On How Art in Public Space Became a Key Space for the Fight for a Better Life in the City and Then Ceased to Be It 
O tym, co się stało, że sztuka w przestrzeni publicznej stała się kluczowym obszarem walki o lepsze życie w mieście, a potem przestała nim być

Joanna Erbel

Art in public space does not surprise anyone anymore. It even became an inherent element of the city. It enters the streets, squares and parks practically on the occasion of any festival that concerns remotely urban life, the quality of life, ecology, commonality or locality. Nobody is surprised anymore by yet another new object with a logo of a cultural event, statues or trees covered with threads, or a street performance, to say nothing of walls covered with graffiti. Art in public space, even if it aims at a critical diagnosis of reality, as a medium became close, even familiar. Transgression has rarely been more difficult to attain. Art has lost its significance, which is an undoubted success of previous interventions in public space. For, after all, one of its aims was to change the way of thinking about urban space and the role of art in its creation.

In my text, I would like to show the dynamics of the change of thinking about urban space and the role of art in public space in the fight for “the right to the city”. Art history will not work as my point of reference; I will focus on the sociological reflexion on the city and the activities of urban movements. I will mostly refer to Warsaw, which is closest to me because of my active engagement in local urban initiatives and my research run here. In this text, I will refer to the research on the influence of public art conducted together with Krzysztof Herbst and commissioned by Instytut Teatralny(1). Despite the fact that I will be writing mainly about Warsaw, a similar story can be observed in other cities. What is common is the decline of the political meaning of art in public space after 2010 together with the changes of the key spheres of fight for the right to the city when it lost its privileged position.

A blockade of the eviction at Hoża street in Warsaw, 5 September 2011, photo: Joanna Erbel

In the course of the last several years in Polish cities the fight for the quality of the city space has intensified. An attempt to define a “good city” is a key issue present both in intellectual discussions run by theoreticians, as well as it is increasingly finding its practical dimension. It can be observed in the actions taken by local authorities that run social consultations, as well as in a series of undertakings by urban activists who try to implement new solutions. The question on a “good city” appears also in the context of artistic interventions in urban space.

This intellectual animation and the answers it produces reveal at the level of practice a series of antagonisms regarding the issues of ownership, the right to influence one’s surroundings, the use of public property and local self-government. Together with the increase of the real estate prices it is urgent to fight for the right to accommodation (more and more often contrasted with the right of the city house owners to the free use of private property). Simultaneously, there take place protests against building up green areas treated by local authorities as attractive investment locations, or against fencing parks and squares (which cuts off less wealthy residents).

If we take a look at the first of the urban debates and interventions that began to appear in the first decade of the 21st century, it is clear that what worked as a call-to-action question was the one asking: “What is the city?” The answers were usually based on the juxtaposition of a group privileged in the city space at the expense of the excluded group: consumers – citizens(2), developers – residents(3), city authorities – local merchants(4), global corporations – local initiatives(5), conservative middle class – alternative movements(6), middle class – the homeless(7), heterosexual majority – homosexuals(8), white majority – black residents(9), fully able-bodied persons – those on wheelchairs or with baby buggies(9), working groups – those resting disinterestedly(11). Such binary oppositions that are a comfortable tool allowing for an emphasis of a given phenomenon and describing its nature require the constructions of a relatively coherent excluded subject. Its role is usually played by different kinds of minorities: ethnic, sexual, the homeless, handicapped, and the elderly. Public space works as a field of struggle with exclusion.

The limitation of the access to public space was for the urban activists the key space showing the results of social exclusion. The fight of the excluded groups for the right to be present in urban space was a reaction to the systematically introduced vision of a metropolitan city promoted by the authorities of Warsaw at the beginning of the 21st century. At the time Warsaw began to resemble a “concrete desert” where open urban spaces were increasingly being controlled. The amount of security cameras had increased, and enclosed housing estates became common. The logic of thinking about the city had changed.

