Constructing the Public Sphere
This essay deals with the relationship between media and the public sphere, and with the way in which media constitute and conflict with notions of the public sphere. It looks at artistic practice as a form of 'public production'. - The inserted descriptions of selected works from the Polish video art compilation, 'From Monument to Market', form exemplifications and counter-points to the theoretical argument.
1. The public domain is conventionally viewed as an assemblage of urban social spaces - the market place, theatres, libraries, cafés, etc., - where ideas and practical concerns of society can be voiced and discussed in an open dialogue. However, the public sphere that is constituted at these sites is not of itself neutral and democratic, but invested with political and economic power. Think, for instance, of the exclusive English clubs and coffee houses of the 18th century where a new class of industrialists and traders negotiated their political influence, or the large city squares where the architectural and ritual presentation of power determines the monumental expanse of the site.
- The short video piece by Andrzej K. Urbanski, 'Wittgenstein 3. 262' carefully elucidates the relationship between advertising signs and public space: a spinning Coca-Cola logo is first seen as an isolated, universal signifier; when the camera zooms out, we can see that the logo is placed on a sign-post that is advertising the brand in a prominent urban location. The meaning of the sign, which may be blurred or indistinct when looking at the signifier itself, becomes clear when it is viewed in the context of its application - this is the message of the paragraph from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein that has provided the cue for the title of the piece. The video work creates a well-calculated instability when the urban space, first presented as an advertising context, is freed from that function in the final instance of the video in which the image freezes as the spinning sign is seen from the side and does therefore not convey its meaning, for a moment. The artist grabs that moment and offers it to us, as an indication.
The notion of what is 'public' is currently undergoing a deep transformation which is brought about by a variety of geographical, economic, geo-political, technological and discursive drivers of social change. The public sphere, and the way in which individuals and groups participate in it, is taking on a whole different set of meanings, compared with the classical forms of the civic public that emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries. Most importantly, it seems to be impossible today to speak of only one public domain, but we have to think of the public domain as a heterogeneous, at times hybrid, at times fragmented dispersion of physical and virtual spaces populated by different types of 'publics'.
- In Józef Robakowski's 'From My Window (Z mojego okna)' (1978- 2000) we experience the construction of the space that the artist can see from the window of his flat, as a highly personalised public space. It is a space used and inhabited by the others, documented in those moments when the artist himself is not outside. Over several years, the city segment fills up with people, animals, events and building sites, all of which are brought into existence by the camera, and by the artist's narration. A minute, personal portrait of what that supposedly public space and its personnel means to the individual.
The public domain is a composite of many stages and layers, open and closed physical spaces, media channels, forms of communication and cultural expression. Media technologies play a crucial role in the current curbing the urban public domain. Developments such as the transfer of economic activities into closed electronic networks, the privatisation of public areas, the homogenisation and the separation of functions by allocating specific zones to shopping, entertainment, housing, traffic, etc., - seek to make public space more secure and more efficient, but they undermine the essence of the public domain as a zone of uncontrollability. The instability of the public domain is a condition of its democratic potential. Artistic urban interventions strive to counteract the safely surveilled and appeased urban terrain of the transparent city with its technologies of security and privatisation the city - zoning, surveillance cameras, biometric systems, etc. -, by means of tactics and technologies of conflict and participation, reclaiming the public domain with and for multiple heterogeneous groups.
- Two complementary works to Józef Robakowski's 'From My Window' are his 'Art is Power (Sztuka to potega)' (1985) and 'In Memory of Leonid Breshnev (Pamieci L . Brezniewa )' (1982). In both, he takes the televisual space of Poland's socialist state TV during a significant official event - in the former a large military parade, in the latter the state funeral of USSR leader Leonid Breshnev - and juxtaposes these events with the music of the Yugoslav band Laibach. Using a martialistic, rhythmic and ritualistic musical style, Laibach was, in the early 1980s, infamous for their critique of socialist ideology through the apparently fascistic symbolism of their dress, performance and general appearance. As part of the artist movement Neue Slowenische Kunst, Laibach formulated a vicious onslaught on the supposedly anti-fascist Yugoslav society at the end of Tito's reign. Robakowski appropriates this critical gesture and applies it to the medial, televisual experience of the stately parades, happening in Moscow, yet, being projected all through the Eastern European Soviet empire. The fact that the filmed TV images appear in a grainy black and white, and at a modified, partly accelerated speed, further complicate the historical riddle: they seem to come from a different time, the early days of film, the days of the Russian revolution and Stalin, whose relationship to the music of Laibach might have been just as ambivalent as it was in the 1980s, when it was rejected by the socialist regimes not for being critical, but for being supposedly fascistic.
The challenge in the creative use of media technologies is to foster the diversity of public actors and terrains, and to develop strategies of articulating the new public domains that connect physical urban spaces and the potential public sphere of the electronic networks. This public sphere will only come into being if there are complex forms of interaction, of participation and learning, that use the technical possibilities of the networks and that allow for new and creative forms of becoming visible, becoming present, becoming active, in short, of becoming-public.
