Art in the street. Artur Tajber


Why did I use the phrase "art in the street", first as the title of the opening part of an uncompleted television series called METAMUSEUM, then for the first volume of a book series containing selected documentation of performance art? I give some explanations in the film, but these spoken comments acquire full significance only in the context of the materials included and discussed in the whole project - they are definitely taken out of longer trains of thought. Over time, "art in the street" has become a metaphor for me and I am beginning to use it as a proper name. I realize, however, that this may lead to misunderstanding, arouse doubts or result in unintended sequences of fictions.

I am talking about art, of course, or more exactly, about performance art. In other words, the kind of activity which, by the author's decision, aspires to art and is realized in the form of direct interaction between the author and the audience; which reduces the role of objects representing the message and draws upon the tradition of action art - a quasi- theatrical, non-theatrical or even anti-theatrical tradition - where "doing", "execution", and "activity" do not create any illusions or appearances, have no relation to acting, literary interpretation or a stage production. Therefore, performance does not focus on creating a spectacular representation, its attractiveness or even quality (in the sense of perfect structure, composition, dramatic effect, etc.), but on the expressive and transparent act of presentation of the creative process. Performance art, a globally established and evident phenomenon which, however, has existed under this name for no more than forty years, is still fluid and resists synthesis. At this stage, I see no point in looking for similarities between performance and liminal cases of other art disciplines - theatre, music, visual arts and literature. I find it more sensible to focus on the most characteristic and important features of performance work, distinguishing these practices and indicating their usefulness in the search for direct access to "a better world."1)

I am particularly concerned with such aspects of performance practice that extend beyond the framework of institutions established for the presentation of art and the discourse designed for the purposes of the market. And I don't necessarily mean "the street"; the word is a euphemism selected for its connotations of low status (streetwalker, street urchin, the gutter) or the function of a route rather than a destination... It is about the public sphere, about the area of communication common and available to everyone, rather than urban functions. I definitely wanted to avoid using such terms as "art in public space" or "public art" which have been used and rehashed so many times by full-time activists as to become meaningless, equalling statues in squares with graffiti, living sculpture and the design of a subway station.

But my main intention is to draw attention to the problem of supervision exercised by the centres of power over artistic production, over artists and the processes of publication and distribution of their creations. The better the economic condition of a cultural institution, the greater the artist's dependency on the curator, and the curator's on executives and external factors. The relationship between the artist and the curator is loosened in favour of the curator's alliance with the official. By contrast, artistic activity deliberately extending beyond the supervision of institutions financed with public funds - i.e. controlled by politicians and authorities appointed by them - not only transcends the boundaries of the "protection", but may be the only chance to experience a socially authentic status of art. By performing this act of emancipation, we sometimes sever ties not only with the institution, but with the entire system of distribution of goods and privileges which make life so much easier...

The relations between cultural institutions and state administration on the one hand, and the multitude of individual artists, activists and consumers of art on the other are not only complex but also capable of dynamic change. They should therefore be monitored continuously and analyzed, so we should agree with the artists who have made it the aim of their activities. The problem is that anyone who gives his attention wholly to this relationship can be easily led to adopt its rules and corrupted - an artist who specializes in institutionalized control over social relations has more in common with a marketing expert that with the individuals on whom his attention is focused. Too many talented artists support their high status today solely by playing the systems of art promotion.

The phenomena noted above are particularly important in all processes related to democratization, to the evolution of democratic forms of government. Democracy provides the individual with an opportunity for creative fulfillment. But it is also in democracy that authority and management are transmitted from the community to the individual in such a hard to-control way, regardless of its forms and social rootedness. Authoritarianism and democracy seem inseparable - one cannot exist without the other. And art, traditionally bourgeois, aristocratic or revolutionary, continues to look for the right outlet in democracy.

Thus art seems to be vanishing from the institutions designed for it; it is often deliberately - although secretly - displaced from them, while these institutions are more and more boldly entering the spheres that have until now been free from their custody. As their funds and political alliances grow, they organize more and more activities in "urban and rural areas", raising the status of shopping malls and holding a permanent display of tacky entertainment in public places. The goal has been known for centuries, although it comes in a different packaging today: that goal is the spectacle. The organizer of the spectacle gains immense power, too great for any aesthetic, ethical or cognitive idea to be able to resist it. This is accompanied by processes of increasing control, implemented in the name of security and described by others as the shrinking of social space. Fences rise around gated communities, with more and more cameras watching our every move. The artist is slowly becoming an intruder in the museum; the space of an art institution is filled completely by a compact triangle made up of the anonymous, mass-managed audience, the in-house curator and the delegated politician. We are slowly headed back towards the situation where the stamp of some office will be the only means of legitimizing a public statement, while any non-institutional activity will only be permitted in private places.

