Marius Grønning: Criticality in Site-Based Art

some reflections around the multiple roles of art in place-making

Marius Grønning, associate professor in urban and regional planning, Norwegian University of Life Sciences

A recurrent issue in the discussions on contemporary art is the claim of autonomy. Art should not be an instrument for non-artistic agendas, and cannot, in order to be art. The claim has a long tradition. However, when it is transferred to site-based art, it appears together with other claims, such as art’s sensitivity to the context. In the general frame of urbanisation, site-based art may gain a stronger awareness of the operational situation by observing the structure of an urban space and the processes it is subject to. In today’s discourses and practices on art in public spaces, the site constitutes a nexus of public space, public sphere, urban space, and urban realm. And through an intervention, the site is also, within and beyond art discourses and practices, a link between the past and the future, between experience and expectations, with the values and preconceptions that come along with it.

This is also an issue of cultural policy. While cultural policies are put in place to promote the productivity and quality of contemporary art, they too have a straining effect: the arrangements of commissioning, financing, production, and display of art may influence the artist’s choices and performances. In this complex relationship between art and its productive framework, the issue of artistic autonomy is handled through a guiding policy principle that consists of keeping politics and economy at an arm’s-length from artistic discretion. The “arm’s-length principle” is commonly referred to in Norwegian cultural policy (cf. Parliamentary White Paper, Meld.St. 23 (2011-2012)), and has its origin in a specific institutional and spatial context. Within the spatial frame of galleries and museums – the so-called white cube –, art professionals dominate the discourses. However, while art is expected to claim and display its autonomy within these “neutral” spaces, one cannot uncritically transpose the same understanding of autonomy to, say, the context of urban spaces in a situation of redevelopment, without loosing control of what it implies. In site-based art, artistic discretion appears together with a number of other claims, such as site-specificity, art’s sensitivity to the context and so forth, not to mention the claims of other actors in complex spatial situations. There are, then, possible conflicts between claims.

In the contraposition of claims, one may easily infer from the notion of autonomy a reluctance to agendas that may use art as an instrument in their own interests. This polarisation, between autonomy and instrumentalisation, may obscure reflection on the process in which an artistic intervention takes part, and the possibility of critical stances within the site and the process itself. The situation has been addressed by art critics like Grant Kester, for instance in his “Involvemnt, Autonomy and the Aesthetic” lecture for Public Art Norway (KORO) in 2016, but it is one out of few voices. The autonomy model seems to be hegemonic within art discourses, leaving the field without systematic theoretical problematisation about art outside the white cube. In order to provide some tools that may help enhancing reflection and critical stances in site-based art, I will try to explore some conceptions and possibilities beyond this polarised vision.


Theoretical and methodological challenges to the art field

Site-based art is often commissioned for spaces where other investments take place, along the agendas of place making or urban redevelopment. In these contexts, art becomes part of highly complex situations. In order to unpack the naturalised conception of autonomy, and the automated claims that come along with them, one should be aware of its basic premises. On a theoretical level, autonomy is often grounded on the philosophical distinction between different fields of experience, where art is validated as one[1], as well as on an accusation of external forces, like the productive power relations of capitalism, today identified as the profit-seeking, value-capturing agendas and mechanisms of neo-liberalism. Against this backdrop of performing economic and political forces, a claim of autonomy typically draws on theories of phenomenological, post-structuralist or Marxist origins. The claim, then, resorts to some kind of systems critique, based on an external, contemplative position. Abstract and totalising theories provide general explanations, which may lead to alienation, and to answers that are insensitive to the specificities of a given context. In front a particular site of artistic intervention this may limit the artist, in the sense that preconceptions lead to an automated behaviour in the approach to the context.

The point of view that art is something distinct and different from other insights (scientific, political, economic) is underpinned and reproduced by institutions like art educations, museums, and cultural policy arrangements[2]. It constitutes a particular cognitive framework, where site-based art comes into tension with other points of view of a complex spatial situation. As an alternative to the external, contemplative position, I propose to explore the possibility of an internal and active one, while remaining conscious of the danger of dissolving art into something indistinct. A search for and claim of autonomy from this position must start with the premises for reflexivity and criticality in site-based art. The main concern, then, is how an art practitioner may reflect upon the conditions for artistic discretion and performance in specific spatial situations of the urban realm.


