“One Percent for Art” (with Jelena Vesić), for Heapsteps 1-9, Nine projects in the public space

Written: November 2008.

Published as 1% for art” in Heapsteps 1-9, Nine projects in the public space (catalogue/art project: Machiel Braaksma), VHDG, Leeuwarden, Netherlands, 2008.

1% for art

by Jelena Vesić & Vladimir Jerić Vlidi

“One day I said to the other four members that maybe we could let it be known that we would look with favor on bidders who offered to spend 1% of construction costs on frescoes, murals, bas-reliefs, mosaics, stained-glass windows, and fountains with statuary in or around them…. The psychologists and efficiency experts now find that beauty increases productivity. It necessarily follows that true functionalism in man-made edifices must include artistic expression. Sterility and her handmaiden, monotony, must be banished.”

From the speech by Michael von Moschzisker, then chairman of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, at the National Conference of Editorial Writers, on the occasion of the introduction a “percent for art” public art funding scheme, as quoted in Time magazine, Friday, July 13, 1962.

Public space and the World City

August 2008.

Just outside the Hachiko exit from Shibuya station, Tokyo, Japanese fascists were holding yet another rally – well, it was more of a speech, to be accurate – and apart from a few Nazis in cosplay uniforms, not many people bothered to stop and listen for even a minute to the guy yelling from the rooftop of the van. Shibuya station is one busy place; at any one time, when the lights turn green, about fifteen hundred people rush to cross the intersection on the square in front of the subway exit. The man on the van kept on shouting in a very theatrical manner – apparently it was something against China, and that was as much as gaijin like me could understand. The sound from the small, loud but not really accurate PA system created another acoustic layer within the otherwise very sonically vivid environment of the location. People talking and buzzing, huge screens addressing you with commercials, new J-pop releases being played from different devices, a sound of Pachinko slot machines all over the place, and now this irritating voice – something as close to Hitler speaking Japanese as I could imagine – the soundscape was anything but calm. No one seemed to mind or pay special attention: it felt like it was the usual setting for the local people. Apparently, this lack of any significant audience did not discourage the screaming Nazi. He continued to do his thing with the same vigour for quite some time.

At one point, a woman appeared – middle-aged, with the body of a professional dancer or gymnast, all dressed in black – and, in a very slow but resolute manner, took off her shoes and put down her bag, walked several metres from the very centre of the small plaza right in front of the main exit doors, and suddenly started to perform. The act was stunning, and right from the beginning I couldn’t keep my eyes off it. It resembled a mixture of a dance and a rapid series of epileptic seizures with occasional episodes of falling down and crumbling on the pavement. Actually, it is very hard to describe what it looked like without the help of a video: try to get some footage of Joy Division live, find any part where Ian Curtis is dancing, and watch it on fast forward, maybe 8 times the speed; that should be close. Her face, in mime, expressed ultimate agony, all the time, but she performed in complete silence, not even the sound of heavy breathing could be heard nor the usual “huh” and “hah” when doing something physically very demanding. So the dominant sound was still the never-stopping voice of Hitler-san, as if she deliberately wanted to keep it that way. On a second thought, maybe that was the most uncanny thing in her entire appearance – the sound, or rather the complete lack of it. I made a few photos and short movies of the event, noticing, again, that most of the people passing by never stopped to take a second look at what was happening.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JIzvCvjk8uw&w=1280&h=720]

Even if it feels as if, aesthetically, it is somewhat stuck in the 1980s, the cityscape of Tokyo, like any modern urban structure, produces a very powerful and “loud” (in every sense of the word) environment. A sign or an event aimed at catching the public attention in order to criticise or propose alternatives or even to address and settle accounts with the setting itself could maybe enter into the battle with a single building or a cultural artefact such as one big display or some such, but it would be impossible to conduct the war with the spectacularised high-rise setting for 40 million people from this tactical position; any attempt to do so would be swallowed effortlessly by the setting itself. It is not just that bigger and more numerous ‘dead’ objects would swallow smaller and other outnumbered ‘dead’ objects, and that the wall of big screens will always overshadow a banner or a graffiti; in super-urban structures, the sheer volume of the human bodies on the move and the expected diversity in the presentational and behavioural patterns of the bodies – all this effectively prevents most of the possible interventions from being visible. We learn to expect anything, and that anything is possible, thus it could be placed somewhere in the mental map of being possible and considered as ‘normal’; in order to bend this powerful setting of ‘common reality’, a language that is stronger than a single body or several in an unusual position or dressed in an unusual way has to be applied. This constellation may not, as yet, be a given condition to the sub-urban settlements, for example of European mausoleum-like small cities which tend to be hysterically preserved and conserved and where the populatio n, like everything else, is exposed to the process of halting the future continuity of development by being oriented towards historical continuity of ‘building identity’; but 2007 marked the end of the dominance of non-urbanity, being a tipping point from when the majority of the human population will live in urban structures, and this trend will only continue…

