participants will physically experience the movement of earth through space: something that is happening around us all the time, but is never normally experienced.” 4

  1. (2017-0418).

Lundahl & Seitl, The Unknown Cloud on its way to Europe, Stockholm, 2016.

The work gathers one group of people at a specific location and another group at a totally different place on earth at the very same time. Through the work both groups are linked to one another and experience the same artwork at the same time. Audio and videowalks by the very nature have a high degree of participation.

These kinds of temporary works, including performances, sound and video projections, have no need for maintenance as the ephemeral aspect of the work ensures that they cannot be damaged, removed, or worsen due to weather conditions – circumstances that threaten many other art pieces in the public realm. Though the medium of these projects differs from conventional artworks in the public realm, there is no doubt that these types of projects are valid forms of public art. Institutions and governmental organizations should follow the progressive lead of the Swedish Public Art Fund in accepting and commissioning such temporary and performative works.

Possibly because of the ephemeral nature of many artworks in the public realm, efforts to map, collect and archive public art and urban art have grown in recent years. This interest in collecting and storing the works could be viewed as a sign of valuing them, in which case these actions are justified. The inclusion of street and urban art in a system used mainly to store and catalogue ‘fine art’ is long overdue. With the urban art archives Transurban and Martha-Cooper Archive, new databases are developed to digitally save and store urban art. 5

  1. From June 2017 onwards the digital database will be accessible via the website The Martha Cooper-Archive is in development: (2017-04-20)
Here urban art pieces, along with art in the public realm are treated like fine artworks (in the sense of being archived as in a museum`s database) and at the same time the ephemeral aspect of the work takes on a new dimension. Images of pieces that have vanished over time can still be accessed digitally along with additional information of interest. In the future it may be possible to digitally revisit a specific street corner – imagine a virtual reality software that makes it possible to look at a specific wall and access all the artworks ever been painted on that site. This option would make it possible to travel back in time in a sense and scroll through the different layers of the wall.

In urban and street art, the city’s walls are often used as canvases. However, there are a myriad more ways to actively create the public space. Art has the ability to expand in all directions with different formats and media merging in the public realm. These different definitions are all in flux as the artworks, media and methodology change rapidly with the times we live in – which is as it should be for any creative process to remain relevant.

Regardless of terms, it is undoubtedly very positive that so many players are actively creating their surroundings, even if the motivations and methods of shaping the city may vary. More important than any specific labeling, it is the diversity and quality of the artworks that impact the viewing experience and the quality of life in the city as a whole. What all of these categories have in common is the intention to take responsibility for their environment and actively and creatively affect the public realm. No matter which art form it is, the end goal is to engage the city and form it into a more diverse, creative and democratic space – no matter whether through contemporary art, urban art, public art or other movements and contributions. Most importantly it is that through art, topics can be discussed publicly and that care about the city and its citizens always remains in the foreground. Although I would argue against a total merging of all the individual styles since they (graffiti, urban art, contemporary art in the public realm) are all different by nature and it is crucial to retain diversity in artistic practices, these different subcategories could serve themselves by communicating more with one another. There is much to learn from the other methods of working in the public space. Through increased interaction, further developments and new styles have the possibility to emerge.

Sally Müller (b. 1986, Bonn, lives in Cologne) is a German curator working between Germany and Sweden. She has published articles in magazines and exhibition catalogues and has co-edited the book Blank Space – Studies in Curating Art I. Most recently, she has curated Lundahl & Seitl – New Originals, and the Dorothea von Stetten Art Award 2016 at Kunstmuseum Bonn, and John Smith – the Posthuman at Bonnefanten Museum Maastricht. She holds a BA in Art History and an MA in Curating Art including Management and Law, both from Stockholm University.