How can I create art in the public realm that communicates clearly to it’s audience? The research project I’ve been working on over the past 2 months grew from this question and out of the anxiety that, regardless of my ability to identify what is important to people, if I can’t communicate it successfully it can have no positive effect on people. So in order to find out how best to communicate clearly to an audience in the public realm, the first thing I did was what philosophers call a ‘thought experiment’.
A thought experiment is when you try to answer a question by thinking up a realistic situation and mentally exploring all the potential consequences. The situation I thought up was this:
A man is walking around the city centre after buying some clothes and is looking for a matching jacket, all of a sudden he walks into a woman who stops him in his tracks. She is trying to offer him something, but she is speaking a foreign language. It seems quite important but he cannot understand what she is asking of him. He quickly and politely walks away apologising. Two days later he is watching the TV and flicks on to a program with someone speaking the same foreign language as the woman, remembering his encounter he flicks over quickly, reliving a little bit of the same anxiety. The weekend arrives again and the man is in the city centre to buy a present. Suddenly he is surrounded by many people all trying to get his attention but speaking the same unknown language! The man is so frustrated, he doesn’t understand why this is happening or what it is that seems so important. The man decides to avoid these people as much as possible, whatever it is they’re trying to tell him, he doesn’t want to know.
A bleak and troubling story I know! but what I was trying to do in this story was think of art as a language that not everyone understands. The negative reactions in the story are all ones I have witnessed in some people when they encounter art in the public realm; embarrassment, disengagement, frustration and avoidance.
So then I thought what could the foreign speaker (representing the artwork) do to improve communication between herself and the man? It struck me that there were 3 basic solutions.
Solution 1- Learn the man’s language
What the woman could do is learn the man’s language so he can better understand what she is offering, he can then enter into a conversation with her and they can come to a better conclusion together especially when the man understands that what the woman is offering is for his benefit.
Back in the real world, artist and writer Dan Thompson uses this kind of solution to make his work relevant to its audience. Currently undertaking a year long residency on Stoke’s London Road, Dan is using his time to really get to know how it ticks- talking to residents & business owners, exploring the landscape, observing the way the community is. Because of this audience/location focused method, Dan has great success creating work that is of real value to the area and to it’s people.
Solution 2- Teach the man her own language
The second solution the woman could use is to teach the man her own language so he can understand what she is offering him. The upshot of this is that, once learned, he can better understand everyone else he has heard speaking that language. This solution is almost like the old proverb “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he can eat for a lifetime”.
This solution is the one that Dashyline used to create UNEARTHED, by explaining to the audience what their involvement represented and then asking them to be a part of it, it was an intrinsic part of the project that each member of the public knew exactly what the concept of the piece was. Learning a language also takes exposure and practice, and so does appreciation of art. This is why Appetite‘s 3 year program of arts in Stoke-on-Trent is hugely contributing to this learning process.
Solution 3- Demonstrate through universal gestures
The last and maybe most broadly effective method is for the woman to cut out language altogether and demonstrate her message using a gesture that anyone would understand. This would be particularly effective when the message is simple and universal itself.
In art an example of this solution is ‘The Fallen 9000’ project by art group Sand In Your Eye, which is a WW1 memorial project that involved many people in it’s creation and when completed was unmistakable in it’s message.
I don’t think any of these methods are intrinsically better than others, I think it is at the discretion of the artist to chose which solution, or combination of solutions to use to make the best project in the circumstances. It might be useful however to consider these solutions at the start of a new project; note the differences, pros and cons, what your audience might best respond to. I know I will.