The city authorities wanted to put order into the space made messy during the capitalism of the 1990s. For the first ten years after transition were a period of the thickening of urban space: the streets became occupied by street vendors and fast-food stalls. The larger squares were taken my markets – especially spectacular was the one in Plac Defilad where goods were sold from tin stalls commonly called “jaws”. Everything that the authorities viewed as anaesthetic street trade had to disappear, together with it all other objects and persons who did not suit the vision of a sterile metropolis. A cleaning trend had begun that changed the city space from a space of spending free time to the one of transfer(12).

It was a period when Warsaw as a city lost its subjectivity. As Krzysztof Nawratek wrote in Miasto jako idea polityczna, “it is a key problem of contemporary cities – the decline of political community. The decline of public spaces that are replaced with commercial spaces, a decline of the city structure and the privatisation of its space are the result and not the reason. There has appeared a complete disjunction between the City-space and the City-political idea”(13). In this form city space is not a public space understood as an agora where different voices and political views can be confronted but a one-dimensional space aiming most of all at the accumulation of capital. It also influences strongly the role of the city residents, their rights and obligations. “This neoliberal shift of power – Nawratek emphasises – is of course directly related to the shift of the meaning of the notion of citizenship. From Citizen defined by the participation in a political community to the Citizen-Consumer, defined by his or her participation in the system of neoliberal economy” (14).

Cleaning of space from all the objects and subjects has an actual influence on the vision of a city community. As Jacques Rancière noticed, “politics, in fact, is not the exercise of power and the struggle for power. It is a configuration of a specific space, the parcelling out of a particular sphere of experience, of objects we take to be shared and stemming from a common decision, of recognised subject able to designate these objects and discuss them"(15). To reclaim the subjectivity of the city and to reintroduce the excluded groups as an indispensable element of the city community required, then, a reconfiguration of the partition of the sensible. At the beginning of the 21st century this role began to be played by art appearing in public space.

Joanna Rajkowska, Greetings From Jerusalem Avenue, 2002, photo: Joanna Erbel

Joanna Rajkowska’s Greetings from the Jerusalem Avenue has been the first project that opposed the tendency for the homogenisation of urban space and pushing the less privileged to the margins. In 2001 the artificial palm tree was planted on de Gaulle roundabout in the very centre of Warsaw. Originally, according to the artist’s idea, the palm tree was supposed to bring to mind the history of the Jerusalem Avenue and the district of Jewish population, the New Jerusalem established in the 18th century in the place of the present Towarowa street by a Polish aristocrat, August Sułkowski. The road leading to it was called Jerusalem Way, which was changed into a more metropolitan “Avenue”(16). At the same time the palm worked as a provocation aimed at exploring the characteristics of Warsaw’s public space. As Rajkowska writes, “Before the palm tree was erected, I thought about it as a kind of experiment, a great question mark. I could not imagine people’s reaction. I didn’t know whether the residents of Warsaw would be ready to accept something so odd – a tree from somewhere else. It was supposed to be a new neighbour, an exotic newcomer, a bit dishevelled and bad-taste, but very sexy” (17). Warsaw residents treated it this way. Asked as a part of the research about what the palm tree means for them, they talked about an “alternative symbol of Warsaw”, associated with exoticism, “teaching tolerance”, and that they “cannot imagine life without it”(18).

Disinterested, for not meaning to sell anything, the palm tree, referring to the ethnic tradition of Warsaw was an object that opposed the prevailing logic of the city. It was a visual scandal subverting the established order. It couldn’t have been accommodated within the neoliberal distribution of the sensible. “It had – as Rajkowska writes – a great destructive power and took everything in brackets, everything in the scope of its sight”. What happened under it became a part of her incessantly produced spectacle. It was a simultaneous awakening of the demon of anti-Semitism and the blow to the right-wing attachment to ritualistically construed Christian values”(19).

The conflict with Christian values was not only symbolical but also spatial, for the place where them palm tree was installed had earlier been occupied by a city Christmas tree every Christmas season. What is more, the palm tree showed to what extent the law and the city administration are not adapted for the emergence of art projects in public space. Because there was nothing like a category of art in public space, nor anything like public space itself, the palm tree was considered by the City Roads Authority responsible for the space a “non-road object”. In 2003 there was established a Committee for the Preservation of the Palm Tree demanding from the ZDM for the palm tree to be released from the rent and considered a “public sculpture”, as well as for it to be preserved by the city. The committee emphasised the necessity to open to the otherness: “To keep the palm tree will be to prove our openness to otherness and diversity of trees that do not have to be only weeping willows" (20).

