Public Ideals

Published in Prefix Photo 9, May 2004



Plainly written in black and orange on signs along the Vancouver gridlock, we are repeatedly told to expect delays. We are prepared in this ambiguous way for a vague problem on the horizon. During the spring of 2003, these signs also unwittingly became part of a canny marketing campaign for a series of art works that were sprung on the public in spaces around the city. In this case, the delays we were warned to expect were not just an adjustment to our estimated time of arrival, but also delays to our habitual negotiation of public space, turning an inconvenience into a pleasurable digression. In my own avid observation of these projects, I became interested in the artists’ use of language, performed or printed, how their writing and speech might sit in a sporadic history of a few texts that have been allowed to intrude into Vancouver’s public spaces. And further: how have these words addressed concepts of an ideal public?




Within the press copy supporting the Expect Delays project, the works are described as intervening or infiltrating public space. Intervention, a troublesome term, translates as coming between, often associated with the use of force. Infiltration, more fluid, suggests a mobile agenda deployed in hostile territory. The oppositional inflection of the terms presupposes a state of affairs, of fixed points between or through which to enter. These two terms perhaps overstate the relationship between the art produced for Expect Delays and the places where they were presented, for this relationship was far more complex, yet these terms introduce Kathleen Ritter’s curatorial premise that the work disrupts some aspect of an ideal public. These projects do not challenge the public ideal through possessing space in the way objects might. Nor do they ‘integrate’ with public space in terms of accepted ideas of ‘community involvement’, an approach that presumes that, as Rosalyn Deutsche noted when writing about some forms of public art, “the task of democracy is to settle, rather than sustain, conflict6. These works also resist ‘engagement’, a benign term currently popular with the cultural bureaucracies mandated to manage the relationship between art and audiences:

“In diversifying audiences and programming, the objective is that the presenters active in a community reach out to as many Canadian citizens as possible, with the widest array of artistic experiences. Though a presenter may specialize in a discipline or a genre, they may diversify their audience so as to reflect as closely as possible the make up of their community. A presenter may also specialize in reaching a particular sector of the community, in which case they may seek to present the widest possible array of artistic experiences to their audience.”

Is an artistic experience still an artistic experience when the audience is unprepared to be an audience?




Moving through the spatial page of the written city we citizens engage in a distracted and flickering kind of reading, as we decode instructions, warnings, public service announcements and more than anything, graphic entreaties to consume. Tipped off by the codes of their material realization – vinyl or steel, LED or bronze, handbills and flyers – we skillfully sort and classify this writing by genre and author. This endless and unfixed work of fiction reiterates detailed instructions on how to be in public space. All idealized behaviour — consuming, obeisant, disciplined and harmoniously participatory — must be reinforced, and the definition of the ideal citizen in a ‘multi-cultural’ capitalist democracy, as played out within a rapidly changing city, must be constantly coached. Written instructions adorn buildings and storefronts, and heroically placed billboards caption our ever-present, bossy landscape of mountain-tops and beaches. Murmurings and forceful utterances of spoken language in the street, in the lecture theatre, overheard in a washroom; are texts that maintain a closer index to their authors, and flow through the spaces around the sanctioned writing.

The Expect Delays projects all have some relationship to text, whether within the composition of the work, or within the structures that support its presentation. Indeed, it was quite possible to never encounter the work directly, yet gain an understanding of it through a designated website, scheduled talks and discussions, and through a toll free telephone line. The project’s conceptual framework appealed to the press and media, resulting in interviews on national radio and in newspapers, creating secondary texts. The division between the work and its marketing tools was destabilized, and many of the works used the syntax of marketing to deliver an ambiguous message. In performance and in the speech that surrounded them, these projects come to be known through anecdote, description and reputation.

“Attica! Attica! Attica!”

“Going back to the question of the public, one of the aims and targets of that whole tradition – whether it was surrealism, whether it was the radical critiques of the Frankfurt School, whether it was the constructivists, from what we could call the first avant-garde tradition that grew up in the 1910s and had its great crisis in the 1930s – was that we can never accept these notions that the public exists, defined in that way…. But I think that we had to recognize that the art we admired always hypothesized a future public, that didn’t necessarily exist now, but that could be imagined, and that one could work for, to build a culture that was different than the one you were stuck in at the moment.”

“The truth is out there”

“Attica! Attica! Attica!”

Pacino’s ideal public is a group of witnesses that remember the past: Wall’s has yet to arrive. Moulder’s has been and left. Playing around between the ideal market niche of ad men, the future perfect of modernist dreams and engaged Canadian citizenry, the artists in Expect Delays make use of a range of dialects. The language of aggressively vulnerable speech; hyperbolic public service – of ‘helping’, of mediation, facilitation and consensus trust – the diary updates of an athlete performing a feat of endurance, scripts from the confessional, the shopping channel and cult classics are re-tooled and tagged on to the city’s Table of Contents. They operate in the terrain where the ideal public of modernist art practice, the optimized consumers of cultural experiences and the modern practitioners of social engineering convene. They act as if they are the public — unpredictable, with a calculated spontaneity, an arranged disorder, orchestrated improvisation, and perhaps disingenuous sincerity.

Sources of Quoted Texts:
2010 Olympic Bid Committee, Billboard, Clark and Powell Streets, 2003
Engineering Department, City of Vancouver
Simon Fraser University Installed on building façade at Hastings and Richards; bronze
Henry Tsang From “Welcome to the Land of Light”, 1997
John Marriott, From Incidental Park Zones, 200_
Deutsche, Rosalyn, Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996, page 270.
Government of Canada, Definition of Terms, Arts Presentation Canada, Department of Canadian Heritage
Lawrence Weiner, Installed on architrave of Vancouver Art Gallery, 1990
Kathryn Walter, Installed above the entrance of the former site of the Contemporary Art Gallery, now the Or Gallery, 1990.
Kristy Thompson, etched on one hundred small trophies, placed through the city.
Al Pacino in ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ Jeff Wall, “An Evening Forum at the VAG”, VAG Documents,1990
Agent Moulder , Xfiles Pilot, 199_
The Norma Collective, Dog Day Afternoon, Performance, 2003