Art in public spaces: space, time, ethics, passion

Guillaume Désagnes

"In the museum you can decide how close to be to the art. But in life you can’t control the art." 1

Elise Parré, Sans titre (photographies), 2001..

Thomas Hirschorn, Musée Précaire Albinet, 2004. © Thomas Hirschorn / Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers.

Ben Kinmont, Moveable type no documenta , 2002.

The basic question that every artistic project in public spaces raises is: can art exist outside the places enshrined for it? Can it exist without losing, spoiling or deactivating itself? And even, what can it ultimately gain or pledge in this qualitative mutation transfer? In the sixties, investment in the street on the part of artists responded to a large extent to an anti-institutional need: the museum, sclerosed in its exhibition methods, suddenly appeared maladjusted to the explosion of new creation methods. Today, knowing that the museum can absorb everything, validate everything - for better or worse - art no longer has the need to invest in public spaces in a reactive manner but, rather, in an active manner. That is, in the case of specific projects where a confrontation with reality seems necessary and pressing. It is under this perspective that it becomes fascinating.

These often evident ideas were inspired in me by different experiences, which have been exemplary to me in the challenges that the presence of specific works of art in public spaces entails:

  • Domaines publics: an exhibition that I organised in 2001 in collaboration with Aurélie Voltz and François Piron, which consisted of inviting ten young artists to intervene in the district town halls of Paris in the heart of the public space: waiting rooms, halls, registration offices, corridors, etc. Considering the architectural, political and symbolic nature but also absorbing the ordinary activities in these places, these specific pieces all reacted in a different way in this area of direct contact between the democratic ideal and reality. (Some of the photographs that illustrate this text come from to a project by Elise Parré. They are interventions inside the town hall of the 4th district.  They have been disseminated in the form of edited photographs.  The project was cancelled at the last moment on the decision of the committee.)
  • Musée Précaire Albinet: a work of art in the public space by Thomas Hirschhorn, produced on the invitation of Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers. Built at the foot of a group of buildings, the Musée Précaire Albinet presented major works by Duchamp, Malevitch, Mondrian, Dalí, Beuys, Le Corbusier, Warhol and Léger during a period of eight weeks and revitalised them on a daily basis to the pace of exhibitions, conferences, debates and literary workshops, children’s workshops, ordinary outings and lunches. The Musée Précaire Albinet, which needed 18 months of preparation work, was built and has functioned with the help of the residents. The works of art came from the Musée National d’Art Modern and the Fonds National d’Arte Contemporain.
  • The work of Ben Kinmont often takes the shape of surveys and recompilations of testimonies.  The work of the American artist directly explores the possibilities of anticipating social action as an artistic practice implicating a solicited local public in his reflection. It involves questioning with acts, methods and words the undefined borders that separate artistic practice from political and social action, opening beyond art’s structural sector and basically remaining focussed on artistic problems.


  • The public space is not the space of art.
  • It should not be considered as an extension of the museum or the gallery.
  • It is therefore not a place to invest in, to inhabit, and even less so, to occupy. It will always continue to be a space for «sharing».
  • The public space is basically incompatible with art, given that it belongs to everyone as opposed to the sphere of the subjective (art), a space cohabitated by everyone as apposed to the space for an individual’s decision.
  • A work of art in the public space will always perturb an existing situation and question its own identity as a work of art.
  • The public space is a difficult and unrewarding space that holds up a resistance.
  • It will never be a neutral and passive territory.
  • The public space is not nature; therefore, it cannot be the support of an urban ‘land-art’, mute and dehumanised.
  • The public space, due to its life energy, is the best and also worst place: a space of discomfort, the unexpected and chaos. One never feels at home. Every intervention remains out of control.
  • In the public space one has to accept the exceptional possibility of an unprecedented, wild and spontaneous confrontation with art, although also and simultaneously, rejection, indifference and disdain.
  • Challenging art within its frontiers is a fascinating place.
  • 2

  • The time of a project in the public space is not art’s time.
  • A project in the public space should remain ephemeral.
  • Nevertheless, it requires attention and a significant amount of preparation time.
  • The public space requires knowledge of the terrain, which is not acquired from a map, but from the place itself.
  • This preparation time is unrewarding, in the sense that it is necessary but never enough, given that, come what may, the reality of a project in the public space will contradict all pre-established logic, both in terms of set up and reception.
  • Given that it comes face to face with reality, an ephemeral artistic project in the public space can have very prolonged consequences, which are not measurable.
  • It is dependent on the experience, it is an undetermined adventure: one knows how it begins but never how it ends.
  • In the public space the work of art is mobile and dynamic, challenged and, therefore, alive.
  • In this respect, art in the public space is always a performance art.
  • Its force will also reside in its capacity to resist disappearance.
  • 3

  • The ethical issues of a project in the public space are more acute than in the world of art because it intervenes in the space of the real.
  • The methods employed and their consequences engage the responsibility of the artist and also that of the curator.
  • Executing a project in the public space should not depend on an opportunity, but on a decision.
  • Nevertheless, such a project should not go as far as being effective other than artistically. That is its priority.
  • Its irreducibly artistic logic can ultimately disconcert the social, political or economic ethics of a given situation.
  • An interesting project is always badly received; it is never expected and should often be tolerated.
  • It often requires dialogue and explanation (but never justification).
  • The artist should know how to adapt himself to a context without yielding to it; understand it without responding to it.
  • A good project in the public space should always be subversive, but this subversion is two-fold: against art and against the public space.
  • It is a question of preserving the autonomy of art there where everything contradicts it.
  • 4

  • To organise projects in the public space, it is necessary to find artists who have a special interest for these places.
  • The public space requires an exceptional engagement on the part of the artist and the curator.
  • In the public space the artist does not have any obligation to obtain results, but an obligation to the means.
  • The public space should not be more than a possibility among others, but a need and an urgency for the work of art
  • A project in the public space should avoid occupying an area restricted to a specific environment.
  • It should engage an unprecedented relation with its chance or solicited spectators.
  • A good project involves a passion for experience, immediate confrontation and risk.
  • A good project in the public space never ‘works’ and therefore requires certain humbleness.
  • It requires special lucidity, but also a determination that leaves little room for doubt.
  • A project in the public space can be very simple in its objectives, but its consequences will always be extremely complex.
  • 1 From a conversation with a participant in a café. Project Moveable type no documenta, Ben Kinmont, 2002.


    2 On another front, they refer to the famous formula of Charles Baudelaire on "l’epoque, la mode, la morale, la passion"