Friday, 22 May 2015

FORM: PUBLIC 2015: an appreciation, and a response to David Weir.

This essay is in part a response to David Weir’s post: http://davidweirarchitects.com/#/2015/04/my-thoughts-on-perths-public2015-murals/


An update: Sensible Perth is working on the next chapter in this ongoing narrative. How has FORM performed in this year? Has it learnt anything from the moderate backlash it received last year? In the meantime, here is David Weir's post: http://davidweirarchitects.com/#/2016/04/my-thoughts-on-perths-public-campus-2016s-murals/

FORM has been putting up more murals this year, and I have noticed that some people have reservations. I too, have reservations. I had reservations when they went up the first time. I thought it was just another case of public art not being particularly intellectually stimulating, but then they went out to the Pilbara, and did some great work there and I didn’t really, after all, mind the art - though it wasn’t (to me) the most interesting thing in town. This year, FORM increased its ambition, and went all out institutional, putting murals on the Water Corp, on TAFE, and the Myer building. I decided, this year, to volunteer at FORM and see what was going on behind the scenes. I found out that the reason FORM has been able to do all it has, and on such a massive scale, is because it receives only ten per cent of its funding from the government, and most of its funding comes from private enterprises, allowing it to invest hundreds of thousands in painting grain silos (which I am quite partial to). Sometimes, organisations, like the water corporation, stipulate what they want on their premises. A whole host of issues arise with something this big. David Weir’s article on his website is one of the few complaints, but it is worth considering, and responding to, as I know there are many such concerns, and having a discussion about this is vital to it, and Perth.

As part of my volunteering, I spent some time with the artists at FORM, and with the organizers: they are passionate, clever people, and they know what they are doing. What they are doing is making Perth dynamic. Not particularly intellectual, or particularly egalitarian, but definitely dynamic. The conversation we are having now can perhaps perform the other functions, or at least try and find a way to perform them in the future. FORM has seen a chance and taken it, and thankfully so. Despite Weir’s impassioned claim, most of Perth’s architectural icons, as much as I sometimes appreciate them, I rarely admire, and I believe most people find rather un-appreciable. Weir points to the murals as an ‘aesthetic fix’, yet he ironically states only aesthetic reasons for the preservation of architecture. There is a paradoxical logic in operation here – that the ‘aesthetic fix’ of the artist is somehow unwarranted because it is only aesthetic, but that we must preserve the aesthetics of the building because it is somehow more socially important and artistic?

If we are going down the aesthetic route let me too have my own subjective say: the quality of architecture and art varies from building to building, as does their appropriateness. The fact that architecture is an art does not mean that we should respect it because of the work that has gone into it - there are many architectural works, just as there are many artworks, I would gladly paint over. However, one less subjective matter that Weir brings up is the appropriateness of the art to its context. Here he has a point, though the necessity of art to be responsive to its context, usually brought up in fine art contexts (such as in the work of Robert Irwin), I am not convinced of. Street art though, as opposed to other art forms, often dissolves architecture quite deliberately, and as noble as it may be to consider their canvas, or their materiality in some way, I do not believe it to be necessary to a good work of street art, or a good work of art in general. This consideration is, however, context specific, and I do not believe that it warrants the writing off of the program. I do believe though, that there is a necessity to choose the sites that are engaged with, and what is put on them, with more care. Yet this I also believe can be remedied, and hopefully next year will see an increase of attention paid to context. It is not a terrible problem, but is a bit insensitive. The wonderful thing about paint, as well, is that it can be gone over, and these works probably won't last too long - unlike the buildings they have been put on.

Yet what Weir brings up - and certainly needs addressing - is the dark heart of urban planning in Perth. Yet as the budget for that would exceed even FORM's grand coffers, I don't think we can really consider it fairly in relation to FORM. Weir seems to be suggesting a restructure. I say good luck to you, I'm with you all the way! (the government/privates SERIOUSLY need to start in-building, and go read Jane Jacobs 'the death and life of great american cities'). But contrasting what is a bureaucratic and architectural and planning problem with what are comparatively small paintings is not going to help anyone.