A practitioner’s point of view

For my own account, I have abandoned the idea that I would ever be able to explain what is taking place in cities from big theories. Instead, I am primarily concerned with the interactions of institutions and urban space, and how it influences our ideas and consciousness about urban development. It often depends on a closer reading, an understanding of urban development that does not depart from the big theories. It does not end up reformulating the theories. It is more concerned with looking at structures and frameworks, how they change, while making some kind of diagnosis. Certainly, a world without a beautiful, totalising system that explains everything may seem awkward and sad. At the same time, being able to read patterns and make diagnoses, to determine the structural situations we find ourselves in, is crucial for any intervention to be carried out with some awareness of its own consequences. It is a kind of approach a practitioner might resort to in concrete, operational situations.

Nonetheless, while the site of intervention is always is unique, we may fix some fundamental premises for the exercise of diagnosis: a growing proportion of the world’s population will, in the future, live in cities. The whole historical trajectory of civilisation up to the present is characterised by this tendency. Cities are centres in the process; it is hard to imagine humanity’s evolution without the city as a political, economic, and cultural centre. (Véron 2006) Site-based art may relate to spatial structure and dynamics in this general frame of urbanisation, as an intervention in urban space and an event in the process. The notion of site also forms a link between the past and the future, between experience and expectations, with the values and preconceptions embedded in a community. The site is thus, conceptually and de facto, a category that presupposes an intervention into the present, forcing us to picture a given structural situation and the processes it is subject to. In other words, site-based art relies on an understanding of the situation it operates in, where the notion of site represents the volume of time and space where something occurs and changes the order of things. Art can potentially play an important role in picturing and experiencing the structure of a situation and ongoing processes, and thus generating awareness. A question then is how the situation is assessed.


The site and the dynamics of urbanisation

How do we picture the process of urbanisation? In the context of Østfold County in Norway, we need to address the processes that take place when settlements go through a transition from industrial producer city to something else – something post-industrial –, and view spatial transformation as specific structural situations. Former small and mid-sized industrial cities, like Moss or Fredrikstad, were local societies structured by the model of Fordism and its productive class system (Oberti 2000). What we see today, especially in the Nordic welfare state, is that de-industrialisation is dealt with by trying to generate a new economic basis. This process generates new social systems, with different strata. It is a reaction to de-industrialisation, but may take different trajectories.

In the Norwegian context, Ottar Brox has addressed the conditions of the post-industrial working class in Norway, people that need to take care of certain services and certain productive processes, and the issue of the working class’ knowledge base. (Brox 2005) A typical stratagem of urban redevelopment is to attract people who have certain skills and competencies, and concentrate the manpower needed for the growth sectors of the knowledge economy. The city of Drammen has become the Norwegian success story of this transition. The Papirbredden campus and the Ypsilon Bridge have changed the city’s former industrial landscape – the factories and the river – by introducing architectonic icons and public spaces that symbolise Drammen’s new economic basis. The welfare state is part of this context. When Manuel Castells and Pekka Himanen wrote about the Finnish experience with the transition from the old industries, it is the success story of Nokia, of the necessary knowledge base, and of the role of the welfare state in the transition. Castells and Himanen observed a particular Finnish success in enhancing the population’s will to engage in innovation, generating entrepreneurship, and establishing new businesses. And in this process they identified the welfare state as a crucial institutional arrangement: based on a public system that provided social securities, people were more willing to take personal risk. (Castells & Himanen 2002) In a certain sense, the Nordic social democratic welfare state has proven to be an outstanding neo-liberal device, facilitating a market-based transition from one economic structure to another.