2. Visibility, presence and action define three levels of being in public. They are also the main fault-lines of public conflict. Invisibility is one of the stigmata of modern society. Whether in the case of minorities, social movements or special interest groups, achieving visibility, the visible factuality of a particular social group, can already be an important achievement towards the goal of political effectiveness. However, visibility is always already connected to the possibility of control. Like other forms of public policing, the increasing use of surveillance cameras in public and private spaces indicates that visibility is a matter of concern for the public order. Whatever is publically visible always already bears the potential of being illegal, indecent or otherwise unacceptable. Becoming visible in an urban environment is therefore often conducted as a clandestine activity, like in the illegal pasting of posters, the placing of graffitis and tags, pirate radio broadcasts, taking on an artificial identity on the Internet, or the elusive appearance in larger masses of people. In these medial strategies, the regimes of visibility, anonymity and identity are locked in a problematic imbalance.
- Zygmunt Rytka's 'Retransmission (Retransmisja)' compiles a large number of extremely short video excerpts from news broadcasts. The endless flow of images, talking heads, scenes from political events and occasional white noise, creates a sense of frustrating redundancy - nothing can really be understood - even though the experience of watching the tape painfully reminds us of what remains of an evening that we spend in front of our TVs with the remote control, zapping through the cable or satellite spectrum in which a myriad of opinions, events and faces blend into a mindless 'infosphere' in which any sense of distinction is replaced by the bland, meaningless factuality of televised images.
The notion of visibility is connected to a fleeting, impermanent perception in time and is therefore, at best, a tactical element of being in public. In contrast, the notion of presence - not necessarily coupled to a visibility - makes a claim to 'being here, now' and is an affirmation of a public status. Presence is immediate, which means that it can not be realised through medial representation. At the same time, presence is affirmed in the form of a mediality, it always manifests itself in a medium: graffiti have presence as signs and images in the urban space, radio programmes manifest a presence on the air waves, squatting is the physical occupation of a space declared empty and unused. Presence is the affirmation of an identity and of a Now in a specific medial environment.
- The video 'Jail Mandela!' documents a street action of the Lyyying Community, in which the artists performed silently, lying down on the city pavement, dressed in obscure costumes. An interviewer asks the passers-by what they think the situation is about, and their speculative, often bemused answers constitute the soundtrack for the video. The project investigates the meaning of acting in public by positing a non-sensical signifier and extracting answers which thus constitute more or less unfiltered comments on what is and what is not acceptable public behaviour.
Neither visibility nor presence can in themselves provide the potential for becoming publically active. This notion of public action relates to a form of political agency which aims to effectively transform a material and symbolic situation by means of argument and through more or less immediate performative acts. Possibilities for such actions are on the decrease where symbolical representation, mediated participation and the equation of consumption and democracy, have replaced a sense of active presence and involvement in public matters. Being in public is identified with potential illegality on the one hand, and with the danger of personal harm on the other. Reclaiming public domains as sites of constructive conflict, and developing democratic forms of agency for the new intersections of virtual and physical public environments, are therefore imperatives of the current situation.
3. Negative public production is the process of shrinking the public sphere. Again, electronic media have played an important role in curbing, or at least not furthering, the potentials for creative and heterogeneous usages of emerging public domains. The Internet for example has, over the past ten years, offered many promises for a 'liberated public', while at the same time being the site of ever new constrictions of a free usage of the tools for communication and exchange that it offers: from the data-veillance infrastructure of the Echelon system and spy-ware, to the plans for a hardware-based Digital Rights Management system that seeks to burden digital creativity with the restrictions of the analogue world.
- Monika Grzesiewska's video and computer animation 'Faster, Easier (Szybciej, Wygodniej)' deals with the craziness of a post-modern life completely wrapped up in codes of shopping and advertising. An endless stream of products is morphing into each other, replaceable and ever-changing, fluid and redundant. When the female figure that has to endure this modern purgatory is about to give up in utter frustration, a smart talking head tries to sell the next big thing to her: an online shopping world on the Internet which is just as crazy, just as exhausting and just as redundant as the glossy, flashing 'real world' was before.
Similarly, the space of mobile telephony is affected by increased commodification and models of payment that turn human communication into a resource waiting for its exploitation. It is disconcerting to see how most artists who are currently working with mobile systems completely fail to approach the technology of the technology with the critical and investigative attitude that has brought forth so many interesting results in electronic media art over the last decades: breaking open the devices, hacking the system, transgressing intended usages, playing with, or working against, the normalised logic of these media, all this seems to be all but taboo when dealing with mobile phones. Instead, most projects come across as industry-friendly suggestions for so-called 'content development', i.e. the filling of empty channels, and the harvesting of customer attention.
4. Public production is the continued effort to re-invent the notion of the public sphere in relation to, and by means of, contemporary social, political and technological conditions. This requires an effort to understand current modes of being public, of visibility, presence and action, and of driving public spaces as sites of conflict and of friction, where dissent and misbehaviour are possible.
(Berlin, 29 July 2004)