Piero Bisello
Absorbed Outdoors: On Three Art Projects in Public Space

01.11

Three projects of art in public space connect the far-flung countries of Switzerland, Belgium, and Japan. They share a few things, most obviously their material support: an outdoor message board, a shallow window facing the street. They all occasion an art experience for both invited guests and unsuspecting passersby. Slightly less visible is their sharing a specific attitude, which I shall describe at the end of this text.

A US manufacturer of outdoor message boards advertises them as perfect for residential complexes, places where homeowners and tenants can place things to be seen by the others. Each of the three projects in question exists in a similar landscape: the built living environment, the urban outdoors where people dwell closely and navigate distractedly to reach elsewhere.

Art in public has been around for longer than art in private. The caves of cave painting were most likely open to the entire community, and so were the decorated exteriors of religious and lay architecture in cultures that knew of no art display restricted from the many. More often than not, art could be seen outside of anyone’s walls. In this respect, the three projects discussed here bring nothing new to the history of art display, and nor do they claim to do so. On the contrary, they tap into a long-lasting need to export art from studios and critics’ desks to public space for common viewing, a desire that has more recently included digital spaces.

Although one might think we are entering street art or graffiti territory, in terms of institutions and intentions these projects steer away from those forms. While they have a certain individual drive to “elude discipline”[1] and to claim a “right to the city”[2] that is typical of street art and graffiti, there is a much stronger compliance with the rules of the indoor art world; if street art and graffiti are born in the street, these three projects mostly hail from walled galleries and institutions. They bring to public space things and people that are normally elsewhere. On the other hand, they remain individual initiatives, refusing monumentality, their rules set by their initiators rather than by institutions; they try to avoid state involvement and consequent transformation into official public art projects.

Within the Western art tradition alone, the last century offers many examples of an individual desire to show indoor art outdoors. Although not quite curated or programmed in the contemporary sense of the words, and often driven by the artists’ own needs, twentieth-century outdoor shows include the Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit in New York—founded in the 1930s and focused on painting, it is rumored to have hosted artists such as Alice Neel and Willem de Kooning at its start. The old avant-garde idea of bridging art and life, which freshened up in the late 1960s in New York, also meant outdoor presentations of art; from posters to mural painting, from happenings to sound art broadcast outside. A few decades later, a few initiatives from the 1990s[3] resemble the three projects in question in their shared sense of being artfurtive, a term coined by Patrice Loubier to refer to public art that doesn’t “announce its artistic nature, [...] seizing the urban route for a quick moment.”[4] Compared to public art, or simply art in public, what is missing in the three projects discussed here is the large-scale spectacular impact of pieces like Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s building wraps, the high visibility of billboard-based works à la Braco Dimitrijević, Jenny Holzer, or Félix González-Torres, and the desired permanence in time that is typical of outdoor sculptures. What I am discussing is of human scale, easily disappeared, unsensational.

RUE_DU_CHAPEAU_10

RUE_DU_CHAPEAU_10 is a message-board project founded by Brussels-based publisher Saskia Gevaert in 2020. The underscore-rich title is both the real-life location and the Instagram tag, suggesting that the two are thought of together. A noticeboard hangs on the external door of her house in a small street in Anderlecht, “sheltering” (her word) works by artists, writers, and others. On Instagram, the feed shows images of the board with works in it from a fixed viewpoint, sometimes catching passersby, the artists themselves, or the empty board—images from the art gallery that exists behind the door are never made public. The visual rigidity of the feed invites us to seek out the differences between otherwise equal images, pointing straight to the changing artworks installed for each show. There is a symmetry at play between the square shape of the posts and that of the case, between the glass of the phone screen and that of the board; what’s online comes into real life and vice versa, a flow that goes beyond mere archiving.

During a recent interview, Gevaert mentioned an obligation to show artworks outdoors during COVID-related lockdowns as one motivation to start the project, but also a desire to share with the neighborhood certain art-related activities that would otherwise stay within a circle of friends and gallery visitors. Nearby police violence and consequent tensions with local citizens prompted Gevaert to steer outward, to meet the challenging reality of the project’s context and reflect on her expanded surroundings beyond already existing relationships with people nearby.

The first RUE_DU_CHAPEAU_10 guest was the author Pietro Gaglianó, who brought a text-based piece he had previously exhibited in a noticeboard in Italy, inspiring Gevaert’s choice of display. A couple of dozen exhibitions have followed since then, often featuring authors and artists close to the pre-existing activities of her publishing house, or artists interested in printed matter in general. For Gevaert, the board is a comment on the “advertising box” (again her words), due to the typical use of such a display and its purpose of communicating what happens behind the door on which it is installed—that is, another series of exhibitions organized by Gevaert. Many works that end up on the board are specifically conceived for it though, conferring the project an autonomy worthy of a classical context.

Keijiban

Like Saskia Gevaert, the art historian behind the project Keijiban has a special interest in publishing and printed matter; for years, Olivier Mignon co-ran the Brussels-based (SIC), a curatorial platform publishing catalogues and artist’s books linked to one of the most relevant scenes coming out of the Belgian capital in recent times.[5] Mignon moved to Japan in 2012 for five years, returning just after the COVID pandemic broke out. His project Keijiban, which simply means “noticeboard” in Japanese, is located in Kanazawa, a mid-size town about 400 km west of Tokyo. In a recent interview, Mignon said the stereotype of Japanese urban space as loaded with neon lights and advertisements reflects only a few central streets in the capital. In reality, Japanese cityscapes are mostly devoid of advertisements, and privatized vertical spaces are instead those of common notice boards, keijibans; they are mostly used in front of temples and shrines where clerics share religious and philosophical thoughts, but also for neighborhood associations to share useful information. After initially looking for an existing board, Mignon bought his own and placed it on a friend’s property facing the street.