The palm tree has been the first art object with a critical potential to make us, as a city community, look in a different way at our surroundings. Yet, before the emergence of other projects like this one, several years had to pass. Rajkowska herself emphasised that initially the palm tree was ignored by the art world and the first critical text appeared six years after the project had been opened. The changes were slow and came in stages.

2007 came as a breakpoint. It was the year when a great amount of interventions in the public space of Warsaw began to appear. In summer that year another of Joanna Rajkowska’s projects emerged, Oxygenator - a small pond in Grzybowski square the appearance of which (and the disappearance resulting from the planned temporary nature of the project) inspired local community to fight for the re-introduction of a pond in this location. At the renovated Pasaż Wiecha, one of Warsaw’s concrete deserts, in 2007 there took place a conference called “Opening of space. Locating public art” as a part of Passengers International Arts Festival. The conference provided public space, as well as reclaimed it. The panels took place in an inflatable balloon (Kitchen monument by an architecture group Raumlabor Berlin) installed in the middle of the Passage.

Joanna Rajkowska, Oxygenerator, (c) J. Rajkowska

The years 2007-2010 marked extensive debates about the role of art in the reclamation of public space but also a lot was actually reclaimed both by means of art activities, as well as other kinds of interventions. By entering public space artistic projects showed the world what we, as an urban community, were not able to imagine. They were a utopia in action. Interventions in public space appeared both within the field of arts, as Joanna Rajkowska’s Oxygenator (2007), Common Task by Paweł Althamer (2009), realised together with the residents of a block in Krasnobrodzka 13 street, as well as his Mr Guma (2009), a rubber sculpture commemorating a local alcoholic. A series of projects: Stadium X. A place that never was (2006, 2007/2008) curated by Joanna Warsza, as well as outside of it: e.g. a Warsaw edition of Park(ing) Day realised in 2009-2011 by Krzysztof Herman. As well as many others.

Art in public space was a key area of fight for the better life in the city as long as till 2010, which marked yet another significant date for Warsaw. It was when there was formulated a list of the districts’ suggestions of the location of artistic actions commissioned by the Centre for Social Communication. The document was widely read, yet the very fact of its formulation shows that thinking about art in public space has changed significantly. The residents reclaimed public space. Cities are full of people, and the streets and squares are not longer empty. One might say that not entirely and not for everybody but to an extent, some of the previously crucial postulates such as: the right to sit on the grass and have picnics, the presence of benches, the help in the organisation of art projects and other fields of culture became something obvious. Public space has become not an object of struggle but of negotiation with city administration in regard to technical solutions. Thus, it has ceased to be a field of struggle for “the good city”.

Some people, such as Krzysztof Nawratek, state even that public space doesn’t exit (nor does the private one). “The division into public space and private one cannot be defined either on the basis of property rights, nor on the basis of acceptability. For property rights cannot be directly translated into the mode of using space – it is the model of using space that is the fundamental aspect of space in the city and it concerns not only urban planners but also us, the users of this space. After all, a shop is not much different from a school or a magazine”(23). Nawratek adds that the question about the accessibility does not end in establishing whether something is accessible/inaccessible but for whom, what price and on what terms. The awareness of the existence of the difference of income among the residents of the city existed also during the activities organised around the slogan of reclamation of “public space”. The broadening of the perspective on the city might be called a crucial change appearing after 2010.

Congress of Municipal Movements organised in June 2011 by the We-Poznań Citizens Association,
photo: Joanna Erbel

City space ceased to be reduced to the open city spaces but has begun to be regarded much broadly and embrace also the communal store and the city budget. More has begun to be said about actual participation providing the residents with the influence on serious decisions, more serious than deciding on the shape of the benches and their location on a square. The right to the city has begun to be treated in a way, as David Harvey defines it, as something broader than a right of an individual or a group to what the city has to offer. For Harvey, it is a right “to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is (…) one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights”(24). A radical change suggested by Harvey is related to the fight not only for the access, and not only to public space, but a right to urban community, of residents to decide for themselves. It is a „focused collective right”(25).

