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Public Art in the Era of Nuits Blanches

Santiago Sierra, No, Global Tour. Times Square, New York, 2009. Courtesy prometeogallery by Ida Pisani/Milano, Lucca and Galeria Helga de Alvear/Madrid.

Santiago Sierra, No, Global Tour. Times Square, New York, 2009. Courtesy prometeogallery by Ida Pisani/Milano, Lucca and Galeria Helga de Alvear/Madrid.

By Pablo España

Public art that attempts to go beyond mere urban decoration has always had a marked social and even political character. We find ourselves at a moment in time when this practice has become incorporated into the mechanisms of “spectacularization” and institutionalization of contemporary art, where its potential is neutralized.

In order to speak of today’s public art, the first thing we would have to take into account is that often times it has become a simulation of real social policy. It is easy to detect a certain complacency in institutions upon organizing or supporting public art events. Let us take, for example, a festival that appears to be proliferating throughout different points in Europe and the Americas and that arises from the Parisian Nuit Blanche model initiated in 2002. This is an annual artistic event that lasts one night, during which art centers, museums, theaters, and concert halls on an exceptional basis extend their hours until the early morning and open their doors free of charge. Different artistic expressions take place outside of specific buildings, significant city monuments or on streets blocked off from traffic, which are invaded by citizens hungry for culture.

Looking at photos of the different Nuits Blanches around the world: Rome, Genoa, Montreal, Toronto, Berlin, Madrid, Saint Petersburg, Tel Aviv, Sao Paulo, Paris… etc., it is easy to understand all of Adorno’s prejudices against a cultural industry that, for him, was nothing more than part of the Fascist totalitarian universe. In these images of the masses instinctively moving based on cultural experience, we are reminded of the martial choreography of totalitarian exhibitions. Art and culture are utilized as tools of control and mobilization of the masses, as pure propaganda. Culture is becoming more and more concentrated on pure celebration of the cultural act, that is to say, identified with its strictly propagandistic presentation. It is the propaganda of the very authority that backs the event, in this way projecting a desirable image of modernity, in which citizens are favorably shown cultured and learned. It is curious that at these events art is presented as a point of encounter, of socialization, as a stage for civic participation; when, in fact, such participation appears with difficulty in other more commonplace situations or may even be flatly rejected by the city fathers. Although public space is presented to us in a naïve way as an agora, as a space for debate, dialogue and encounter, the reality is that it is a highly surveilled space from which there is an attempt to remove all exceptionality.

For those of us who believe that democracy is something more than an irreversible consensus, that it is a never-ending process, a permanent dialogue and that art is part of the process, the acquiescence of art to the status quo is anything but innocent. Let us then not construe the urban environment as a space for consensus, but rather for conflict and from there we can establish how an artistic activity can liberate public space, as much in its physical as in its symbolic dimension.

Burak Delier, We will Win, “Counter Attack: The Intervention Team”. Taipei, Taiwan, 2008. Courtesy of the artist.

Burak Delier, We will Win, “Counter Attack: The Intervention Team”. Taipei, Taiwan, 2008. Courtesy of the artist.

The role of the artist in this type of event becomes compromised since it assumes co-opting the meaning of his work in an event that equalizes all offerings under the neutralizing mantle of the cultural act (and social). Nevertheless, this is a common situation that artists have to face: if they force the pretension of dispensing with the system of art, they run the risk of falling into artistic irrelevance (and therefore risk the very continuity of a specific practice); on the other hand, if they minimally recognize that they operating in the artistic realm, they have to submit to the imperatives of the system of art. Cultural politics is usually up to date on creative energies, but when it claims them, it is to place them at the disposal of its own priorities.  The problem then is not only the contents, but also where and under what conditions they are produced and how they are put into circulation, giving careful consideration to what each moment and each context requires. Thus, an asystematic praxis is needed, a hybrid not due to a lack of definition but as a matter of principle, capable of being in one place and another.

Inside and Outside

In this sense, we should point out Santiago Sierra’s project, NO, Global Tour, which consists of having a large physical “NO” travel through different points on the globe; it is transported by truck and put on display during brief temporal intervals. This “NO” left Italy for Germany passing through depressed cities of the GDR industrial past. Upon arrival in Berlin, it was installed on the roof terrace of Atelier Doukupil in front of a metro station; it traveled to Brussels, where it was placed in front of NATO headquarters; it crossed the Atlantic and was exhibited at the Toronto Nuit Blanche; from there it traveled to New York, visiting Wall Street and Times Square, to later reach Miami and once again be exhibited at the Art Basel fair. And so it continues on tour…

This project will be complemented by a “road movie” that will document moments during which the “NO,” in front of specific landscapes, acquires its status as an icon of negative thinking, of anti-symbolism, of a collective shout that responds to a very common perception of societal dysfunction, that there is something false and mistaken about it.

NO, Global Tour does not only present the profile of displaced public art that is in continual movement; it also enters and leaves the system of art, exploiting its own need for diffusion. That stark and generic “NO” also has the ability to carry a concrete message when it becomes supporting iconography for specific protests. Converted into stencil and stickers, it was used in Madrid for a campaign, organized by the architects and artists’ collective Todo Por la Praxis in conjunction with neighboring associations, against the gentrification of the city center and the conversion of the barrio into a commercial brand. In Madrid, it was also utilized by a social movement in the barrio of Lavapiés, an area with a significant migrant population, for its protest against the installation by city hall of surveillance cameras in public places.

