Addressing the Constitutive in Public Art and Design

For a few months in 2002 I collected images to document vandalized posters in Toronto. At the time, there were a series of Botox posters someone was attacking — violently transforming,  hyper-slick, pore-free faces into ripped and distorted skulls. In fact, most of the posters in Toronto were routinely destroyed, not unlike all of the cities I’ve visited… Paris, Montreal, New York, Berlin… probably everywhere city folk are fed up with the ubiquity of advertising images in public space.

My photo collection was the support for a project to completely obscure the corporate message using a few rolls of found Holly Hobby wallpaper. This was a tactical approach to the same issues addressed by the sharpie and razor-armed artists, however while we all aimed to counteract the dominance of corporate
imagery in public city spaces in many cases the purely destructive approach generated atmospheres as grim as those it wished to overcome.

Wallpaper succeeded in both overcoming the media engine, and returning shelters — domesticating them for the service of the commuter.


The same issue arises in the work of public monument. These two, (the first memorializing the prize-winning boxer Joe Louis, the second, drug abuse tragedies at Rochdale College) might bring us to a deeper understanding of Boym Studios Monuments of Disaster series. They certainly compel me to wonder what our memorials actually achieve. Created against the risk of denying complex pasts, do monuments like these implicitly forfeit the opportunity to create actually-existing contexts of possibility? forgiveness? opportunity? engagement? change? flux?


Joe Louis’ fist balances in the center of dangerously intersecting freeways and commercial bureaucratic strips. The Unknown Student is curled in an embryonic child’s pose. Both are without plinth or support, installed directly onto the concrete; both are heavy, larger-than-life bronze statues in climates often dusting them with snow.

How dismal if the resistance forms we adopt succeed only in recreating, or concretizing the injustices they seek to replace? Worse still, do we remember the mistakes they are supposed to avert? Or do we only manifest surroundings pocketed with index of generally hostile and violent pasts?

Moving back to graphic design, particularly illustrative examples can be drawn from the work of Mirko Ilic. While these images condense complex issues into instantly communicable, shockingly simplified
form, what would the world be like if we surrounded ourselves with them?

I would suggest they couldn’t create an environment any more palatable than the existing New York City subway-scape of bunion cures and horror-film advertising.

murakamiTo my mind, another example of a co-opted aesthetic is found in Takashi Murakami’s work. Admittedly, I base this judgment on initial (possible mis)interpretation of Murkami as an ironic commentary on the themepark of brands the gentrified city threatens to become. I saw his sculptures as the blatant exaggeration of already over-saturated, sickly-saccharin surface sweetness in commercial culture, all the more insidious for what ugliness it might conceal. Simplified geometric flower faces so brightly colored we might neglect to notice their tiny, sharp teeth. Yet in these images, isn’t the constitutive reality of a Murakami-world as terrorizing as the hyper-spectacles of brand they address?

How can we develop forms / ways to create contexts that create new possibilities rather than reproducing the old? If we choose to ‘fight fire with fire’, how can we avoid burning the whole place down?

As Clive Dilnot suggests in What are architects for? cultural production involves more than representation. “What matters, today, is not expressing the objective movement of history — for there is none. What matters instead is proposing a grammar for the forms that (democratic) life can take” (4).

In the remainder of this entry I provide exemplary solutions, and questions to complicate these issues in public art and design.

In Caledon Remains (2008) by Jean Shin, the shattered remnants of Korean vases seen from a passing street are combined to form a new whole, while from a pedestrian’s view the parts emerge in their diversity.shin_mta-celadon_1

Yet, can this reference to Korean-American diaspora of Long Island area be conveyed to the passerby without prior knowledge of the materials’ significance?

doyleAnother good example is Chris Doyle‘s Commutable, where 22kt gold leaf covers the steps under the LES steps to the Williamsburg bridge, re-valuing a typically mundane space. Here, a rare material is combined with labor hours to question the hierarchies inscribed in the urban scape, uplifting the everday in a previously marginalized area.

While this process reproduces questionable labor processes and material hierarchies, does the end-result provoke critique or novelty?

In Design Corps‘ collaborative approach, members of a design’s destined community are invited to contribute to the design process, which is often based on re-using architectural materials.

Yet how can projects like the New Orleans’ summer project stop communicate this process?

Again referring to Dilnot’s essay:

“The movement from cultic to ‘exhibition value’ … is a movement from the representation of what-is (where the power of the work arises from its personifying or giving form to transcendent forces) to the presentation of what might be (where the power of the work arises from its capacity to propose compelling possibilities)” (4).

posted by course administrator: Sarah Butler

Dilnot, Clive, “What are architects for?” Scapes, Number 4, Fall 2005, New York: Parsons The New School for Design Department of Architecture, Interior Design and Lighting, pp 1-6.


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