It is in the direction of the reclamation of subjectivity that the urban social movements proceed. The question of the fight for the quality of public space understood as an open urban space has been pushed to the background. Difficult points are now accommodation, managing the city budget, and education. What we are dealing with here is the shift from the fight for public space to the fight for the right to the city concentrated on the issues of self-government and the right to invent the city anew, as well as the current issues which Lech Mergler, the leader the association of My-Poznaniacy calls “concrete narrative”. “Concrete narrative – as Kacper Pobłocki explains in one of the interviews - focuses on the real problems of the citizens and stands in an opposition to the majority of Polish politics that circles around symbolic politics. While ideological conflicts are to some extent important, their significance has been exaggerated. Next to such discussions as the question of abortion (for or against the right to choose), death sentence (for or against), homosexual marriages (for or against), there is a wide array of topics that are not being covered"(26). As Pobłocki suggests, an important result of the work of “concrete narrative” is a possibility to act for the city despite ideological divisions: “people who are ideologically polarised share on the level of narrative certain common postulates. The common field is often greater than what divides them. We have a situation that people are divided by different ideological labels according to ideological conflicts, while real problems are pushed into the background. It turns out that in the situation when they do not talk about symbolic issues, a cooperation of a bigger group of residents is possible. People labelled as right or left-wing not only can, but also want to cooperate"(27).

At the same time, “concrete narrative” is a kind of methodology of action and not a clearly defined sphere of intervention, as it was in case of “public space” (understood as an open urban space). It also changes the type of actors engaged in the improvement of the quality of life in the city. While it might be said that the open city space was a privileged space of intervention for art, the broad field of the fight for the “right to the city” is not. It doesn’t mean that artists don’t involve in the broadly understood improvement of the life in the city. An example of such activity are the actions that Joanna Rajkowska initiated in Poznań as a part of the visiting studio in the context of the fight against social containers in Średzka street. The suggested ideas were: the marking of abandoned houses, the inclusion in the System of City Information the signs directing to the container ghetto. There were also suggestions to “humanise” the settlement by the planting of trees and the putting of grass(28). However, the problem is not the lack of knowledge about the containers or the quality of the surroundings but the fact that the containers have become an alternative for council housing. One should not try to make them look better, but try to make the city of Poznań (and other cities) treat council-housing policy seriously(29).

The fight for the right to the city takes place on many fronts and its shape and effectiveness depends to a large extent on where in a given moment – to use Bruno Latour’s phrase – the “obligatory points” of passage are, that is the areas where the enemy can be defeated because he is weaker then we are(30). On the definitions of these points depends our network of alliances. In the first decade of the 21st century the main goal of the front of the fight for the right to the city was the socialisation of public space (understood as an open urban space), whereas one of the more important tools used in the process of achieving this aim was the introduction of art into public space. Artists making interventions not only had the support of art institutions but also imagination and the skills to effectively introduce a new object into urban space. This made them stronger then social actors. The broadening of the definition of public space, as Kuba Szreder suggests in one of his texts, does not make art reclaim its strength. “Public space – as Szreder writes – is not given to us [artists, curators], but rather it is posed. The public space and public sphere are not permanent. They are dynamic sets of social processes, full of inside tensions, conflicts and discontinuities. They are porous structures, of complex, star-like network bodies”(31). Then he adds that “curators and artists create thus understood public space, they define and subvert the boundaries of what we consider public by activating different forms of being public"(32).

The role of artists and curators as a kind of avant-garde indicating important topics and making critical diagnoses is very important, yet it does not translate into real social change if their intuitions and actions are not taken up by social movements or institutions. If it concerns topics where solving the problems does not consist in the temporary change of the configuration of the partition of the sensible, in practice this means the introduction of new forms of being-together in urban space but a financial decision or ensuring the right to self-government to an urban community. I don’t want to suggest here that art in public space and critical interventions produced by the art world do not matter anymore but they have become as important as other political actions initiated by other social actors. Art in public space has ceased to be a privileged sphere of the fight for the right to the city.

