Academic journal article Theatre Research in Canada

Techniques of Making Public: The Sensorium through Eating and Walking

Academic journal article Theatre Research in Canada

Techniques of Making Public: The Sensorium through Eating and Walking

Article excerpt

Public art comes in through the back door like a second-class citizen. Instead of bemoaning this, public art can use this marginal position to its advantage: public art can present itself as the voice of marginal cultures, as the minority report, as the opposition party Public art exists to thicken the plot.

--Vito Acconci, "Public Space in a Private Time"

Being and Knowing Publics

Artist and writer Vito Acconci describes the operations of public art as "superfluous" as these "replicate what's already there and make it proliferate like a disease" (915). His lush descriptions of public art building up "like a wart," attaching itself "like a leech," or digging out "like a wound" serve as rich depictions for an artistic-academic practice that aims to infect official narratives (915). His essay "Public Space in a Private Time" is best understood within its historical and geographic contexts, as written by a New York City artist, informed by the AIDS crisis, by the 1980s-1990s culture wars, and by emerging "Queer Theory." In this manifesto on public art, Acconci advocates a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) aesthetic of taking "what's already there"--that is, the planned elements of civic spaces--and remixing them. This mash-up process involves selecting, reframing, and recombining to make connections between seemingly disparate elements in order to undermine the strict use-values that have been ascribed to so-called "public" spaces. If cities are designed to produce docile subjects of capital, Acconci's view of public art is to encourage dis-identification by disassembling and recomposing that design. Or, in Acconci's words: "The function of public art is to de-design" (915).

"What's already there" in civic space refers to what is taken for granted--what usually goes unnoticed and unchallenged. When I refer to a practice that aims to infect official narratives, I am talking about dismantling the fictions of ownership and appropriate behaviour that govern corporate civic space. It is not a stable built environment that structures behaviours in urban spaces. Subjectivities and spaces are co-produced through both performance and discourse. For the purposes of this article, I want to show that there are dominant corporate and municipal narrative forms (performed and symbolic representations) that structure experiences and understandings of Montreal, and that these can be appropriated for alternate ends. Perhaps the two most prominent forms are the tour and the tasting. These two narrative forms are part of "what's already there"--programmed, corporate culture. To play on the double meaning of "sampling"--relevant for food and for DIY culture--it is possible to take from this culture and replicate unfaithfully in a way that offers "a rethinking of both the perverse and the normal" (Berlant and Warner, "What Does" 345). In keeping with Acconci's manifesto, this article proposes that public art should work in opposition to the rational city plan, which assigns limited use values to each site and pre-determines relations between its users. I advocate for a public art that encourages intimacy, so Acconci's use of skin metaphors to describe city surfaces is apt since it reveals these as porous, flexible, vulnerable, and lively.

I begin with this particular piece of writing by Acconci because in what follows, I draw similar affinities between the city and the body as contiguous, contingent, and contested sites. To do so, I describe a performance art project that mobilizes assemblages of human and non-human bodies through curatorial-dramaturgical practice, (1) with the effect of complicating holistic narratives of place--or discourse that represents people and places as unified, fixed, and homogeneous. In this piece, I am thinking about making public as a kind of queering in the sense of creating intimate connections where distance and abstraction predominate. Writing also in the wake of the AIDS crisis, critics Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner define queer commentary as that which challenges fictions of a heteronormative mainstream. …

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