the pasts and the presents: a small-scale public art activity

The challenge was to create a simple object to be placed in a public setting in a way that could interact with an existing sense of place, and potentially prompt new perspectives for users of that space.

The place chosen was a major public square in central Birmingham (UK). This acts as a place for occasional protests and demonstrations, as well as being used for events and festivals. Generally, though, is simply a place to move through on the way to somewhere else. Conceptually, it is an enclosure and a container of things whilst, at the same time, being a void, a gap between buildings, an emptiness needing bodies to bring it to life.

More importantly, it is a point at which three overlapping versions of the city meet each other as three sweeping clover-leaf segments.

One broad view takes in the School of Art, the city’s Education Department; some art galleries and the city museum; a major convention centre; the theatre; the library; the Council House and other impressive buildings from the Civic Pride era of the city’s history. This is the city as art and learning.

Turn through an arc and the view is of shopping centres; major streets of city-centre stores; the city’s developing metro tramway line; and some railway stations. This is the city as retail and transport.

Turn again and the third view from the square is the district of banks, insurance offices and corporate headquarters; and the historical Jewellery Quarter. It is the city as finance and trade.

Each aspect has its own set of histories, its own ever-changing present and its own possibilities for the future. There is a point in the Square where these three segments come together. Pasts, presents and futures collide at that point.

So, it is a layered, contemporary place which can be understood in various ways. People often have little sense of the square’s intricate history and give even less thought to its potential futures. For many, it is a place that simply exists; that is simply there – where a version of the present is constantly being constructed and reconstructed.

It is a square that houses a number of different works of public art. These are monuments or large-scale pieces by commissioned artists. Putting a work of art of my own alongside these would change the location very slightly, might influence how people use the space, and could be a prompt for conversation or reflection.

Finally, the Square was often a place at which people take bearings, consult maps, admit to being a bit lost, and ask for directions. It was decided to build on this and to install a signpost at some significant spots in the Square. Rather than direct people to physical locations, this signpost would have arms pointed to ‘the pasts’ and ‘the presents’.

The signpost was made from repurposed materials. It was taken to its new location and erected alongside the established public art. Doing so classified the object as itself being an informal/non-sanctioned work of public art. This transient signpost activity was moved to various significant spots in the Square. This activity may well have been seen on the many surveillance cameras that cover the Square.

Most people passing through the Square did so with their heads down focusing on their phone, or talking to a companion, or simply not taking in their surroundings. Some others did slow and look at the signpost. There were chances, therefore, to observe reactions and, where appropriate, to engage people in conversation. One most common immediate response to the signpost was: ‘So what points us to a future?’

Such brief exchanges with people gave an opportunity to jointly think about the nature of change; the links between people and places; urban decision-making; who uses (and who may not feel entitled to use) this central public space; the past histories to the square and the city; and the potential futures for the city and for themselves as individuals.

The thinking behind this activity included:

  • Cities change because of decisions made – by whom; for what?
  • Public art is usually commissioned but may simply appear, unasked for (and might get challenged at any time). It need not be permanent but can be transient and mobile.
  • Art activities can be used to generate new ideas in relation to the buildings and structures around them.
  • People walk through places and may engage. Even public city-owned spaces come with rules about how the public can use them. The public can react in unpredictable ways.
  • Signpost motif has been used before in art; but maybe there is something new here.
  • Highlights uncertainty of futures … can only stand in the present, shaped by the pasts. There is no pre-set future: there is only the flow of presents we continually step into?

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