(1) Research commissioned by Instytut Teatralny im. Zbigniewa Raczyńskiego for the festival Praskie Quadriennalle 2011. A team including: Zuzanna Cichowska, Iga Konińska, Karolina Mikołajewska, Maria Wierzbicka, Katarzyna Wojnicka, Natalia Wyszkowska, Natalia Żaboklicka, Monika Żychlińska.
Interviews were conducted on the basis of three scenarios concerning projects in the public space of Warsaw: Joanna Rajkowska’s Oxygenator, A Trip to Asia curated by Joanna Warsza and Common Task by Paweł Althamer. 44 individual interviews were conducted. Each of them included questions about the palm tree (Greetings from Jerusalem Avenue) which we considered known to most residents of Warsaw. All the interviewees had an opinion about the work. In cases when the interviewees knew more than two projects they were recruited for, we used adequate fragments of other scenarios. In case of Trip to Asia and Common Task we selected the interviewees by means of “snowball” method. Whereas in case of Oxygenator we tried to select a representative sample of users of Grzybowski Square who were there when the project was running. Due to a different scope of the projects, the number of interviews regarding each of them differed as well. The topic of Oxygenator was mentioned in over a half of the interviews, 10 of them concerned A Trip to Asia, and 12 The Common Task. Each of them lasted for more or less one hour. Research report: J. Erbel, K. Herbst, “Art in public space. Research report”, in: J. Baranowska, P. Sztarbowski (eds.), Liberated Energy (Warszawa: Instytut Teatralny im. Zbigniewa Raczyńskiego, 2011), p. 154-171.
(2) Krzysztof Nawratek, Miasto jako idea polityczna, ha!art, Kraków 2008 and David Harvey, “The Right to the City”, New Left Review 53, September-October 2008, p. 23-40.
(3) Maciej Smętkowski, “Miasto deweloperów”, in: Bohdan Jałowiecki, Elżbieta Anna Sekuła Sekuła, Maciej Smętkowski, Anna Tucholska (eds.), Warszawa. Czyje jest miasto? (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe SCHOLAR, 2009), pp. 8-88; Mara Ferreri, “Self-Organises Spatial Practices and Desires in Conflicting Urban Development”, in: Deepa Naik i Tenton Oldfield (eds.), Critical Cities. Ideas, Knowledge and Agitation from Emerging Urbanists, vol. 1, pp. 40-53.
(4) Artur Żmijewski, Wyrzucenie kupców z Kupieckich Domów Towarowych, Warszawa, Pl. Defilad, 21 lipca 2009 (MSN, Warszawa 2010).
(5) Dieter Lesage, “Global Cities and Anti-Globalist Resistance”, in: Urban Politics Now. Re-Imagening Democracy in the Neoliberal City, p. 94-109.
(6) Nikolaj Viborg, 69, Denmark 2008.
(7) Don Mitchell, The Right to the City. Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space.
(8) Since 1998 the annual Parada Równości – Warsaw Pride, in Warsaw or equality marches in other cities.
(9) Paul Goodwin, John Oduroe, “Re-Visioning Black Urbanism and the Production of Space”, in: Critical Cities. Ideas, Knowledge and Agitation from Emerging Urbanists, vol. 1, p. 138-143.
(10) O mama mia! Tu wózkiem nie wjadę!, Fundacja MaMa campaign, 1 June – 1 September 2006, Warsaw.
(11) Aga Szreder and Kuba Szreder, Pamiętaj kryzys nie zwalnia Cię od odpoczynku!, city picnic, Chłodna 25, 26 April 2009, Warsaw. And Park(ing), 17-18 and 21-22 September 2009, Warsaw.