With the institutional framework of the Nordic welfare state in mind, we may turn to the processes that are taking place in the small and mid-sized cities of Østfold County. As former industrial settlements, these cities were strongly rooted in a circumscribed and closely defined territory, and chiefly dependent on local and regional networks. What happens when the old productive systems are closed down? And what happens when these minor and mid-sized centres become part of a larger regional network of a nearby metropolitan centre? In that context we may focus on the kind of processes these places are subject to by observing what kind of new economy is emerging and where it is concentrated. Are these urban centres becoming new cities of production or centres of consumption? The scenarios are structured by public policies and the kinds of developments that are facilitated in different locations. But then again, how much do these cities depend on public administration and the location of knowledge and innovation clusters? Production may now take place in a larger and unprecedented regional network, and not necessarily in the old settlements. If places like Moss or Fredrikstad do not manage to revitalise, to regenerate their economy, they may become suburban areas of more important economic centres.

When the industrial centres emerged they were part of a modernisation. The modern personality was shaped there, even in small places. (Inkeles & Smith 1974) Today, when economic, cultural, and political renewal takes place in the major centres of economic and cultural interaction, former economic centres are running the risk of being disconnected and marginalised from the process of modernisation. We can see the consequences of such processes in the right wing protest movements in Europe, and even closer to us, in the Swedish context of the welfare state, with the rise of the racist party Sverigedemokraterna. In order to see the direction this process is taking, we should keep an eye on the division of labour, and its spatial impact in terms of social stratification. (Moulaert & Scott 1997) An important indicator is the vision of the elites for the reorganisation of the larger conurbations. (Fishman 1987) What do the elites want from the new regional schemes? And what kinds of efforts are made to appropriate industrial areas? These questions may inform us on the historical processes of redevelopment, the emerging forms of production and consumption in post-industrial environments, and their social and spatial impact.

An ongoing process is likely to have open ends. While the scenarios of these places may be highly uncertain, an artistic intervention may reflect upon its own consequences, not so much in its power to predict the future as in the awareness of its structural impact. Then, how can we understand the context?


The site and the structure of public urban spaces

The ways we develop our urban spaces have features that are typical of our time. Urban space is first of all built; the city today is built in bits and pieces. These are frequently conceived of as units, larger units that have a single logic, like the one we find at Sørenga in Oslo, a former container terminal that is being transformed into a residential area. Quite often these developments structure their own internal spaces, architectonically and ergonomically, in response to an expectation of intimacy. By the same token, it rejects the public realm to its outside. We can see that we actually produce, with modern urban development, different kinds of community, like Sørenga, which is a kind of private community, or a residential community, where communication is based on individual property. When rejected to it’s outside, where do the encounters and communications of society at large take place?

We may refer to the waterfront development in Oslo for illustration; it offers good examples of the modus operandi in the construction of contemporary urban spaces (Grønning 2011). Here we can see developments being based on different kinds of interest communities; like the Barcode area, which is a work community, in another part of the waterfront development context. Work communities are organised around specific kinds of production. The Barcode is a typical central business district, characterised by its FIRE economy – Finance, Insurance and Real Estate. It presupposes high education and professionalism, and it has its own intimacies that are internal and again reject alien elements to its outside.

We can also see another kind of community, a more overarching one, which is the commuter or travel community, quite specific to our time. It is composed by the commuting part of the population, but also of by tourism, both with their specific times and rhythms in urban space. The transportation networks might not be considered urban spaces, and we may question their urban quality. Tourists in a foreign city communicate with each other. People who travel by the commuter networks do not communicate much with each other. However, when a train is cancelled, the commuter community becomes very communicative; it does not take much before everyone talks to each other and expose a great solidarity. But what brings them to the city if it is not where they live or work and they do not seek urban interaction?

This brings us to the next category, the consumer community, which has a particular social condition: money. You need to have money to be part of it. From a social point of view this is a strong and structuring programme that generates specific types of spaces. At Aker Brygge, for instance, consumer community displays a conspicuous impact on encounter and communication and on what is viewed as common. According to Norwegian legislation, begging is allowed. In some cases, municipalities decide otherwise, but it is not the case in Oslo. However, if you sit down and start begging at Aker Brygge – if you do not have any money and you ask for money here –, security guards are likely to show you away. They are actually obstructing an activity that is legally sanctioned in public spaces and, by doing so, they also exclude people from encounters and communication. The municipality has not taken any principled stance with regard to these excluding practices.

