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Artists and Places

The time for a new relationship and a new agenda

This article was originally commissioned by Public Art Scotland (PAR+RS) as part of their regular series of Features. For more information please visit: http://www.publicartscotland.com

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In the new language of ‘place-making’ both artists and architects are now being asked to ‘uncover the unique characteristics that determine sense of place’ and ‘create places with a distinctive identity’. In Scotland ‘place-making’ is now seen as a key driver towards the main national goal of sustainable economic growth 1 . What does art have to do with place-making, can either artists or architects give places a ‘distinctive identity’ and what does the increased use of this word ‘place-making’ mean? ‘Place’ is a seductive word but we need to interrogate its meaning if artists (and architects) interested in working in the public environment are to be able to make a genuine creative contribution.

To start this interrogation I want to look at the roles that artists have taken and the relationships that they have formed in four projects that have taken place in Scotland over the past decade. The interrogation also includes an examination of the literature and language of artists and place-making, and will end with a look at how practice might be developed in a way that is relevant today.


At the beginning of the current decade, artists were being promised equal status on design teams alongside architects, engineers and quantity surveyors and ‘collaboration’ was the cry, fostered strongly by the Royal Society for the Arts’ ‘Art for Architecture’ scheme 2 . Glasgow’s ‘Millennium Spaces’ (conceived as part of Glasgow’s year as European City of Architecture and Design in 1999) were to be the apogee of this approach in Scotland, with top-notch artists paired with top-notch architects, working in off-centre neighbourhoods in Glasgow. But the severe physical punishment soon meted out to these spaces quickly demonstrated that even the best design team on paper is unable to generate real physical or social improvement in a situation where centralised public funding simply supports the application of curatorially conceived ideas of excellence 3 .


Three years after the completion of the 5 Spaces a different approach to place-making in Glasgow was emerging in the form of the Royston Road project. While the hardware aspects of Royston Road were effected through the ‘design team’ model (with artist Toby Paterson working on two parks with Loci Design), the concept developed by Lucy Byatt for most of the Royston Road Project used as its methodology the ‘residency’ model, where different artists worked with distinct groups of residents using media such as sound, photography, story-telling and radio-broadcasting, with no predefined outcome. Where the hardware of the parks suffered some of the same negative reactions as the 5 Spaces, the ‘software’ approach of the residencies seemed to effect longer-term change in the ‘identity’ of the Royston Road, and these are still being felt in 2009. Royston Road was one of the first projects in Scotland to be influenced by the ‘new genre public art’ documented and promoted by Suzanne Lacy in her 1995 publication ‘Mapping The Terrain’. 4

Design Team Meets New Genre - Meets Magic

A third project in Glasgow attempted a fusion of the ‘design team’ and ‘new genre public art’ approaches. The concept for the Artworks Programme: Gorbals (devised initially by Matt Baker and Dan Dubowitz in a partnership known as Heisenberg and led by Matt Baker as Lead Artist from 2000-2007) was to ‘apply a methodology of process-led artwork to an artworks strategy’ 5 , hoping thereby to apply some of the virtues of new genre public art to an entire art programme that by its end had involved over 20 separate artists. The methodology of the Artworks Programme largely depended for its implementation on the ‘design team’ approach: individual artists were placed into each of the design teams for the seven different areas of new build housing in order, as the brief put it, to ‘develop a ‘process-led’ piece that will result in a proposal fully integrated into the new environment of the Gorbals to produce a permanent artwork.’ 6 Together with the ‘itinerant’ (temporary) series of works and the ‘public realm’ works, Heisenberg’s approach to their role in the Gorbals was as much about creating a very visible, active, news-worthy on-going event to accompany (and occasionally comment on) the regeneration project, as about introducing to this project a series of facilitators or creative agents to help form a new identity for the area. The most visible products of the programme (David Ralston’s Birdcatchers on Queen Elizabeth Gardens, Heisenberg’s Attendants at Crown Street Gardens, or Matt Baker/Heisenberg’s own Gatekeeper at Kidston Terrace, Caledonia Road), come across more as traditional crafted add-ons to the buildings on which they are placed than as the ‘fully integrated’ proposals promised. In his own afterword to the Art Programme: Gorbals Baker comments ‘Suddenly, it seems hard to find any sort of initiative…that does not have an artist on the team…The aims appear to be that of adding an indefinable magic seen to be lacking in the deterministic functionalism that has dominated our approach to thinking since the birth of Modernism.’ 7 The rather curious primeval folkloric quality of all of these works strangely accord with this notion of the artist as magician.

