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Art & Public Life
Art & Public Life: Five Ideas

"Place is the realm of the in-between."
               - Aldo Van Eyck, famous Dutch mid-century playground designer

The intention behind my public art projects isn't primarily to address the public but to open up a new, tangible, democratic space where members of various communities can bump into each other and get creative. Here are five ideas behind my work.

fostering happenstance

Public life, in its most powerful form, happens between and not inside institutions and buildings. The street, the park, the playground, the market these — are the remaining places to have chance encounters with people who are not just like you. As technology improves our ability to link us with ideas that interest us most, it may also be filtering out ideas and people who don't see the world as we do. It seems to me that democracy doesn't have much of a chance if people from different backgrounds are not talking to each other, creating things with each other and telling each other stories. But rather than recruiting for diversity, which feels patronizing, I try to locate public art projects on cultural edges and territories that are already shared — if not celebrated. Chance encounters, I believe, are the lifeblood of democracy and sometimes art can give us pause to make them happen.

difference as engine

Often there is excitement when people cross social boundaries to rediscover their muse. Presented with the right environment many people reveal a hunger to overcome social barriers of age, race, education, class and politics. This desire to encounter and connect with people from worlds unlike one's own can be the engine that drives the production of a collaborative work of art. This kind of collaboration can happen in any accessible environment. The interior of a storefront can be a site for public art. Art is public, in my view, not by virtue of its visibility in the landscape but to the extent that it brings together disparate constituencies of people to engage in collaboration or dialog.

children and adults together as creative agents

My approach to engaging children in my projects is easily misunderstood. I do not consider myself a traditional children's art facilitator. While I continue to stage projects in schools and museums, I think the works are most fully realized in "in-between" contexts — streets, parks, playgrounds etc. Here the creative endeavors of children aren't segregated from their families and the larger public realm. I prefer to devise projects with side-by-side creative opportunities for both children and adults so they can look out for each other and learn from each other. Often a project will engage children first, then attracting the whole family. Children become cross-cultural ambassadors. Often adults will find themselves lulled into getting creative if the social and creative ambiance hits the right note. Another great gift of children is how they make things in naive ways that can inspire adults to see forms and materials in new ways. Children usually have much longer attentions spans than adults.  They will spend hours, for example, playing with and marveling at the magical properties of water.

the lure of craft space

While it would be a mistake to glamorize the history of labor, I believe that our culture is experiencing a largely unacknowledged loss of the manual work place. There remains a special kind of conversation, particularly with acquaintances, which only takes place while making something with your hands. As people find themselves doing less manual work and more information processing, the lure of craft increases. Vocational education — woodworking and the like — has been virtually eliminated from public schools (often replaced by computer labs). A backlash against the ascent of the virtual is in evidence, however — knitting circles have become hot in Hollywood, of all places. Producing art collaboratively in public situations — painting, building, filmmaking etc. — creates layered opportunities for dialog as a curious public stops by to inquire, tell stories or contribute. The fact of a public art project being produced in and by the public may be more socially significant than a finished work being installed in a public space.

water as magnet

Gurgling, running water is a magnet for the hands, a respite for the soul and a stimulant to the imagination. I've taken advantage of the allure of water to draw in adults and children into participating in many of my projects. Streams, rivers and oceans . . . these are almost universal and cross-cultural metaphors. I've called many of my projects rivers, because while they resemble small, elevated, artificial creeks, they are designed to accommodate miniature bridges, boats and evolving micro-landscapes built along the banks. From my earlier background as a filmmaker, then, I've borrowed the format of a linear artwork along which various people make creative contributions along the way. A continuous line of flowing, cascading water becomes the large-scale artistic gesture that binds these temporary public artworks together. The potential for innovative forms and unexpected materials along the waters edge is unlimited.

Gregory Gavin © 2005