Outside of these residential, professional, transport, and commercial enclaves, yet another kind of community is structuring urban space, a kind that we may refer to as cultural community. Culture-based urban development is typical to the post-industrial transition to knowledge economy. Urban redevelopment in this frame has a basis in experience economy, with its sectors of events and tourism, and its display of spectacular art and architecture. These assets of urban space have education as a prerequisite, along with social distinction and selectivity. It is often used as a means to attract particular social strata, especially the young urban professionals of the knowledge economy.

These contexts of social and physical organisation are also the sites of artistic interventions. An artistic intervention may animate interaction between physical urban space and individuals and social groups. Intentionally or not, new interaction potentially alters the configurations, confirming or challenging communities, collective representations, territories and conceptions of common assets. Through the means of art, local encounters and communication are projected into different spheres. Public spaces and the public sphere do not coincide the way they did in the Agorà of the antique world, but represent particular configurations of the contemporary modus operandi of urban development. It is specific to site-based art that the site itself constitutes a substantial part of the artistic material. The question, then, is how the art professional can assess the impact of intervention on the communities, on the sense of what is common, and on communication in the situation it produces.


Site-based art and the assessment of operational situations

What you see in a given situation depends on what you are looking for, and thus, your intentions and actions affect your perception. Donald Schön and Martin Rein referred to this phenomenon in terms of cognitive frames. When different actors come into a situation from different angles, they are not likely to share the same values. Trying to solve this problem, Schön and Rein proposed a reflexive approach to these frameworks (Schön & Rein 1994). They proposed a reframing approach in order to achieve a new meta-cultural framework that allows for common understanding and shared values among the involved stakeholders, and thus to be able to treat the intractable in decision making processes. For us, then, the question is what interests and conceptions an art practitioner has in public space at the moment of intervention. In this effort to explore the possibility of a critical approach in art’s own terms, it is crucial to understand the specificities of the art practitioner’s cognitive frame, based on art discourses and practices. However, we may chose for the purpose of this exploration, to focus on the process through which the practitioner becomes aware of the situation. From this angle, our primary concern is the availability of information in a concrete operational situation.

In urban redevelopment situations, processes are highly dynamic, and an assessment may be based on a descriptive view of decision-making. (Endsley 1995) Site-based art does not come along without complying with some frameworks that are embedded in the context. Commissioned art responds to the wishes of the commissioner, at least to some degree. But also self-initiated or uncommissioned art complies with expectations, reception, and regulations that lie within a given situation. The following describes, in general terms, three typical cognitive frames that may be subject to reframing when an art professional is operating in an urban redevelopment situation. One such frame is imposed by the developer, usually allied with an architect or urban designer, and together operationalising concepts and models from the academic field of urbanism – in the best cases. The spatial policies and planning, with its normative and regulatory views, land-use plans, and building permissions perform another kind of framing. Site-based art may be viewed as a third and distinct type of cognitive frame. Art draws its autonomy from the art practitioners’ own cognitive frame, but one can also argue that autonomy can be drawn from the awareness and agency in the reframing that takes place through the interaction with others.


Urbanism and urban development

Urbanism was a new word of the 19th century, invented by the Spanish engineer Ildefonso Cerdà, most known for having conceived the Ensanche, the famous expansion plan for Barcelona. He also wrote a major theoretical treatise called Teoría General de la Urbanización, which started coming out in several volumes from 1867. The neologism derived from the dichotomy of the urbs and the civitas. By the concept of civitas Cerdà referred to a thinking mind, a social structure and a political agency of society, which was opposed to the urbs, by which he referred to the physical territory of its settlement. From this basic dichotomy he built a totalising theory about how the two structural dimensions relate to one another in the process of urbanisation.

