Breathing Space – public art as vehicles for social change Light City Baltimore, April 2016

It’s a delight to be in Baltimore – see what I did there? I love this city. I spent the best part of two years here, 2010 and 2011, and met Brooke and Justin at the beginning of What Weekly. We spoke about their dreams to document Baltimore’s renaissance. To build community, to do awesome stuff. Those dreams are being made here with Light City. Having an idea, getting people inspired, building consensus. Knowing the risks and taking them anyway. Telling the story over and over and over again: to young people, old people, journalists, critics, supporters, family members. Over and over until people say, yes. I’m so proud to stand here five years later and be a part of it. Thank you for inviting me here. Thank you to Paul and Dorothy Wolman, for being my mentors and for hosting me.

We need a better world? Sure. Can we all agree on that? What ‘we’ ‘need’ ‘better’ and ‘world’ all mean are open to interpretation but the sense is the same. Words are so beautifully vague. The truth is like poetry, someone said, and most people really hate poetry.

I’m not a politician, not a campaigner: it’s not what comes naturally to me, I say the wrong things in public and my attention span is too short.

I’m much more interested in emotions and stories, creating moments of wonder, bits of imagery that make people smile, fall in love – even just for a second – that create a sense of magic, a mythology, something accessible, warm, colourful and unexpected.

Why and for what? That’s why I’m here. In 2008 I found myself setting fire to a 50ft pirate ship, with 150 performers and watching 30,000 people lose their minds… and realized I was onto something. The sense of ‘nowness’ was palpable. Being a part of a collective moment, all those people together united by a shared experience… it’s powerful. I was living in London, a place also full of people, united by the shared experience – of living in London. I didn’t feel the nowness there.

I’ve spent the last eight years living and working around the world, hoping to learn what it means to make public art in different contexts.

When people think about public art for social change there tends to be a socio-economic ring to the conversation:

– generating jobs

– giving voices to marginalised people

– fighting for social justice

— social return on investment… changing or fixing stuff…. often strident and worthy imagery.

I’m not disputing whether there’s a role for these projects: there are amazingly effective works (Force, Open Walls, Baltimore Love Project etc.). It’d be crass for me to do so and totally beyond my ken as an outsider coming in.

The debate tends to snag, however. The cultural industries and lawmakers struggle to articulate value and impact in ways each other understand. There’s been a global shift away from state support for the arts since 2008. Culture helped bail out the banks in 2008 and never really recovered, and the banks haven’t returned the favour.

It’s a slightly different discourse to the campaigning, and to me, just as productive. In particular in a post-internet age where your reputation is governed by the imagery that follows you.

My question is whether there’s any value in it, in a place like Baltimore.

I’ll also talk about It’s My City, my upcoming project in South Africa. I’m working with five local artists to create three giant sculptures that will represent their relationship to the city. They’ve had very clear creative autonomy around what these things look like and what’s coming will be amazing. Oh, and they’ll come to life as giant puppets after a week and walk to meet each other. Then we’ll have a short ceremony and set them on fire.

The setting-on-fire is interesting. I have a long-time reputation for setting fire to things. In theory people love it, in practise they find it tricky. There’s a sense of decadence, somehow that I’m disrespecting all this wonderful work. Especially in South Africa this is proving tricky.

A public artwork, for me, serves a public purpose, ie is for the betterment of the collective. And public spirit is dynamic and changes. There’s no use making a work about community integration, pointing to it and saying ‘we’re done now’. It’s not the job of the artist to do that, it’s the job of the politicians, town planners, city staff, school teachers, doctors, policemen and women, physicians, everyone else. Give a city to an artist and, um, there’d be lots of angst and no buses. There might be buses. Musical buses. Covered in glitter. Vote for me.

That’s why I make temporary work and that’s why for me the active dismantling and burning of the work once it’s made its point is important, so people get that the onus is on them to better their situation through active participation.

My suggestion is that people are more likely to want to get involved, to keep the streets clean, to look after their environment, to put themselves through school and to talk with pride about Baltimore, if there’s awesomely colourful happenings in the city. Things that involve them and that don’t last, that are constantly refreshing, creating different sorts of jobs. You could say it’s the application of consumerist tendencies to storytelling but in a way that plays up to people’s curiosity, rather than dumbs down to a lowest common denominator of shopping.

I don’t think it’s about having answers, rather creating an ecology that allows for creativity to thrive – support for temporary work, a creative strategy that crosses a number of municipal departments and brings together private and public partnerships, long-term commitment to emerging artists and the facilitation of artistic, creative and fabrication spaces, and tying funding for such projects all around the idea, the delivery, rather than the documentation and the reporting. Manchester, in the UK, adopted a city-wide cultural strategy as ‘the original modern city’, where people just got on and did stuff rather than talked about it. All the cultural organisations got behind it as a method statement and it’s become an incredibly useful hat-stand for everyone to hang their coats on, if that metaphor can be served up on your side of the water.

The word ecology is interesting because it’s an interdependent, messy word, closer to the nature of our interactions (and the inter-disciplinariness of public art projects) than something more hierarchical, like ‘environment’, ‘the conditions’ etc. This raises thoughts on gender, and how gender is expressed in public space. I hope to create a balance of the masculine and the feminine in my work; we all need each other to survive and thrive.

Light City is presenting such an amazing opportunity for the City of Baltimore, so useful at the time of the elections. Light is the most wonderful medium for creating magic in unusual ways. As a production material it requires specialist expertise and fabrication skills – serving middle class needs – and this can only be a good thing. As shown by the conference, there are also related and relevant opportunities to spark conversations and fresh thinking within the umbrella of warmth, industry and inclusivity that light suggests. The spectrum of order (halogen) to chaos (fire) is very interesting as well, because it can’t be controlled in its entirety. On that spectrum we can all find a home somewhere, whoever we are and wherever we have come from. So given that light (and life) are the big unifiers, events like this one offer unique opportunities for social change.

Notice the rebellious thoughts you’re having, while you’re here. The I want to quit my job, I want to travel, I want to spend more time with my friends. Notice how you feel when you encounter something awesome here. Notice the kinds of conversations you’re having. This is what comes with some breathing space. Thank you very much.



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