The Community Facilitator and Individual Artist

Royston Road was one of the first projects funded by the Scottish Arts Council Artists Work in Public Places scheme, which ran from 2000 to 2008; one of the last was Peter McCaughey’s work for the Raploch Urban Regeneration Company in Stirling. As Lead Artist McCaughey put himself at the centre of the project, but readily formed working relationships with other professionals already working in the area, and more importantly with local individuals and organisations; much of the work is based on an extended conversation with the community, principally through the medium of 9 current and former residents who became close participants in all aspects of the work. McCaughey is happy to characterise the work as being ‘deeply negotiated with the community’ 8 . Although the URC’s description of their own approach majors on ‘delivering a strong sense of place with attention paid to the creation of …identity’ 9 , McCaughey’s work mainly takes the form of a quiet drama in which those who walk along Raploch’s riverside edge can participate: the lively ‘voice’ of the various texts encountered confirms Raploch’s position today in both time and place, but leaves residents and visitors free to make their own picture of this identity. Rather than objectify a distinct identity for the place that is the Raploch, McCaughey has created a topic (and in some ways also a place) for a conversation that in its simplicity and open-ness contrasts with the approaches taken in the Gorbals 10 . Vee Pollock described Raploch at the time of this work as a ‘proud and purposeful community currently engaged in the difficult process of re-imagining itself and its identity’. 11 McCaughey’s work accepts that creating or discovering an identity is a long-term process that no one person, even an artist, can tackle.

The Bigger Context of Public Art

While the relationships artists form with other professionals or public frame their response to the built environment, so too does the relationship of this practice to its funders. With the Artworks Programme: Gorbals being one of the few examples in Scotland of the application of the Percent for Art principle (meant to integrate the production of public art with the production of the public environment without the necessity for separate funding), the funding and support of the Scottish Arts Council has had a major influence on the form that public art has taken in Scotland. In 2009 the ‘Public Art Fund’ replaced the AWIPP scheme. Although the new fund asserts that it wants to ‘support a diverse range of visionary art projects’ 12 its definition of public art is surprisingly value-less and bland - ‘We regard public art as creative activity that takes place or is situated in a public space that is not a traditional art space (for example, not a gallery or theatre etc).’ 13 The fund’s wish to see ‘opportunities for the public to influence how artists work in different spaces’ 14 as a ‘key part’ of the projects it funds can surely only be made more difficult by the expectations it makes on applicants who have to consider best practice, equal opportunities, the question of track record and existence of briefs, marketing, public demand and consultation and also describe outputs and outcomes. Plans also have to be in place for interpretation, access, impact assessment, legacy, a contribution to wider public art practice, and of course the entire project has to be evaluated.

Following a New Definition

The SAC’s aspiration for ‘opportunities for the public to influence how artists work’ can be related to the claim made on the back cover of Suzanne Lacy’s ‘Mapping The Terrain’ that ‘new genre public art brings artists into direct engagement with audiences to deal with the compelling issues of our time’ 15 Lacy’s book describes the alternative interpretation of public art that many American artists had been taking since the late 1950’s, often driven by strongly political stances, including feminism and environmental interests. As well as influencing in part, as we have already seen, the Royston Road project, Lacy’s arguments found a keen audience in teachers and artists gathered around Grays School of Art in Aberdeen. Lacy became a key feature of the ‘Working In Public’ seminar series that took place in 2007 (itself the first work to be funded under the PAR+RS initiative) in conjunction with the ‘On The Edge’ research, practice and seminar project which had been running since 2001 16 . Although support for this practice does not seem to have had a substantial impact outside its originating academic context, Deveron Arts’ programme of work (overall title ‘the town is the venue’) in nearby Huntly in Aberdeenshire (the establishment of which predated ‘On The Edge’) was also informed by Lacy’s ideas and again, like Royston Road, used the residency model to invite artists to make work based on their meetings with the community of Huntly, with no pre-determined model or expectation of specific physical outcome.

‘Mapping The Terrain’ also contains another definition of public art that is at the same time both open and focused acutely on the challenges of today - ‘accessible work of any kind that cares about, challenges, involves, and consults the audience for or with whom it is made, respecting community and environment.’ 17 . This definition is made in an essay by Lucy Lippard 18 who two years later herself published what is still one of the most considered and enlightening commentaries on art, place and our relation to both - ‘The Lure of the Local’ 19 . Critical of some of the new genre public art promoted by Lacy  for being yet another artfully curated strand ‘more about art and the place of art than the place where artists and viewers find themselves’ 20 (she cites for instance Mary Jane Jacob’s much adulated ‘Places With A Past’ in Charleston) Lippard states the fundamental problem in creating public art that is truly public, and truly of place: ‘a profoundly local public art has not caught on in the mainstream because in order to attract sufficient buyers in the current system of distribution, art must be relatively generalized, detachable from politics and pain (not to mention ugliness).’ 21 She goes on to advocate an open-ended (but still provocative) art of humility that visual artists should practice as part of a broader visual and creative ecology, interacting with place on many levels, but also which can only be properly supported by understanding ‘community’ and place in a regionalist (or what we might call a more localist) context.