In order to understand how the knowledge of urbanism is organised, its origin in the reaction to the effects of the industrial revolution on urban space is essential. In the 19th century it was as if a natural disaster had hit our cities. A science was needed to understand what was happening, and to achieve some sort of total conceptual mastery of the urban phenomenon, and to start over again (Choay 2006). Cerdà’s theoretical framework was based on this ambition; to understand and manipulate the relationship between society and space on a scientific basis. His line of thinking, however, was based on the possibility of an almost infinite urban expansion. Today, the thinking around urbanisation is increasingly concerned with how society keeps consuming space, and the awareness of land as a finite resource. Development is re-focused on the central urban spaces, and urbanisation is organised according to new spatial policies and strategies of concentration. Hence, the consolidated historical city is no longer the problem that we try to escape from, that we try to resolve by building controlled environments around, like Cerdà’s Ensanche. What has changed, lately, and this is a profound change, is that the city has become the solution (Knudsen 2015). Contemporary urbanism is focused on the complexity implied by the effort to build urban space up from the inside again, where the land and built up structures left over from former industrial production often represents a starting point. And in that effort we come up with new concepts and images about what is urban.

In this new frame of land scarcity, the urban is increasingly viewed as a commodity that can be exchanged on the market. And proportionately it is subject to marketing. In academic circles we talk about the right to the city, at the same time as the city itself has become a blurry concept. If the urban is a commodity that can be bought and sold, then the city is anywhere and nowhere in particular. From the point of view of urbanism, situational awareness is then a matter of picturing how social processes are unfolding in space, and how to operate within them in given spatial situations – how the civitas constructs its urbs and takes shape in it.


Spatial planning and public administration

In urban redevelopment situations, the academic frame of urbanism is doubled by the institutional frame of spatial planning. The two are often confused with each other, but it is convenient to view them as distinct cognitive frames, that are partially overlapping. Spatial planning is structured around governmentality and intervention in built environments, and thus around initiatives. It is an institutional knowledge, a regulatory framework for the environment, and an operational device for implementing changes in accordance with some strategy. As such it is different from urbanism, which is knowledge and reflection that allows society to think its relationship to the territory.

Like other Nordic welfare states, Norway is a highly regulated society. Spatial issues are by and large dealt with through a purposed regulatory system, the Planning and Building Act, which represents the main institutional framework. Its main purpose (since 2008) is to promote sustainable development for the benefit of the single individual, for society at large, and for future generations (lovdata.no, plan- og bygningsloven). It involves an array of principles, like the aesthetic quality of the built environment. While making such qualities statutory, the law itself does not clarify the norms, but leaves aesthetic discretion to architects and consultancy groups, as well as planning and building authorities. This is a challenge for planners, but also for other users of the law and its municipal planning and building authorities. The basis for such discretion is a wide array of design manuals, which provide aesthetic, artistic, and architectonic guidelines.

More importantly, the Planning and Building Act operates with definitions of action and intervention in the built environment, and regulates the possibility to take initiative. Who has the right to propose changes? The Act operates within a specific understanding of what an intervention is, and defines it clearly in legal terms. As an artist engaging in a site-based project you may find yourself concerned by the law. And it can be challenging for a planning and building authority to clarify whether an initiative is to be defined as a building or art. The difference is crucial, because in one case it may trigger planning and building procedures. Changes in the terrain, even minor ones, can be concerned by the law, and artistic interventions falling under this category may have to follow particular procedures in order to obtain permission.

Our main concern here is the situation awareness of art professionals. Based on a descriptive view of the framing process, we need to focus on the values that are secured though the regulatory system of planning and building law and administration. Institutions are the building blocks of society, with their value bases and rules, roles and practices. (Scott 1995) The preparatory reports for the current Planning and Building Act express clear ambitions to establish itself as an institutional gravity point in society. The committee who wrote the legislation saw the act as a device for simplifying the process of decision-making in Norway. Consequently the planning system becomes responsible for three important political and administrative tasks: to provide a common arena for deliberation and clarifications concerning land-use; to perform a shared planning and decision making process for political issues that are important to regions and municipalities; and to propose a planning instrument for sectors that have relevance to land-use. (NOU 2001:7) Everything that is spatial should be reflected in the processes of planning and building activity. It is an interesting ambition, and at the same time a challenge for art practitioners who take initiative for intervention in public spaces. The practitioner will then find her/himself involved in a society that wants whatever is proposed as art or something else to be deliberated along with all other kinds of considerations in the management of land-use and built environments. And in this framework, artists may feel powerless in front of the interpretive and formatting force of a bureaucratic apparatus of regulations and quality guidelines that may take professional discretion out of the artist’s hands. The expectation that every action can be regulated for the benefit of the individual, for society, and for future generations, can of course be a problem for an art professional who comes into the discussion with discourses and ideas from the art field, and sometimes explicitly personal ones. That brings us to the last type of cognitive frame here: the ideas, institutions, discourses, and practices of site-based art.


