This paper was presented as part of Panel 6 – Occupying the city: Artistic Activism, the Production of Space, Politics and the Everyday Life in Large Cities at RC 21 Conference in Delhi (2019). The theme of the conference was In and Beyond the City: Emerging Ontologies, Persistent Challenges and Hopeful Futures.
1.0 The Public, Democracy & Art
The term “public” generally conjures up notions of equality and inclusivity, implying that a “public” entity is required to be equally accessible to all. Hoskyns (2014) defines public space as anywhere that has “public access”. This paper further builds upon Hoskyns’ definition and characterises public space as “anywhere that has public access” that encourages personal freedom of the individual without curtailing the freedom of the collective.
The contemporary city, however, may rather be characterised as an amalgamation of individual spaces, where the significance of the collective is diminished by the desires of the individual who accumulate in public spaces to be entertained rather than engaged. This may be observed in the prevalent public space typologies seen today, including the shopping mall, the restaurant, the cinema hall, the airport and the amusement park. Freedom of expression and movement are restricted here and democratic spatial practices are simply forbidden. Such spaces are programmed to encourage consumerist behaviour and are driven by the pursuit of the highest profits. At the same time, these spaces are devoid of any sense of place, holding no emotional significance to the users. The over-rationality of the contemporary globalised city and its spaces strips it off any meaning and significance to its occupants. As a result, today, we have zombie cities that have no diversity in their appearance or culture.
In this scenario, there is an urgent need for rejuvenation of cities to ensure sustainable social and economic growth. The city is a manifestation of the confluence of ideas, commerce, culture, science, and productivity, fuelled by the well-being of its communities and citizens. As expressed in Goal 11 of the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, the establishment of inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities is paramount to the realisation of an economically prosperous, socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable future. In these efforts, cities must be participatory in nature, with a view to promoting civic engagement; provoking a sense of belonging and ownership; prioritising safe, inclusive, accessible and green public spaces; enhancing social and intergenerational interactions, cultural expressions and political participation; and fostering social cohesion, inclusion and safety in peaceful and pluralistic societies (Habitat III, 2017).
Apart from economic and public health benefits, art has the crucial capacity to socially, spatially and visually revitalise the decaying city. When freed from the confines of the museum or the gallery and placed in the urban realm, art addresses the collective memory of an evolving society. Exhibiting immense democratic potential, it nurtures a sense of place and identity, thereby contextualising public spaces, and encouraging social interaction. However, in a young, developing democracy like India, there are several roadblocks to the realisation of public art. This paper explores the tools and techniques that artists use to overcome such roadblocks and successfully engage with the city, its spaces and its people.
2.0 The Simultaneous Decline of Public Art & the Public Realm
Though considered a contemporary construct, public art has existed from time immemorial, evolving from the sanctioned monuments and sculptures of antiquity to the disruptive street art of today. Through history, the diminishing significance of public art can be traced alongside the undermining of the public realm. Without free, accessible public spaces open to all members of society, there can be no meaningful artistic interaction.
From L to R – Fig. 1: Street-side meeting spaces – “Thinnai” (Source: Author); Fig. 2: Temples as Public Spaces (Source: Author)
In the precolonial era, art was an intrinsic part of the city, being interwoven into the urban fabric and everyday life in the form of decorations and inscriptions, as observed in public areas such as streets, temples, riverfronts and even homes. While there was no designated “public space,” community dialogue was a central feature of the urban fabric with the street forming the setting for multiple activities. The localised typologies provided a sense of identity and belonging and fulfilled the need for social interaction.
From L to R – Fig. 3: Indian Public Space – The Street (Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Native_Village_near_ Calcutta,_Stoddard,_1892.jpg); Fig. 4: Formalised Colonial Public Space (Source: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/expat/expatpicturegalleries/11390134/tennis-tea-and-tiger-hunting-colonial-life-in-India.html?frame=3188087)
However, the advent of the colonial era brought with it new, more defined forms of public space that were alien to the local population. To the eyes of the European coloniser, the lack of a distinct architectural and spatial manifestation of public life seemed to indicate a complete lack of civilisation (Srivathsan, 2003). Thus, structured public space was introduced, in the form of maidans, promenades, squares and parks. At this time, a shift in priorities can be noted – the city was now designed for the enjoyment of the colonisers, rather than the locals. The aesthetic quality of public spaces also followed suit – these majestic spaces sought to establish the British as the new rulers of India rather than to cater to the desires of the indigenous population. As a result, two different cities emerged simultaneously within the same geographical area and no attempts at reconciliation were made. This dichotomy of space was eroded away with time and the British city was completely adopted, though never fully integrated into the Indian populace due to its alien nature. Several sculptures of prominent figures were erected in the public realm at this time, most of whom were unrecognisable to the common Indian citizen.