The Realities of Place-Making for Artists, Architects, Others...

Lippard’s urgings for an art of humility, practised as part of a broad cultural ecology, in a more distinct community, is the point at which we should return to looking at relationships. The ideal of being able to create a satisfying ‘public art’ or make better places through the integration of art with architecture or any other form of public design (via any route, whether ‘design team’, ‘residency’ or whatever) is a fallacy. What we call ‘architecture’, although practised by some as an art, is in reality a complicated, technical, long drawn-out process hide-bound by a mass of conditions concerning finance, technology, regulations and bureaucracy of various kinds, all of which militate against the practice of art even more than any possible public funding conditions. The claim that art some nice human art can somehow ameliorate the ills of some nasty mechanical architecture is also a fallacy. Both these notions fail because they focus on ‘hardware’ (that artists make special things, or can make better architecture than architects) or ‘craft’ (that artists can return a lost craft or crafts to architecture), or ‘magic’ (that artists bring some special indefinable quality to any engagement). To make a genuine contribution to the public domain artists need to engage at a much deeper level of the process by which places are made.

Modern and Non-Modern

In order to do so we first have to challenge the degree to which any discussion about art, architecture or place is dominated by the concepts of modernism. By ‘modernism’ I do not mean ‘modern architecture’ or ‘modern art’ (even if you could define what those are) but, in brief, the modernist notion of a single, universal (and international) ideal of what is right or good or beautiful, disseminated by a small body of experts. Supported, as in this country, by a highly centralised system of government and its attendant bureaucracy, this notion still dominates cultural and political discussion. We also have to disconnect being ‘modern’ from being ‘modernist’ – it is perfectly possible to be modern without signing up to modernism, as it is to be modernist without being in the slightest bit modern.

The alternative to modernism is not post-modernism (a reaction largely to the style of modernism, not to its content) and whatever follows that and the resultant battle of the styles that perpetuates the image of architecture and of art as an ongoing celebrity fashion parade, but a re-thinking of modernism’s place in our cultural and political mindset. This re-thinking is happening within the discussion about architectural regionalism 22 , and particularly in the ideas of ‘non-modernism’ developed by writers such as Bruno Latour 23 and, more specifically in relation to architecture and place-making, Steven Moore 24 . With the importance given to breaking down professional silos, developing solutions in smaller communities, re-connecting our lives to nature and also re-thinking the process and priorities of architecture, these ideas provide a framework for both artists and architects to redefine their relationship to the built environment, forming a new understanding of place and how ‘engaging with audiences’ and ‘participating in architecture’ can become an integral part of the process; these ideas also help underpin an approach to the challenges of how we can start to live sustainably on this planet, and complement the non-modernist approach of thinkers in the field of sustainability.

Lucy Lippard draws the same threads together and analyses our obsession with place. ‘Ecological crisis is obviously responsible for the current preoccupation with place and context…Precisely because so many people are not at home in the world, the planet is being rendered an impossible home for many. Because we have lost our own places in the world, we have lost respect for the earth and treat it badly.’ 25 Ecological crisis demands not so much that we invent new products, but that we invent and effect new processes.

New Processes

Artists and architects should not be trying to create icons or signature objects, or ‘places with a distinctive identity’, but places that work, and that make better lives – a process that is more about people than objects. In the ‘broader cultural ecology’ of such processes we will find it harder to distinguish the role of the artist or the role of the architect from that of the community organiser or the writer or the geographer or the health worker. A new politics will be needed to provide a framework for this new ecology and define its objectives, and enable solutions to be developed and implemented on a more local, decentralised, basis. Because of this examples of this practice may not even come on the radar of initiatives and conversations taking place at a national level and this will challenge the relationship of the national to the local and the roles of national and local bodies.