We are faced with a reluctantly acknowledged dilemma: should artistic work continue to be an expression of individuality, that is to say a trained sensibility, intense work on one's perception, general education, responsibility, vocation and willingness to take personal risks, or should it become a mere resultant of the social contract and official appointment? The problem is that it often turns out to be the alternative already at the initial stage of education, in the choice of a career. We examine the dilemma on many levels - this time it is the personal, private activity of performance artists and the means of disseminating it.

I also see processes occurring in other directions. A good example may be the issue of the formula of institution - understood in the context of the changing mechanisms of institutionalization. Modern information technology, the specific properties of the media and the shortening of geographical distance provide individuals and small groups without financial resources with many opportunities for competing with corporations and government bodies. There are many new, effective means of simulating or increasing one's potential, of acquiring support beyond the scope of the immediate environment and local circumstances. A dynamic individual can become a strong institution competing effectively on many levels. But the aspect of institutionalism addressed by us here concerns only the expansion and crisis of institutions appointed by executive orders and supported with taxes.

Art in the street is thus a metaphor for a whole complex of perceptions.

The title Art in the Street reflects three aspects of today's artistic reality.

Firstly, the fact that serious artistic activity is sometimes pushed beyond the scope of interests of wealthy and influential institutions, beyond the scope of interests of political institutions.

Secondly, the fact that most of the artists valued by me pursue a practice that is closer to the aesthetics and social function of the street than those of the Gallery or Museum.

And thirdly, the fact that the structure of the art that interests me today is closer to the nature of a street movement than pious celebration.

As a careful follower of developments in the art scene, I come to the conclusion that the focus of creative experimentation has been gradually shifting for at least several decades from attempts at designing a better world to work undertaken in the existing one. Or towards the stimulation of changes in that world by gradually and discreetly deconstructing it. Utopian syntheses are put forward less frequently, whereas interventionist, reformative, critical and mediatory activities are pursued more often and with greater effectiveness. These incidental, fringe phenomena are often assigned to a general category or global trends and used just as often in institutionalized politics. In this way, network cooperation and its benefits - the international distribution of information, the opportunity for travel and circulation of artifacts - may diminish the energy of positivistic "grassroots work."2) In contrast, there are individual and collective enterprises which skillfully exploit the properties of the media, the ignorance of authorities and the inertia of institutions while maintaining the artistic purity of means and objectives.

Streets have their temperament and modes of expression. They follow their own laws. To enter the street, we must reconcile our temperament and goals with its nature. Yet art and street are not easy to reconcile, because we traditionally assign different vectors of value to them. Art is oriented upwards, the street- downwards. In the tradition of language, the street stands for the commonplace, the vulgar. And street art may refer to a streetwalker or a street urchin. But there is also a long-standing and strong belief in culture that the supreme values can only survive if they are renewed in their opposite, or by reaching as low as possible, to primitive spheres - those that are usually denied any value.

If we forgot the frame and ceremony in our art, if we risk losing the patronage of persons and institutions that are more powerful and wealthier than us, then - as long as we remain active and innovative - we can become quite independent and make our own choices about many matters Yet these decisions are difficult and have serious consequences; they affect our social public and financial status, restrict artistic immunity and exclude us from the system of distribution of foods and popularity. In today's world, social mechanisms do not offer many opportunities for withdrawal into privacy or autonomous public existence alongside the systems of commercial communications. In order to retain both public recognition and personal independence, one has to play a strategic game, maintain constant activity, be able to form provisional alliances and keep one's distance. It is a test of the will, without which there can be no art.

The strategies of performance art give many artists a chance to maintain their artistic identity, relative independence, and the autonomy of their work. METAMUSEUM is a contribution to the story of their efforts and art in the street is the first collection in this anthology.

The artists' stories are transcribed from video interviews conducted since 2008 and are, for the most part, answers to the following three questions:

1. What marked your initiation into performance art; which event do you regard as you first performance?
2.  What and/or who inspired you to undertake you first experiments in this field?
3.  How do you see the difference between artistic work in a gallery and the practice in an unguarded space?

Artur Tajber, Krakow, July-August 2011

1) ...access to a "better world" - it is a mental shortcut indicating that the author assumes that any human activity - including art - makes sense only if it aims at improving the existing state of affairs.

2) In this way, network cooperation and its benefits - the international distribution of information, the opportunity for travel and circulation of artifacts - may diminish the energy... It is a broad problem, barely touched upon here. New forms of communication, which transcend geographical and political circumstances quite easily, offer a great opportunity for increasing the autonomy and potential of entities that are in a weak position in their environment, give them direct access to the mechanisms for stimulating public opinion and allow them to compete on a global level. At the same time, we are witnessing reverse processes - the weakening of the causal connections of original (creative, social, political) activity in favour of involvement in a game of public relations that is predominantly of a virtual nature. It is like discontinuing the manufacture and sale of one's own products to create a financial pyramid or speculate on the Stock Exchange.

Excerpt of the book "METAMUZEUM, part one: Art in the street / interviews with performance artists", editor: Artur Tajber; published by PSP / Dept. of Intermedia, Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, Poland, 2011.