Acts of Art in a World of Acts

By Ted Purves

What is the difference between experiencing something as art and experiencing it as an everyday act or object? The American artist and writer Ted Purves contemplates our artistic experience when the art work descends from the pedestal, exists the frame and enters the world.

It is a rainy day in February in Oakland, California.  Marie Bruun Yde writes to tell me a few things that will be happening along Ålekistevej in Vanløse, Denmark in May of this year. Berit Nørgaard will involve the residents of the street by having them all do small exhibitions in their front windows. Sixten Therkildsen will sell t-shirts in a second hand shop on the street and Jens Axel Beck will have a violinist play from his private balcony to the street. There will be a host of other projects beyond these three; a new sign will be put on the street, small 2D models will be made of local buildings and placed in situ. These projects are all part of the art event: Local Global Plan, which has been created to open up spaces of art within the everyday fabric of Vanløse.

These projects are funded through a combination of culture and arts funding, designed to support the arts in public life, but they do not fit the mold that we normally associate with works of public art or culture. There are no statues or murals being produced here, nor are there productions of classical plays or music in the parks and public squares. While the projects on Ålekistevej are certainly “happening” in public, it is difficult to place them close to any traditional model of public art.

This array of activities will unfold in and around all of the normal, daily activities of the street. They will be seen and encountered amidst the interactions of shoppers and shopkeepers, postal deliveries, friends meeting for coffee and people getting on the tram. Some of them will be highlighted in a way that sets them somehow apart from the “normal” sights of Vanløse, and yet some of them might be completely camouflaged within its daily rhythms.

The World at Large

The important thing to note here is one of location and context. The projects being created for Local Global Plan separate themselves in several ways from the larger notions of public art. They occupy places in the city that do not immediately establish them as “official” artworks, or they manifest as forms, such as a t-shirt sold in a shop, that are shared by similar, “non-art” versions of the form. In either case, they do not enter the public realm in places or forms that are readily associated with either artwork (or the art-world). Instead they enter a much more complex place, something that we might term the “world at large”.

Imagine a violinist, playing in the middle of a public square. If one encountered this, it is likely that one would assume that he has been chosen for this task based on some level of sanctioning, that someone has chosen him for this task based on his qualifications, and that he will fulfill a specific program. When one encounters a violinist sitting out on a balcony of a private home (and it could be the same violinist, playing the same piece that was played on the public square), there are fewer safe assumptions that can be made; is he simply the resident of the house? Is he practicing or is this a performance? If it is a performance, who is it for? Is it for the neighbors, for passersby, for a hidden camera? Because we no longer have certainty from the context that this is an artwork, we are left with the much larger option of considering it simply as an event, or an act.

The Possibilities of “Bleed”

These distinctions are not simply academic, nor are they solely art historical points; they have a significant impact on the meaning that might arise from the projects. Imagine what happens, at least for the moment, when the violinist imagined above evades a quick designation as public art or social performance or project art. Seen from the street by a passerby who does not have the experience “framed” as an art performance, the playing of the violin becomes simply an “act”. By considering it simply as an act, it opens up the possibility that these artists’ undertakings may leave the narrow history of the world of art, and step into the much wider history of all human acts. Once here, the acts that comprise Local Global Plan can be seen in the light of many surrounding acts; they can be considered alongside throwing a birthday party or discussed in relation to the opening of a coffee shop. These projects slip more readily into the world, becoming acts of art in a world of acts.

This “slipping” holds significant potential for an artist – for it contains the possibility for a work’s or project’s meaning to “bleed”. We can see this in relation to Sixten Therkildsen’s t-shirts. Were they for sale in a gallery, or a museum shop, they would be comfortably safe in their meaning, both as works of art, as well as being multiples. By selling them in a second-hand shop their meaning bleeds away into the surroundings. People might not see them as works of art, certainly, but an extra possibility emerges that their presence in the shop might actually shift how a customer perceives the other merchandise in the store. Like some sort of fulcrum point, this odd t-shirt, the re-contextualized work of art, has the potential to move the world around it.

History Lesson

It is worth noting at this point that the projects occurring in Vanløse are not isolated or idiosyncratic, and that the overall project of Local Global Plan is not happening in a vacuum. They are a related to a much larger and longer history of investigations into how art and artists can work in public in ways that are innovative and meaningful. One of the more notable (and early) investigators was the Artists’ Placement Group, which was founded in England in 1966 as an artist-run organization that pushed the practice of art into other social spheres, predominantly through attaching an artist to a business or governmental context as a sort of “resident”. Another important moment occurred in Chicago in 1993, with the project “Culture in Action”, organized by Mary Jane Jacob, where a festival normally devoted to placing large sculptures in public squares was instead used to place artists directly into community organizations, where they realized collaborative projects.

Closer to Vanløse, the project Public Safety shows a further evolution of this approach within a Nordic context. Public Safety was the title for a project that Swedish artist, Jörgen Svensson, organized in his hometown, Skoghall in Värmland, Sweden in the summer of 2000. Svensson describes the project in the following passage:

“Public Safety consisted of four artists (Jörgen Svensson, Alfredo Jaar, Esther Shalev-Gerz, Paco Cao) who then developed four individual projects. The four projects all interacted in some way with the local community. Jörgen Svensson’s contribution as an artist in the project was to invite two police officers from the U.S.A., who had never been outside of their country, to patrol the streets of Skoghall in full uniform for two weeks…The media followed them almost daily and they were invited to participate in radio and TV programs. They even got to write autographs for both old and young.” (Jörgen Svensson, www.jorgensvensson.se).

The Vast Encounter

Given this history, it’s worth it to ask questions about what might be at stake with this shift. What is gained by this shift away from “public art”? What is risked when projects enter the world-at-large? Two possibilities arise, the presence of bleed and the potential of encounter. We have discussed the risks and potentials of bleed above. Encounter is where we end up.

The violinist playing in the public square finishes his performance. The audience claps; a bow is taken. The crowd disperses, and a few remain behind to talk with the violinist. It is hard not to think of such an encounter without considering the distances involved – the wall between the stage and “real” life, the gulf between the performer who produces and audience who consumes. Without belittling these sorts of exchanges, I think that it is also true that each of us also knows them perhaps too well; we have been on either side of these distances throughout our lives. Such distances are also present when we stand in the plaza looking at a sculpture or monument. We know it has been placed there for our regard, as both a magnet and a repository for our attention.

The violinist on the balcony and the t-shirt in the store do not have the same type of distance from us, as our roles are not so clearly delineated. While we might not know what to make of them, they are there in front of us, ready for encounter. We can talk to them, or buy them, as we wish. In the end, perhaps we will do neither, but whatever we decide, the fact remains that it was an act of decision, that we had a real choice to make. Maybe this time, we are all in it together.



Ted Purves (borne 1964) is an artist and professor at the California College of Arts in the USA. His artistic work deals with projects that are rooted in local communities, social relations and exchanges. An important point of interest is gift economy – a topic present in the anthology What we want is freeof which he is the editor.