Art and the City


Art and the City

[This is the text of a talk I gave on ‘A new relationship between art and the city’ at the Tokyo Performing Arts Market (TPAM) – all thoughts and ideas welcome!]

What we imagine the relationship to be between art and the city is defined by what we think art is and where we think we can find it.

A different way of thinking about art provokes a different way of thinking about where it can exist in a city and what purpose it can serve for that city.

But before we think about art we start with the city.

It’s a busy city.
Above you windows glow softly in tall glass buildings.
But down here on the street it’s all bustle.
People wash in and out of shops and restaurants.
You are swimming in a sea of sounds
Music playing through badly made speakers.
Distant sirens.
Nothing is clear.
Sounds on top of sounds.
A disorientating sea of images and signs and symbols.
It could be anywhere this city.
Addis Ababa

What they all share is a dizzying, exciting, liberating lack of focus. There is never only one sound. Never one thing to look at. One thing to read. There is no one smell. No one story. Never one direction. Never one community. Never one meaning. Never one purpose.

The city is a text written and rewritten constantly. It is a thousand things in any one moment.

Where then does art fit into this thick tapestry of experience?

Conventionally art has often been considered as an object or an entity. A thing in its own right existing in its own space and time. The director Peter Brook famous suggested that a man walking across an empty space is theatre. But there are no empty spaces in a city – they are so full of stories and events and images and sounds and people. And so we make space for art. Galleries and theatres and cinemas and museums. Spaces in which the delirious chaos of the city is suspended. Quietened. Controlled.

In these empty spaces art is placed. The normal plurality of the city is suspended so that we can concentrate on one single thing. And thus a relationship is formed between the city and its art.

The city makes space for places where art can be. Spaces that exist outside of the normal rules of that city – away from the multiplicity of uncontrollable, unpredictable circumstances that make up our everyday experience. And these spaces and this art provide an opportunity to escape from the business of the city to think, to contemplate, to reflect. From the tiniest, dirties warehouse gallery up to the great cathedrals of art and theatre – they all provide a space emptied of the city in which we can experience art.

Meanwhile the city carries on around them.

So what of another way of thinking about art?

The playwright Tim Crouch once said:

There is only one ‘site’ in theatre, and that is the audience. That’s where the play takes place. Do you know what I mean? Forget all the other stuff. Forget the sets and the costumes — or even the physical location.

This for me is is art not as an object but as an experience. The audience make the art through their engagement with the object or the event. Without them it does not exist.

In Tim’s show he talks directly to the audience. He looks you in the eye. There is no attempt to disguise the place where we are or the obscure the people around us. We are all existing in this place, listening to Tim talking to us. The show is something that is happening to us right now. It is maybe best thought of as a relationship or a series of relationships, between us and Tim, between each other. These relationships do not exist in some empty, private space – they are part of the messiness of our lives and our heads. They are part of the real world.

Here then is another way of thinking about art and the city – art needn’t always be something existing in the city. The ‘site’ of the show is the people living in the city, and theatre happens in the new relationship that they form with that place. A new way of looking at the busyness and the noise. A new way of being day to day amongst its steel structures and its crowded streets.

And here the potential for art might do for and with the city is limitless.

The work of Blast Theory often examines our relationship to new digital technologies in the city. GPS tracking devices, mobile phones, the internet. Their art asks its audience to re-consider their relationship to these everyday technologies. In Rider Spoke the matrix of isolated wifi-networks arrayed across the city are repurposed as a way of building up a map of memories and experiences of the city. Technology that usually dislocates us from the social experience of a place actually makes us even more aware of those other people existing around us.

In Graeme Miller’s beautiful audio installation Linked, you wander the area around the M11 – a motorway built in East London in 1999 – listening on headphones to fragments of recordings of the people who lived in this space before the road came. You hear about their lives and what this area used to be like. Art becomes a way of for the city to remember – a way to keep alive a trace of something that has physically disappeared. Although those houses are lost, we discover how to keep alive that place through shared stories and shared memories.

Home Sweet Home is a performance installation by Abigail Conway and Lucy Hayhoe. You get your own flat-pack house to decorate in any way you choose. Once finished your house takes its place within a miniature plan of your city spread out across the whole floor of the venue, complete with streetlamps and major public buildings. Over the course of several days this collection of houses becomes a living community, with letters sent back and forth, news reports, a radio station and a city council. This playful writing-over of the city in miniature form gives us the opportunity to re-imagine our relationship with the people around us. To consider what it means to be part of this community. Part of this city.

Over the last year Tim Etchells has made a series of what he calls ‘Readymades’ (after Marcel Duchamp) for cities across Europe. In each he describes an everyday sight within that city as if it were a delicately choreographed piece of art. For the Istanbul Bienale Tim stated:

this year my project will take place beside the sunlit and heavily jammed highway leading to Ataturk airport. There, in the shade of a large traffic sign, seated as some other men might seat themselves in the shade of a tree, five men will crouch to eat their lunch, fingers passing food on the grass beneath the sign, their bodies a the same time shaded, framed and contained by the lopsided rectangle of its shadow.

In this way we are encouraged to consider the overlooked corners of the city with all the concentration that we normally reserve for Art. Following John Cage, art is truly in these works just a way of looking at the world. As Tim has said about another of his projects:

Sometimes it seems as if all we have to do is gesture to the windows and ask people to look.

Collectively I hope these pieces give some sense of what I see as a new relationship between art and cities. A relationship not confined to or reliant upon expensive buildings. An art that doesn’t hide away from the busyness of the city, but that acts as a means of re-ordering or re-imagining it. An art of strategies and behaviours. Of ways of seeing and ways of doing.

Each of these pieces offers some new way of engaging with the city – they are new ways of remembering or new ways of looking or new ways of communicating.

If, as I said at the start, the city is a text written and rewritten constantly – then art such as this can be a new way for people to read that text – a different way of experiencing the city.

A city is not made up of buildings and roads. It is made up of people. Without people it is not a city it is a ruin.

People make the city and so to change that city it is not always necessary to be knocking things down and building expensive new things in their place. We can change the city by changing the way that people exist within it – by encouraging them to re-imagine their experience of that city. Busy, alienating areas can be filled with stories and history (and thus a sense of community) by getting people to look at them a different way.

In a time of financial hardship and environmental danger, Art of this kind can be vital in showing us how to make the best use of what we already have.

Artists can be city planners, architects, archivists, tour guides, mourners, builders, activists, mapmakers. And people working in all of those professions should also think of themselves as potential artists.

Art should be understood and supported as more than just ‘cultural recreation’. Not as something nice to be put into the city but as a vital way of thinking about what a city is and how it works. And how it might work better.


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