Art and Communities

The strategy of collaborating with social movements or communities is a path increasingly traveled by artists who seek a social effectiveness in their work. Let us recall the intervention of the Turkish artist, Burak Delier, in the recent Taipei biennial. Delier’s work, under the generic name Counter-Attack, is based on micro-actions of a guerrilla nature that strive to give common people tools of resistance against the system. In Taipei, Delier was working with the Taiwanese indigenous minority, a marginalized community that lives in hovels at the foot of the great skyscrapers that they themselves have built. Working with said community, Delier created the support for a poster that said We Will Win, which could be read from those sumptuous skyscrapers that surround the settlements where he developed his work. Apart from the claim, not devoid of cynical irony, implied in the phrase of a minority community displaced by China, another point of interest was working with the very community charged with creating the oeuvre, so that the cash flow generated was redirected toward the community involved in the project.

Speaking of working with communities, we must necessarily refer to the project Park Fiction started by Christoph Schaefer and Cathy Skene. In the mid-1990s, a group of residents and artists in St. Pauli decided to design a public park, but not in just any unused place,  in a special place for which the city had just decided on a private initiative construction plan. The main idea behind Park Fiction is that residents should and can take over the city. After forming a collective of artists, activists and neighbors, a long and complex protest was started that ended up being successful and the city government forgot its initial plans. Thus, the group of residences on Hafenstrasse, which was the nucleus of the conflict, was converted into an area negotiated by neighbors, who ended up creating a park on the banks of the port of Hamburg. Furthermore, in the process, a network of neighbors was formed that, once this particular process was finished, dedicated itself to other projects. The general exhibition of the project was presented at Documenta 11 in 2002. This also speaks to us of a new paradigm of action at the intersection of art and politics. If the most radical modern artists have wanted to abolish art, many current creators want to continue operating within the system of art, since it is a communicative platform, but without submitting to its impositions or increasing (or forcing) the limits of its institutional permissiveness.


Continuing on with this line of work and from a more radical point of view as far as being committed to social movements, and more politicized in the sense of supporting some specific struggles, we can refer to the oeuvre of many Argentine collectives whose work results from an active commitment to reality. The economic collapse implied by the corralito (1) and the subsequent social outburst gave rise to some highly committed artistic practices, which on many occasions collaborated directly with social movements or political formations. In this context we recall actions such as Mierdazo carried out by the group Etcétera, which organized a popular protest consisting of throwing feces at the door of the National Congress while governmental budgets were being debated, or the collaboration of the Grupo de Arte Callejero (Street Art Group) with H.I.J.O.S -  Hijos e Hijas por la Identidad y la Justicia contra el Olvido y el Silencio (Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice against Oblivion and Silence)  involved in the fight against impunity for members of the military involved in the repression and disappearance of citizens. Among projects carried out in this framework, a map of the city of Buenos Aires was developed, pinpointing residences of soldiers implicated in torture during the military dictatorship.

Grupo Etcétera, Mierdazo, Group Performance. Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2002. Courtesy of the artists.

Grupo Etcétera, Mierdazo, Group Performance. Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2002. Courtesy of the artists.

The work of the defunct collective Taller Popular de Serigrafía was focused on providing various anti-establishment movements with their own iconography in the form of posters, announcements and placards. Their modus operandi consisted of presenting their ideas to the assemblies of these movements; the members of the assembly themselves were the ones who decided which icons would be utilized, and therefore produced, and which would not. Art as a tool and artists as producers were placed completely at the disposal of a political movement that collectively decided what to do.

In the preceding examples we find ourselves before carefully camouflaged art that operates as such in predetermined contexts, but which is presented as something else in other domains, not to mention any names, and which acts to meet the needs of specific problems. That reminds us of the efficacy of aesthetic resources as sensitizing elements in certain political actions. One can say that this is also propaganda. In effect, that is what it is and there is no reason to fear it, as long as we do not pretend that an artist’s labor has to be pure, essential labor only concerned with the problems of meta-language, totally emasculated from the society in which it is produced and at which it is directed. Here, however, we are pitting propaganda against a propaganda that in our western democracies is increasingly acquiring the appearance of culture.


1. In Argentina, corralito was the term to denote restrictions against the withdrawal of fixed cash deposits, checking accounts and savings imposed by the government of Fernando de la Rua in December, 2001. The objective of these restrictions was to prevent the outflow of funds from the banking system in order to avoid a run on the banks and the collapse of the system. A secondary justification outlined by Domingo Cavallo, head of the Ministry of the Economy, was to achieve greater usage of electronic payments in order to prevent tax evasion and provide bank access to the public at large, the latter being of benefit to the banks.

Pablo España is a member of the artistic collective Democracia; professor of Fine Arts at the Universidad Europea de Madrid; director of the magazine, Nolens Volens and recently contributed to the book, Neutralizados, Empatía Ediciones, 2009. Among the recent exhibitions in which Democracia has participated, of note are: “Evento 2009,” Bordeaux, France; “Taipei Biennial 2008,” Taiwan and the 10th Istanbul Biennial, Turkey.

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