However, the main thing about urban planning is essentially that the stillness of architecture must be activated by people. Weir himself acknowledges this, and the rich archipelago that Weir imagines to exist one day – that will “grow culturally useful and economically suitable communities, just as life inhabits a reef” - needs to be taken to by people. It seems to me that the colour coming to town is the beginning growths of this very reef. Painting the walls, as simple and unpolitical as this may seem, is perhaps one way of bringing this ecosystem to Perth. Street art is particularly good at this; say what you will about ‘aesthetic fixes’, the excitement that a well-placed, grand, aesthetic statement can generate is quite real, (though I would caution against the same thing as Weir - its appropriateness) – even in architecture.  Weir says himself that, "if FORM was using PUBLIC to stand up and say NO MORE to a lifeless, lazy, cheap and nasty built environment, then I might have a different opinion". and though I don't think FORM is standing up against, I do think it is standing up for a lively and vibrant environment. It is already doing part of what Weir wants, and one part of what Perth needs - though Perth's problems and Weir's concerns both run deeper. In this sense, I do not believe FORM to be a "distraction from the real problem", but a move in the right direction. You may not be able to fix a problem with paint, it is true... unless that problem is a lack of vibrancy - in which case, you actually might. It seems to me that this is one, amongst other things, of Perth’s problems. A number of us are rich, reasonably happy, fairly well educated, nicely dressed (sometimes) and reasonably polite (well...). But we lack culture (and a public transport system, and high-density living and late night opening and a fair chunk of other things. But culture is big.) and PUBLIC, which has quite deliberately aimed itself at Low Culture, is making some. I don't think the content, nor the choice of site, is beyond reproach, but even though FORM stumbles, I think it is still contributing to this city in a massive way.

I should mention that I actually spoke with one artist (quite importantly: a local artist) who was quite annoyed at someone painting important architectural sites; they thought that architecture should be recognized as one of the arts on its own terms, and appropriate respect paid. I was slightly surprised, but there we were, painting a (certainly not architectural) wall behind a restaurant, the stench of rotting meat and stale water all around us, and this artist painting the wall was saying street art belonged where it was from – the streets! And to be honest, I do actually agree. This is certainly the context where it is most appropriate. This is for a variety of reasons (not least that it would then be the 'organic' reef, truly grass-roots) but many of which revolve around standardisation. Here is the "Bigger Beast" of institutionalization that Weir did not tackle, but I feel we must. The wave painting on the water corp, around which I directed people for a while, is not particularly interesting, and I’m not sure if it is a particular improvement. It is, after all, a picture of a wave on the water corp. forgive me if I don’t think it a great leap of ingenuity. This is the result of standardization at the level of a board, complicit with globe-trotting artists. We can easily see the machinations of the water corp here. The paintings on TAFE in Leederville, and around Perth on other government organizations are far better, the artist has been given something of free reign. The other interesting thing about the paintings on the water corp is that international artists executed the two large paintings, whilst a local artist executed the other, smaller painting. And so the politics of international art are brought up.

International voices may be selected based on certain criteria, and certain standardised proceedings – this is not an unbiased ‘international’, and it is a certain degree of ‘star-grabbing’, yet I think the mix of international art to be important. The only reason I could give for this is that it is symbolic and dynamic, and provides Perth with some of the vision that it would otherwise be denied. I am not a huge fan of the fact that local artists were given smaller walls. In fact, I think it was one of the worst parts of the program. They seemed a lot more engaged in discourse around contemporary living in Perth, and indeed (strangely enough) the world, than the international artists, whose fear of offending, and standardised approaches was practically written all over their walls. Yet street art, and art in general, when it is brought to the scale of these very public buildings, gives the impression of something insidiously close to the buildings themselves, and the people on the street are not given too much room, quite contrary to the street art I encounter in my daily life - and the street art that may emerge. I would encourage FORM to take this into account, that street art emerges from the anti-monument, and monumentalising it may eventually wear thin. Everywhere I go, I see squares of paint painted over graffiti on our streets by government workers, it forms a dense patchwork of paint that I consider, in its own way, to be almost as beautifully minimal as street art is aggressively gestural and graphic (see: ‘the subconscious art of graffiti removal’). Yet the work on the street has the potential to become important, and make that true and actual 'archipelago' it doesn’t need the sanctification of PUBLIC and FORM to create a city full of art; it needs the cessation of bureaucracy.

