Despite pouring rain and raging floods, on August 27, ADA conducted its third webinar and seventh Dialogue in its signature series ‘Do You Know Your City?’ While previous editions focused on the cultures and histories of specific cities, eventually transcending to a transnational scale to discuss the paradigm shift set in motion by the COVID-19 pandemic, the third webinar narrowed in on public art and public spaces, centering the discussion on the multitude of ways in which the artist engages the community and what that means. Moderating the conversation was Saima Zaidi, core team member of Numaish-Karachi, an award winning interdisciplinary collective.
The webinar began with Seif El Rashidi, project manager for the Institute of Historical Research’s Layers of London project. With extensive work and academic experience within Cairo, Egypt, Rashidi claims the public space as both a communal area as well as a personal respite where people may engage in collective activities and meditate in solitude. He went on to describe the green space around the Salisbury Cathedral as the “city’s lounge”, where people of all demographics intermingle, making it an ideal space for public art. He further commended public art for being an innovative manner to engage with a large variety of people, putting aside the debate of highbrow and lowbrow art, with the objective of bringing the city to life. This engagement, as Zaidi noted, leads to the inescapable co-creation that emerges through the meaning making of the art, as well as the assembly of an installation in a public space.
Moving forward, Naiza Khan, co-founder of Vasl Artist’s Association; Pakistan’s representation at the Venice Biennale; and recipient of the Prince Claus Award in 2013, elected to shed light on the relationship cultivated between society and public spaces through art. Referring to the issues of eviction and gentrification, she comments that such incidents do not lie in isolation and that the role of the visual artist is in the mediation of these different spaces and the people themselves, not necessarily on a large scale but rather in creating interventions and provocations through the visual gesture – a nudge to initiate conversation.
Khan, giving examples of her work Henna Hands and Sticky Rice & Other Stories, where the former is a study of gendered spaces – the absorption of gender by the public space and the historic memory of communities. While the latter follows the collective memory of artefacts made on Manora Island – comparing the industrial and the handcrafted. Moreover, she advocates for the artist to engage with the communities they place themselves in, to discover where the ownership lies, the relations within the community, and dive deep into the memories the space holds within itself.
Raza Ali Dada, Board Member of the Lahore Biennale Foundation, elaborated on the influence of the urban environment on our engagement with the city. Dada remarked on the miserable failure of planners in cultivating the public space but hopes that change will soon be upon us.
Presenting the case of Lahore, between class disparity and the idea of ‘Modernity’ that went horribly wrong. Painting a visual image of the inaccessible, crumbling historic monuments juxtaposed with golf courses and patches of greenery that are to be viewed not enjoyed, this visual encompassed the claim of the receding number of public spaces contained in the city, fewer still that engage people. Instead, malls and simple consumerism is rampant.
Dada uses Farida Batool’s exploration of pedestrian mobility as an example of the planner failing the city. Barriers, breaks, and high-walls are the experience, broken flows and the feeling of imprisonment and restrictions define the city. He acknowledges that an architect can be limited by the programming of the space or even the location in which a public space is built but he urges the architect to create a space flexible enough to have a reason to engage and activate the space, to do what they can in their own capacity. This leads to the Alhamra Arts Council and the Lahore Expo Center becoming an instance of that flexibility, such that a range of programming can be executed to invite the citizens.
While the Biennales are prime specimens of programming in public spaces, they are also case studies of what public art can do for the communities and how one may interact with art. Through the Lahore Biennale emerged the Istanbul Chowk, once art installment now a landmark; My East is Your West, engaging the public of Lahore with people of Venice through live video projections; opening the previously inaccessible Summer Palace of the Lahore Fort for the public through installation placement. Not only do these instances open up new spaces for the citizens to occupy but the engagement reinvigorates the minds of the people to the potential these spaces hold and to their own desire to interact and experience.
From here, the conversation is handed to Naila Mahmood, Director of Vasl Artist’s Association, to guide us through the specific works of art that engage the public and their occupied space. Mahmood remarks, in a similar fashion to Dada’s statement, that we are in a public space crisis. Speaking of Karachi in specific, the population has doubled in size in the last decade and the elite have cordoned off South Karachi’s coastline for their private development, preventing the public from accessing it, this, in tandem to the widespread neglect that amenity spaces face is simply a saddening state of affairs.
Many projects, however, still interact with the sea for the appeal it holds. International artist Johannes Paul Raether produced a high-tech dramatized performance at the beach, interacting with people through his phone, attracting a fairly large crowd, representing the texture of the city. Arsalan Nasir, a local artist, also engaged citizens at the seafront, spreading out plastic fish, and involving people in picking them back up as a symbolic reckoning with the destruction of marine life. Further, Natasha Jozi and Mawra Raheem’s performance titled My Spirit Washed in the Waters of the Seven Seas also engaged the people in a unique seafront performance. Whether it is about the complex relation of humans and the environment, societal injustice, or simple moments of leisurely engagement with the public, artists can and will be at the forefront of the conversation.
To end, in true fashion of public art, the panelists engaged with their audience, responding to their questions. A member of the audience questioned whether an earlier remark of public spaces being used for protest implied that protest was not a legitimate form of public expression. To clarify this Dada elaborated that it is not that protest is not an expression but rather these spaces are not designed for it, suggesting that architects should create spaces with that express purpose as well, referencing back to the need of designed spaces for flexible programming.
Another query expressed concern over the maintenance and protection of public art. In response, the panelists delved into the concept of ownership, meaning making, and the purpose of art itself. The consensus held in the panel was that once an artwork is out in the public, democratically speaking it is up to the public whether or not that installation is maintained and invited into the folds of the community. It is very possible for it to disintegrate entirely and that is alright, for just by existing it succeeds in its purpose of engaging the public. However, this all varies with where the funding of such projects is coming from, after all, state-sponsored curation is not necessarily the voice of the public, and as such, it may be better maintained but not well integrated with the environment, sticking out like a sore thumb. Art does not necessarily need protection; it is simply a statement that is meant to invite a reaction. If it is vandalized, that is the reaction and as artists, one must be content with that; that is not to say do not critically engage with that vandalism, for it will tell you something about the community, but do not reject it either.
Public spaces alone are objects of contention and targets of gentrification, but through the proper programming, proper design, and a little flair of public art, it is possible to reclaim the city from such gentrification, activating it, and bringing it to life.
The full webinar can be viewed at ADA – Architecture Design Art on Facebook.