The project stems from two of Mignon’s curatorial concerns: a continuation of the long-lasting relationships formed during the years of (SIC) and an ambitious desire to start a dialogue between a hyper contextual display, or “showcase” (his word), and a broader audience reached through the presentation of international artists that would otherwise not have access to that context. Similarly to RUE_DU_CHAPEAU_10, Keijiban’s online and offline nature is porous, and so is its spirit as a utilitarian and autonomous place at once—the board is used to present limited-edition prints that are for sale on the project’s website and Instagram but are also works designed especially for the context. Like Gevaert, Mignon has set up a strict protocol for the project’s Instagram account, where reference images are posted throughout the exhibition and the print shown in the board only appears after the show has closed, evoking the idea of an exclusive real-life experience for those who are there, but also prompting philosophical questions about local vs international in a post-internet age.

sis123

One of the few Swiss cities where the population is decreasing and unbothered by hordes of tourists, La Chaux-de-Fonds is known as a blue-collar symbol of the Swiss watchmaking industry and rationalistic town planning. Tucked in between the major art museum and the main commercial street, sis123 is an art project located in three shallow windows embedded in the wall of a residential complex of La Chaux-de-Fonds, hosting exhibitions by one artist at a time. Initiated by Pol Le Vaillant, Axelle Stiefel, and Fabrice Schneider in 2021, sis123 is in some ways a child of COVID, like the other projects discussed so far, whether because of a desire to exhibit art when the great indoors were inaccessible or the founders’ COVID-related life choices.

During a recent conversation with Schneider, I came to understand that opportunity (cheap rent and Swiss subsidies for art in public space) is only part of the sis123 story. He mentioned that he had already had an idea to commission artists to produce posters in between the languages of fine art, writing, graphic design, and advertisement—posters being a fleeting medium that allows for a specific mode of transmission, in this case a vertical surface in public space, but also a challenging, yet compelling, complexity in terms of the nature of the exhibited object. Schneider mentioned mail art as another of his specific interests that led to sis123.

Unlike the other two projects, sis123 has no Instagram presence; it is communicated via newsletter and, when possible, the local press. Although the official website contains all the images of the exhibitions, the project is markedly oriented towards real-life interaction with visitors: there is a consistent local attendance to the events, including from the small artistic community of La Chaux-de-Fonds, and a desire to be included in the existing circles of art in town. For Schneider, sis123 is more than an excuse to talk about communication and media; art in public space is almost all there is to the project, without a gallery behind the board like RUE_DU_CHAPEAU_10 or a publishing activity like Keijiban.

Grouping

I mentioned at the start that RUE_DU_CHAPEAU_10, Keijiban, and sis123 are easily discussed together because of their similar display in a specific kind of urban public space. To that, we can also add that they have been jointly serving a specific scene of artists linked to Brussels (with necessary exceptions, of course). For example, Denicolai & Provoost, Maxime Le Bon, Sylvie Eyberg, and Pierre Lauwers have all exhibited or will exhibit in two of the three projects, confirming the curators’ shared backgrounds and taste. These connections are clear.

More remarkable and original is their shared stance. If, as Guillaume Clermont claims, “the dissemination of art can also be a space for creation,”[6] the attitude of those running these projects is aesthetic, despite a possible, or even probable, intention to philosophically challenge institutions by bringing what’s typical of them elsewhere. If there is any subversion, it is polite; if there is a theoretical scheme, it is impressionistically applied. What is seeable is a desire to furtively expose the street to artworks that would otherwise hide in private, while keeping some or all of the rigor necessary for those artwork’s presentation. Popular street artist Shepard Fairey recently qualified the street as a place for chaos.[7] I hope this text has proven his rough simplification to be wrong.


[1] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven F. Rendall (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), 96–97

[2] Henri Lefebvre, Writings on Cities, ed. and trans. Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996), 128–129.

[3] For an exhaustive list, see Patrice Loubier, “Un art à fleur de réel : considérations sur l’action furtive,” Inter 81 (printemps 2002).

[4] Patrice Loubier, “Enigmes, offrandes, virus : formes furtives dans quelques pratiques actuelles,” Parachute 101 (Jan/Mar 2001): 99–105.

[5] For lack of a better word to reify this relatively unified group, and lack of space for a topic that deserves a PhD, we can label the scene as Belgian post-conceptualist; it includes artists such as Olivier Foulon, Jacqueline Mesmaeker, Koenraad Dedobbeleer, Sophie Nys, Pierre Leguillon, and Denicolai & Provoost, among a few others.

[6] Guillaume Clermont, “Des différents modes de diffusion de l’œuvre d’art : l’improbable comme générateur de sens en art actuel,” 2022. PhD thesis at ULB and erg.

[7] “The Art Angle Podcast: ‘Hope’ Poster Artist Shepard Fairey on Art and Activism Today,” Artnet News, September 30, 2022, https://news.artnet.com/multimedia/art-angle-podcast-shepard-fairey-2180124.