(12) For more on this topic see: Joanna Erbel, “From Market Place to Empty Space and Back: Transformations of Urban Logic in Polish Cities after 1989”, in: Deepa Naik and Trenton Oldfield (eds.), Critical Cities. Ideas, Knowledge and Agitation from Emerging Urbanists, vol. 2 (London: Myrdle Court Press, 2010), pp. 320-337.
(13) Krzysztof Nawratek, Miasto jako idea polityczna, korporacja ha!art, Kraków 2008, p. 34.
(14) Ibid., p. 25.
(15) Jacques Rancière, Malaise dans l’Esthétique (Paris: Editions Galilée, 2004), pp. 37-38, translated and cited in: Eric Méchoulan, “Sophisticated Continuities and Historical Discontinuities, Or, Why Not Protagoras?”, in: Gabriel Rockhill, Philip Watts (eds.), Jacques Rancière: History, Politics, Aesthetics (Duke University Press 2009), p. 57.
(16) Joanna Rajkowska, “Opowiadania. Niby, żeby, jest”, in: Rajkowska. Przewodnik Krytyki Politycznej (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, 2010), p. 31.
(17) Ibid., p. 42.
(18) Joanna Erbel, Krzysztof Herbst, “Sztuka w przestrzeni publicznej. Raport z badania”, in: J. Baranowska, P. Sztarbowski (eds.), Liberated Energy (Warszawa: Instytut Teatralny im. Zbigniewa Raczyńskiego, 2011, p. 160.
(19) Ibid.
(20) Ibid, p. 50.
(21) Cf. „Dotleniacz”, OBIEG nr 1-2 (81-82)/2010; , Joanna Warsza (ed.), Stadion X. Miejsce, którego nie było (Warszawa/Kraków: Fundacja Bęc Zmiana Foundation/Korporacja Ha!art, 2008); Joanna Erbel, “Dotleniacz i inni nie-ludzcy sojusznicy w walce o nową formę miejskiej wspólnoty”, in: Opcje. Kwartalnik kulturalny, nr 2 (79), lipiec 2010; Joanna Erbel “W stronę heterogenicznej metropolii. Sztuka publiczna Warszawy a mniejszości”, in: B. Jałowiecki, E. Sekuła (eds.), Metropolie mniejszości. Mniejszości w metropoliach (Scholar 2010); Joanna Rajkowska, Rajkowska. Przewodnik Krytyki Politycznej, (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, 2010).
(22) The festiwal took place on 6-13 October2007. Curators: Zuzanna Fogtt, Kuba Szreder.
(23) Krzysztof Nawratek, Dziury w całym. Wstęp do miejskich rewolucji, (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, 2012), p. 36.
(24) David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, Verso, (London: Verso, 2012) , p. 4.
(25) Ibid., p. 137.
(26) “My, mieszczuchy. Z Kacprem Pobłockim rozmawia Joanna Erbel”, Notes na 6 tygodni, 2011, nr 68 (czerwiec–lipiec), p. 155. See also: Joanna Erbel, “Od walki o 'przestrzeń publiczną' do 'narracji konkretnej' | “From the fight for 'public space' to 'concrete narrative'”, in: Stach Ruksza (ed.), Odzyskać miasto (Kraków: KBF, 2011), p. 69-82.
(27) Ibid.
(28) Michał Wybieralski, “Zawieszą drogowskazy do kontenerów socjalnych”, Gazeta Wyborcza – Poznań, 16 grudnia2012 http://poznan.gazeta.pl/poznan/1,36037,10831258,Zawiesza_drogowskazy_do_kontenerow_socjalnych.html [accessed: 18.10.2012].
(29) At present the authorities of several Polish cities (e.g. Poznań, Bydgoszcz, Gdańsk, and in the past also Łódź) treat container housing as a form of council housing despite the fact that they are expensive to use (high costs of electricity needed to keep them warm in winter) and get covered with mould.
(30) Bruno Latour, Pasteurization of France, transl. A Sheridan and J. Law, (Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England 1993), p. 44.
(31) Kuba Szreder, “O publicznych parkach, produkowaniu przestrzeni i ciężkiej sztuce bycia publicznym” | “On public parks, the production od space, and the difficult art of being public” in: Odzyskać miasto, p. 29.
(32) Ibid.

Translated by Karolina Kolenda