Academic journal article New Formations

Everyone Is Not an Artist: Autonomous Art Meets the Neoliberal City

Academic journal article New Formations

Everyone Is Not an Artist: Autonomous Art Meets the Neoliberal City

Article excerpt

If one takes the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park as a prime example of the neoliberal city's attempts to marry economics, control and happiness, its crisis of political ideology and aesthetic form becomes quickly apparent. In this disarticulated space of planting and place branding, art and athletics, picnicking and policing, entered through the Westfield shopping mall, the triumph of biopolitical economics over civic values and municipal idealism is all too evident. Britain's most high profile contemporary park has created a distillation of how the right to life and a healthy environment, once intimately linked to the project of human rights and democratic freedoms, has become a highly directive biopolitical tool for changing life in line with economic agendas. The park is a heavily scripted space, with wide, glued-gravel pathways able to accommodate Olympic processions that overwhelm dismal areas of planting. Signage replaces a more intuitive orientation from cues in the landscape, as a blizzard of branding, maps and warnings clamour for the visitor's attention. The usual spectacle of people's ad hoc use of park space for sports and relaxation is suspended in favour of commercially sponsored and council sanctioned events all heavily policed by high-vis clad security personnel. On the day I visited, an event called 'Street Games' dominated the park, with youths on summer break dressed in neon pink T-shirts bearing Coca Cola's sponsorship logo. Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond's ArcelorMittal Orbit, Tower, the park's centrepiece, lacks any processional approach due to its surround-wrap of refreshment and ticket kiosks and, once arrived at, is prohibitively expensive to visit.

Where the Olympic Park's nineteenth-century municipal forbears still bore the vestiges of romanticism in which man's relationship to the outdoors was, for the first time, construed as a freedom and vector of social progress, the segmented spaces of contemporary parks are converted into a terrain for behaviour optimisation, population management and economic profit. (1) Of interest here is how the contemporary use of aesthetics--in public art, architecture, design and landscaping--are brought together in neoliberal towns and cities to create what Michel Foucault terms a 'milieu' for optimising its subjects. (2) If, as we shall see, 'milieu' signifies--amongst other things--the biological theorisation of the organism's relationship to its environment, ultimately evaluated through its tendency to thrive or fail, we must ask what might be the corresponding aesthetic qualities and effects required by this biopolitical regime. A further question for this essay, which focuses primarily on London and the UK more generally, will be how this assimilation of aesthetics into biopolitical urban milieus coincides with antithetical developments within art, especially the vexed pursuit of autonomy, and how these tensions manifest.

The Olympic Park's chaotic image expresses the wider inability of resolving the pragmatics of the neoliberal production of urban space into any coherent or deliberate aesthetic, schematic or civic programme. While still requiring public space for the well-being of populations and the marketable image of modern towns and cities, the neoliberal economics that constitute them in practice--where the cost of collective resources and risk are increasingly individualised--evacuate the civic ethos that once proudly, if problematically, produced them. Through this dynamic the underlying contradiction between managing the biological health of populations and the rent-seeking impetus of neoliberal urbanism are increasingly exposed in ways that require the fig leaf of aesthetics more than ever.

But public art has also undergone a radical transformation over the last half-century, as the once confident creation of consensual symbols of the 'hero on a horse' variety were attacked and deconstructed as chauvinistic, class serving and unrepresentative. …

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