From L to R – Fig. 5: Political Graffiti in Chennai (Source: https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/election-office-cracks-down-on-political-graffiti/article5761661.ece); Fig. 6: Sculpture at Phoenix Market City, Chennai (Source: https://www.vogue.in/content/turning-mall-art-gallery)
Following independence, the ill-contextualised colonial public spaces were largely replaced with more alien, homogenised and globalised structures that were unsuitable to the Indian context. The post-colonial city saw a wave of rapid and chaotic urbanisation that lacked proper planning and legislation. Cities were stripped of their social and cultural values, evolving into machines of development that had no space for the collective. As a result, the soulless, homogenised cities of today were created, characterised by the monopolisation of the public realm.
The city has now become a medium to amplify government (political graffiti) and corporate (billboards) propaganda while free, open debate is repressed. Public art has been relegated to malls and hotels where they are simply viewed by distracted shoppers who might stop to take the odd selfie. While artists are making efforts to rejuvenate public interest and to reclaim public spaces, these largely remain on the fringes.
3.0 Relevance of Public Space & Art in a (Young-ish) Democracy
In, “The Practice of Everyday Life” (The Practice of Everyday Life, 1980), De Certeau described space as a practiced place. The character of a space has its roots in its performance, in the dynamic intersections encountered in the interactions between elements and people of varying identities and lived experiences. This premise can be applied to the city and its public spaces – the kinds of social interactions, or lack thereof, offers a keen commentary on the prevailing state of democracy in the city. This can be seen around the world – authoritarian regimes have strictly regulated public spaces while democratic, liberal societies allow for a greater degree of expression.
The Indian case, however, presents an interesting conundrum. A fairly young democracy that has been in existence for only 72 years, India’s relationship with its urban spaces is highly varied. Here, art has numerous roles to perform in the public realm – as a tool for placemaking, to promote social cohesion and cultural understanding, and to even improve civic engagement – all of which contribute to the upliftment of democratic ideals placed at the core of the Indian Constitution. Public art can also bring forth expressions of dissent and resistance.
From L to R – Fig. 7: “We Love Delhi” Mural by LEK + Sowat and Hanif Kureshi in Lodhi Colony, Delhi (Source: https://www.vice.com/en_in/article/7xn7g9/this-public-art-festival-is-reclaiming-the-indian-streets); Fig. 8: Protest Site at Shaheen Bagh, Delhi becomes a Gallery (Source: https://www.vice.com/en_in/article/epgxkw/india-has-become-a-gallery-of-protest-art-despite-a-crackdown)
As described by Deustche, public art is “a practice that constitutes a public, by engaging the people in political discussion or by entering a political struggle.” A democracy, in theory, must welcome and accept both the often opposing facets of the freedom of speech and expression. However, in practice, this concept is found to be lacking. Mary Douglas’ theory (Purity and Danger, 1966) states that what is perceived as dirt in any society is simply matter out of space and the perception of what is clean and what is sacred differs according to context. This can be observed in the treatment of public art in India. A clear double standard is seen – unfavourable and unregulated public art is treated as anti-establishment while commissioned public art acts as a PR exercise used to elevate the brand equity of urban environments. Though the Indian Constitution does provide every citizen with the right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression, this is not, in any way, an absolute right. While any restrictions imposed are valid only when enacted by law, the fear of conflict often excuses the imposition of censorship or even outright bans on art, veiled as measures necessary to maintain peace and security.
4.0 Subversive Imaginaries for Alternative Artistic Expression
Philosopher Charles Taylor (2004) describes ‘social imaginaries’ as “the kind of common understanding that enables us to carry out the collective practices that make up our social life.” In the context of this article, the term subversive imaginaries is used to explore alternative manifestations of public art and dialogue that the artistic and creative communities use to tackle the existing roadblocks presented by the current social and political climate.
In exploring this concept, three key mechanisms of subversion have been identified, as discussed below.
4.1 Private-Public Art in the Gallery
This section looks at the use of the privatised public spaces such as galleries and museums to exhibit public art. Such endeavours are typically commissioned and promoted by individual institutions. However, they provide much lesser visibility as the works of art are removed from the public realm and considerable publicity is required to bring the existence of such art to the notice of the general public. An example of this form of public art is the DAMned Art Exhibition, held in Chennai, India in early 2018.