Some indication of what this might look like has been provided not by an art by an architecture practice. As the outcome of a project partly funded by the EU programme CULTURE 2000, ‘URBAN/ACT’ documents ‘contemporary alternatives to practice and research on the city’ through the work of 21 different groups across Europe 26 . Artists and architects are just two of the types of participants in these groups who are effecting projects and changes usually within a long-term relationship to distinct locales, on local agendas, often fired by social objectives. Pre-conceived barriers are being broken down not just between professions and skills, but between types of practice, and between differing understandings of place and time. In one of the 10 essays which are also included in the book, the artist Kathrin Böhm describes how the artist Jeanna van Heeswijk converted her brief to make eight public sculptures in the Dutch town of Westwijk into a multi-faceted project that completely changed the dynamics of regeneration in the town. Bohm comments ‘Perhaps the claim to allow for such cultural projects to become an equal planning partner … has to be fought on a more political level and outside the art context, and more within an urban planning and cultural regeneration debate.’ She goes on to say ‘It’s not commonly assumed that art/culture can generate knowledge and dynamics, which are directly applicable to urban planning and design processes.’ I am sure that most proponents for public art would find no difficulty in agreeing with that, but what Bohm articulates and van Heeswijk demonstrates is that whole new approaches have to be taken to realise those aspirations in ways that genuinely bring about change, or genuinely ‘make places’.

Although examples of alternative processes are still easier to find in America and Europe 27 , one example in Scotland could be the way in which residents in Neilston have worked with architects and urban designers to create their own ‘Town Charter’ which sets out what the community needs to do over the next 20 years in order to ‘ensure the creation of a sustainable, economically robust, well-planned and well-connected small town’. Local ownership of another degree will be demonstrated if they can achieve their plans to fund the transformations they want to make by generating renewable energy.

The rising waves of climate change are forcing us, slowly, to develop new ways of doing things which will in turn flood over much of the current language of place-making, replacing discussion about things with discussion about people. Both artists and architects must be part of this, not as the magicians who can make a special object or distil an identity to be pasted onto a masterplan or design but as creative collaborators and as agents for change. It may be hard to see room for this practice in the current structures of politics, funding, commissioning and development, but out of new conversations around a new agenda, new ways will be found.

Andrew Guest was Director of the Scottish Sculpture Trust from 1990 to 2002 and Director of Northern Architecture from 2003 to 2009. He now lives in Edinburgh and is planning to work as a freelance editor, writer and adviser in the field of culture and the public environment.

© Andrew Guest


1. Reference made in speech by John Swinney, Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth, to the ‘Festival of Place-Making’ in Edinburgh on 21 May 2009.

2. The much-admired RSA ‘Arts for Architecture’ scheme ran for 13 years till Government funding was withdrawn in 2003. It was replaced by a scheme called PROJECT that was run for a trial period by CABE and Arts & Business from 2004 to 2006, but which was never followed up(this is another story). For a documentation of PROJECT see ‘Artists & Places, Engaging creative minds in regeneration’ CABE, Arts & Business, 2008 ISBN 978-1-84633-020-9. Copies are still available from CABE.

3. For a thorough analysis of 5 Spaces see ‘Everyday Spaces’ Pauline Gallacher, Thomas Telford Ltd 2005

4. ‘MAPPING THE TERRAIN  New Genre Public Art’ edited by Suzanne Lacy, Bay Press 1995

5. Quoted from www.theartworksprogramme.org which documents both the approach to and the results of  the programme

6. Ibid.

7. ARCADE Artists and Place-Making, Edited by Rhona Warwick, Black Dog Publishing, 2006, p. 147

8. Conversation with Peter McCaughey, August 2009

9. www.raploch.com

10. The first phase of the work is well described in ‘Creative Spaces Raploch Stirling’ published by Raploch URC 2009, ISBN 1-870542-64-9

11. Quoted in documentation of Creative Spaces on PAR+RS

12. Quoted from section 9.7.7 of Organisations: Application Guidelines 2009/10 available from www.scottisharts.org.uk

13. Ibid. – the use of bold type is the SAC’s

14. Ibid.

15. ‘MAPPING THE TERRAIN’ op. cit.

16. For full details of this research project and the seminars, see www.ontheedgeresearch.org

17. ‘MAPPING THE TERRAIN’ op. cit p. 121

18. Interestingly, the ‘On The Edge’ team from Grays met Lippard in Ireland in 2002. See their account of this in issue 15 of the Scottish Sculpture Trust magazine ‘matters’ (Autumn 2002).

19. ‘The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society’ The New Press, 1997

20. Ibid. p. 278

21. Ibid. p. 278

22. For a comprehensive survey of regionalist ideas relating to architecture, and their development since the 1950’s see ‘Architectural Regionalism, Collected Writings on Place, Identity, Modernity and Tradition’ edited by Vincent Canizaro, Princeton Architectural Press 2007.

23. Bruno Latour ‘We Have Never Been Modern’, Harvard University Press, 1993

24. See Steven Moore ‘Technology, Place and Nonmodern Regionalism’ in Canizaro op. cit.


26. ‘URBAN/ACT’ was published in 2007 under Creative Commons licence. Copies of a free PDF are available from www.urbantactics.org, or email [email protected] to find out how to obtain a bound copy.

27. ‘URBAN/ACT’ documents the work of one group in Scotland – G.L.A.S.