Situation awareness in site-based art

What are the possible understandings of an artistic initiative in urban development processes? I have found it useful to think along with an essay by Paul Ricoeur, L’initiative, and his reflection upon action in present time. (Ricoeur 1986) Ricoeur locates the present as a point on a timeline, between the past and the future, and by doing so, he defines the present as a connection between experience and expectation. In this frame, a basic premise is the power to act, and Ricoeur’s analysis starts by pointing at possibilities and powerlessness. It is a question of possibilities under given circumstances, and of barriers to what can be done. With urban redevelopment comes investment, marketing, attention, opportunities, value capture, and profit. An artistic initiative, on the other hand, might want to keep economic and political actors at a distance, based on the idea of autonomy and reluctance to become instrument for non-artistic agendas. Furthermore, in a highly regulated society, an art practitioner might find her/himself powerless in front of the regulations on land-use and the built environment, and may find it hard to get access to the legal and administrative system that allows for intervention. To apply for a building permission can require quite specialised skill, and consume large amounts of time and resources from the initiative. A practitioner may then wilfully subvert the legal framework in an act of protest, which has its own dignity. Alternatively, instead of viewing it as a barrier, the administrative framework can be turned into a resource; something that provides the possibility to intervene, allowing the practitioner to act.

After the basic premise of possibility, Ricoeur turns to the issue of the role that an action may assume. An action can be understood because it has a role, and its meaning is drawn from semantic concepts of action. For instance, the Planning and Building Act conceptualises action in terms of initiative, construction, and changes to the environment, and refers to it in terms of concepts like tiltak (measure, action, intervention). Quite discrete interventions in the topography, for instance, may be perceived as tiltak according to the legal framework, which then triggers planning and building procedures. Whereas art, in theory and practice, defines action on its own terms, as a project, a sculpture, a performance, or as permanent or temporary and so forth. In an operational situation, the art world’s own conceptual frame may be challenging for other actors; the terms that are used may seem alien, without meaning, or they may have a different meaning to them, and they may fail to recognise projects as works as art. The role of an action may be understood according to their own conceptual frame, for instance as an action taken for the benefit of urban development. In other words, a challenge within the operational situation is the difficult translation between different fields of theory and practice – between urbanism, planning, and art – in order to make the actions taken by the art professionals meaningful and comprehensible to others, and vice versa.

In the framework of planning and building legislation, if you take initiative, you are viewed as a developer. The same initiative, in the eyes of the developer, may produce an event and draw attention to an asset, potentially raising its value. According to Ricoeur’s analysis a third premise is the role of an action as an intervention in a flow of events. Site-based art is context sensitive and relates to the state of a place. When an artistic initiative is taken in an urban space, different actors will have their own assessment of the situation, and their minds will be focused on stages of development, on ramifications and alternatives for action in the transition from one state to another. In line with Ricoeur’s analysis, different actors may see different events being produced, beyond the art practitioner’s intention: as an intervention in the historical flow of events. Thus the identification of the points in time when the process opens and when it closes may be viewed according to very different timelines of experience and expectation. And the perception of the state before and after the intervention may vary accordingly. For the developer, the process can be viewed in the short term perspective of investment and turnover, while the planner may view it in the structured process and time frames of a plan, the academic urbanist may think in the longue durée of urban structure and evolution, and a politician may think in the electoral time frame of 4 years or in the annual public budget frame.

The last point in Ricoeur’s analysis is that action has a meaning and is understood; action is communicative and has a symbolic dimension. Human action becomes coherent through rules, norms and appreciation. It is assessed by others and expresses an intention. You commit an action, and it is likely to create expectations for what it may produce. And thus, it can also generate deception. In other words, an action confirms a role, a promise, and has an ethical dimension which is part of the operational situation: on the collective level an action gains meaning in relation to society and community, in the present and on the historical timeline; it is situated among contemporary actors and viewed in contrast to the actors of the past. And here, the “site” in site-based art is a key feature of a form of professionalism where art, as a committed action, is aware of its own consequences, and takes the responsibility in the eyes of the public.