Let’s not pretend, also, that ‘official’ public art is easy. The bridges of Anne Neil and Mark Datodi are testament to the difficulty of making something out of institutional space.  They are resolute failures most of the time, and are far less dynamic than the street art that has come to replace them (or indeed could exist in their place). It may be compromised, but street art is thankfully not the production line-assembly of concrete blocks. The absence of humanity from other public work is telling, and, although usually people just don’t notice it, when they do, they are hardly impressed. (though Stuart Green’s bridge is one I have grown fond of over time, which, if anything, is suggestive of the potential for inhuman art to be something for us, despite its lack of humanity). I am also reminded of AC4CA, and their recent exhibition at PICA. Why is AC4CA not causing any ripples? why is it not part of FORM? When it is recognisable as art, it does have some similarities to the street art that is being made. Even their modernist doctrine is being taken up by such painters as Fudge (although from the combination of pop-surreal-suprematism rather than pop-minimalism that informs AC4CA’s Jurek Wybraniek) and I do not think that the two are mutually exclusive. Why Wybraniek has not been contacted to take part in PUBLIC is beyond me, as this may provide the program with some of the conceptualisation and interest that is sorely lacking from its pictures of birds, buffalo, and deer.

I think I can answer this question, though I do not like its answer. Although Wybraniek is popular in ‘academic’ circles, the rest of the population has never heard of him. Barely anyone realizes AC4CA’s art, however good, is art. Although this is something of the point, it still tells us why FORM has done what it has done. FORM is attempting to ignite popular appreciation, and so it is uncritical, impassioned, excited, and able to invest big-time. The happiest thing about it is that despite the private investment, it is not attempting to push a specific agenda (although of course agendas are bound up in it). There is a real and perfectly good reason that FORM has selected absolutely none of the people being exhibited in Perth’s academically sanctioned ‘gallery circuit’ for its work, and instead opted for the street arts. It is about grassroots, broad, popular and largely uncritical appeal. I don’t blame them, seeing how many of the very academically inclined have criticised the program itself. I can guarantee, as much as I dislike saying it, that FORM has done, in two short years (and just as much in the years before PULIC), more for art in Perth than almost every other gallery in the last ten. This is because of the sheer monetary power it has, but also how well it has decided to engage with its task - it has made things big, strong, popular and low-brow. It is not hard to see that it has succeeded at what it has set out to do, though it may fail by other criteria.

In the words of a volunteer who joined me one day – ‘I thought Perth was a really boring place, but when I came here, I saw all these murals, by great international artists’ (okay, that was maybe paraphrasing, I honestly didn’t have a tape recorder) you can see what this program has done for us. I can only think that FORM is doing something important, something dynamic, in Perth, and making this city a little better for it. Maybe now that FORM has opened up the discussion, it is time for architects, other artists and institutions to begin working away. I think there is room for a better things to come out of FORM, room for better art and a better city, and I think there is room for every member of this little place, on the edge of a great plain and a deep sea, to pick up a spray can and decorate our many blank walls with something a little better than the great swathes of brand names and primary and secondary colours that are currently all I ever see. For isn’t that the heart of FORM? To ‘build a state of creativity’ as buzzy and annoying and political as it sounds, is something similar to the egalitarian and emancipatory hopes that I still hold for Perth’s cultural scene, and the potential it has, with so many resources, to be a truly great city.


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