From L to R – Fig. 9: “Invite/Refuse” Installation by Parvathi Nayar (Source: https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/the-art-of-river-conservation/article22638732.ece); Fig. 10: Performances, Talks & Workshops held during the DAMned Art Exhibition in Chennai (Source: Author)
While intended as a dynamic, on-site exploration of the heavily contaminated rivers of Chennai through art installations, this exhibition had to be relegated to the confines of an art gallery due to red tape-ism and supposed threats to the ecological balance. While this was indeed an ecologically sensitive zone, the proposed site had already been severely degraded due to illegal constructions and this depletion was what was proposed to be addressed through this exhibition. However, despite the obvious double standard, the exhibition was held, albeit in a much smaller scale than originally intended. While the success of the event may be questionable, it was made possible through the support of non-profit organisations and other local groups.
4.2 The In-between: Private Property/ Public Art
This section looks at the appropriation of private space for the display of public art. This practice is gathering momentum in Indian cities, as can be seen in the Lodhi Colony area of Delhi, which has emerged as an art district of sorts in recent years. An example of this mechanism is the mural done by the Aravani Art Project at KR Market, Bangalore.
From L to R – Fig. 11: “Digital Slavery” Mural by Sameer Kulavoor at Lodhi Colony, Delhi (Source: https://qz.com/india/1588999/lodhi-colony-delhi-is-indias-first-public-art-district/); Fig. 12: Mural by the Aravani Art Project in KR Market, Bangalore (Source: https://aravaniartproject.com/kr-markert_01#projects-1)
The project aimed to symbolically gesture the re-integration of the transgender community into the larger society. As seen in figure 12, the wall here is the society that the transgender women seek to camouflage into, thus ending the centuries-long alienation of the community. The project was a success in initiating dialogue between the transgender artists and curious bystanders. It is through this form of dialogue that they hope to rehabilitate their image in the eyes of contemporary society. Such art requires the support of individual property owners and provides considerable visibility and engagement. However, convincing owners remains an arduous task.
4.3 Illegal Art in the Public Realm
The third type of subversive imaginaries deals with illegal public art. An example of this type is the installation of multiple “stop” signs in Delhi by the graffiti artist who operates under the pseudonym, Daku. These stop signs were manipulated using stickers to display multiple messages including, “stop bribing,” “stop pretending,” “stop posing,” “stop honking,” etc.
From L to R – Fig. 13: “Stop Promising” Sign by Daku (Source: https://actipedia.org/project/stop-sign-takeover); Fig. 14: “Stop Pretending” Sign by Daku (Source: https://plaka-logika.blogspot.com/2016/10/meet-indias-banksy-graffiti-is-good_18.html)
The name, “Daku” is a pun on the illegality of the art form in itself – the artist portrays himself as a dacoit, a bandit, taking over the city’s walls in the darkness of night. The artist’s work carries strong and often provocative social and political messaging. Maintaining his anonymity affords him a degree of protection from the law while also inspiring curiousness and dialogue about his identity. Though the general public may not perceive graffiti as vandalism, it definitely is, in the eyes of the law. If caught, artists like Daku could face jail time or fines or a combination of both. It’s interesting to note that there is a way to subvert even this eventuality – a simple bribe, much smaller than the fine that could’ve been levied is enough to make this problem go away.
5.0 Public Art in the Margins
Art, as a medium of public dialogue, is highly relevant in the Indian public space, and by extension, the Indian democracy due to the degree of engagement it affords. Being confined to the margins however, public art is hampered by its limited reach and insufficient funding.
As shown by the examples presented in this article, the lack of a structured public space does not necessarily put a complete stop to the dissemination of artistic thought and free speech. Art survives in the in-betweens, finding space in the indeterminate circumstances that probably facilitate a more concentrated dialogue within both the respective mainstream and marginalised spaces in the city – it just does not manage to achieve it all at once. Thus, public engagement happens in pockets and the possibility of reaching wider publics are often slim. Nevertheless, one cannot deny the reality that a start has been made.
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Deustche, R. (1996). Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Douglas, M. (1966). Purity and Danger.
Habitat III. (2017). New Urban Agenda. United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development. Quito: United Nations.
Haedicke, S. C. (2013). Subversive Imaginaries: Performing the Other. In Contemporary Street Arts in Europe: Aesthetics and Politics (pp. 125-148). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Hoskyns, T. (2014). The Empty Place: Democracy and the Public Space. Routledge.
Srivathsan, A. (2003). City and Public Life – History of Public Spaces in Chennai. In F. Schiffer, & K. Kalpana (Eds.), Madras, The Architectural Heritage: An Intach Guide. Chennai: East West Books.
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