Criticality in site-based art

Artists and curators operating in the context of urban redevelopment are different professionals than the ones that operate in the “neutral” space of a museum or a gallery. I have tried to explore the possibility of a critical stance of the practitioner in post-industrial environments undergoing urban redevelopment processes, a stance that is not based on an external contemplative position, but on an internal and active one: the art practitioner in front of a site of intervention. There are many issues of the art world itself that I have not addressed; it would not serve the purpose here. With art, particular factors come into play, like the discourses, genres, and practices of contemporary art, the strategies, world view and branding of art curators, but also the skill, knowledge, and expressivity of the particular artist. I have intentionally not brought these issues into the discussion. Instead, I have focused on the way site-based art relies on the notion of site, a sensitivity to the context, and thus on an awareness of the operational situation.

The initial part of my reflection on criticality in site-based art was concerned with the practitioner’s awareness of the structural situation, the kind of information about spatial frameworks and processes that may be brought to a practitioner’s attention in a given operational situation. The practitioner’s ability to reflect upon the situation, and take a critical stance in an artistic intervention, relies on an awareness of what comes together through the initiative. The latter part of my reflection addressed the issues of reflexivity and criticality. Reflexivity may be viewed as a search for awareness with regard to the structural situation and the processes the practitioner takes part in. Criticality is a different issue; it is a question of making choices, and the power to do so. In site-based art, criticality may be viewed and understood from an internal, active and participative position in the process, inherent to the site. This may be a fruitful perspective in the claims of autonomy: one that escapes the polarity of autonomy vs. instrumentality; an alternative vision of artistic discretion and its “arm’s-length” to political and economic agendas; one that points at different possibilities to make choices on art’s own terms through interaction with various stake holders. In contrast to the alienating perspectives of totalising social theories, it draws into focus a variety of cognitive frames and how they relate to a site of artistic intervention. And by doing so, it enhances an awareness of their relevance to the operative situation.

Through this perspective, claims of autonomy may be advanced that are based on art’s situated performance, which is a performance on different levels of aesthetic relevance: on the framing process related to the site of intervention; on the possibility of an aesthetic experience with the present; on the connection between experience and expectation in the flow of events. I have no ambition for trying to resolve these questions definitely. However, the effort of exploring the spatial structures and dynamics of post-industrial environments, and the possibility to assess a given operational situation may provide some means for art practitioners to claim autonomy through their work. The risk of falling into the kind of polarities where collaboration becomes synonymous with instrumentalisation, is a limitation to possible critical stances performed by the art practitioner. The art professionals’ skill, knowledge, and reflection on the condition of possibility for art in a given situation are altogether a valuable asset.

Site-based art is more concerned with actual subjects of a situation than with traditional aesthetics, and its rhetorical formulations of the beautiful. This is a challenge to the language of art and the conventions of the art field. It is then necessary to recognize the art practitioner’s exploration of what art can be, as an essential part of the process of interaction with the actors of a given spatial situation, ant to embrace the challenges to conventional expectations of what the role of art should be in public environments. This implies orienting the attention away from expectations and towards the basic premise of the experience of art by the subject – the individual, the group, community, society. It may strengthen the possible interpretation of a place and our experience with the process we find ourselves in. To experience art is to be part of society. The value of such experience should not be underestimated, and nowhere is it more essential than in site-based art. And thus, the discussion on art’s autonomy should not get lost in the inwardness of its own discourses, nor in its self-defence against external agendas. Rather, it should take this value seriously as a condition of possibility for art.


Acknowlegements: Special thanks to Trude Schjeldrup Iversen of Public Art Norway (KORO) and to James Ray Moore of Østfold Kulturutvikling for enriching discussions and essential feedback.



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[1] For instance in Friedrich Schiller, knowledge comes from the senses, while autonomy comes from the Erkenntnis – recognition.

[2] For instance, in the Hegelian tradition or the Frankfurter School, the concept of autonomy is not in the essence of art and its nature; it is the social construct of a given historical situation.