In Hachiko we trust – public space and public art between the intervention, the sculpture and the statue

Back to Shibuya. It appeared that one particular thing did manage to hold the permanent attention of the most of the visitors and passers-by: everybody explored, adored and took photos of family and friends by the not-so-very-large statue of Hachiko, placed somewhat to the left of the exit. Now, Hachiko was a dog. A dog with its statue on the square, and one that has officially give his name to this Shibuya station exit. But still, it was a dog, and one that died in 1935…

I’m sure that there are lots of grounds for accepting the local specificities regarding the status of Hachiko and to claim that the story of the faithfulness of a dog, who kept on returning to the station and waiting for his late master at the same hour each day for 20 years, had a specific significance in a given period of history. But this is 2008. For quite some time Japan has been a contemporary, hybrid society, and most of the people gathering around the monument were born in the 1970s or 1980s. Or even the 1990s. Why has everybody, young and old, decided that the most interesting thing is this decades-old monument to a dog? To further claim that this virtue of loyalty, or faithfulness, is still able to shine out against the super-loud (especially in a visual way) setting of Shibuya, or to overshadow both the Nazi rally and the woman’s outstanding performance, to claim that it comes from tradition, or that it is reactionary, simply does not work. It could be reactionary if applied to the notions of a nation or a family; it could be revolutionary if applied to a progressive idea or ethics; but obviously, in its abstract sense (if we accept that it exists ‘outside of ideology’), it is still able to penetrate in all directions and on many levels, making it possible for the small statue of the dog to somehow dominate the public space, otherwise clogged with a myriad of different spectacularly presented offerings and choices… So does the direction in which interventionism should be developed in order to ‘deliver the message’ lie in examining and applying those basic and, at a first glance, ‘simple’ and naive relationships, which still seem to ‘just work’ under any circumstances? Did we not agree at one point either that ‘universal values’ could never be established, or that the very concept of ‘universal’ might be a dangerously reactionary thing in itself? Confused as I was, the best thing I could decide to do was to stop next to Hachiko myself and smoke a cigarette or two: one of the rare places in which you are allowed to smoke outdoors at Shibuya is precisely next to this small bronze monument…

Against this backdrop of Blade Runner-style giant screens and audio commercials and in the midst of the constant flux of human bodies mainly consisting of futuristic-looking young people, from the perspective of being in the centre of this Nazi speech / public performance / statue of the dog triangle, very different characters of different constituents of this huge public display somehow show themselves to be clearly opposite to each other.

After public: counter-public?

Why did I instantly assume that the woman’s performance was a reaction to the Nazi speech on the square? Nazi imagery and communicational patterns we don’t need to comment – however much any reactions to fascists could be different and geopolitically dependent, all Nazis are pretty much alike. Was it because she ‘kept’ the sound of a speech without introducing her own audio? Or maybe she does this at exactly the same time once a week, and this is just a coincidence, completely unrelated? Still I decided that it was a sort of response, maybe because most of the public art considered as contemporary and progressive seems to be somehow reactive. This kind of political act and artistic expression comes to be expected, as it appears that there is almost always an artivistic critique of any visible move of the advancing culture of global open-source capitalism, and that it is precisely the critique that recognises and validates the move, rendering it political.

Currently being programmed to see this constellation as I do, the this performance had to be perceived as a reaction, a complementary and expected critique…

One more thing: when I said that most of the attention at the entire Shibuya station was given to the statue of Hachiko, that wasn’t entirely true – the monument was the most attractive thing ‘visible’.

In absolute terms, you would not perceive the most prevailing ‘public’ experience if you were not logged in to whatever digital networks are popular at the moment: most of the people would stare at what was happening on the other side of the small screens of their keitai, mobile devices which are permanently online, and the evolution of what most of us still call a mobile phone. Or they would be busy recording or typing something, creating the other side of the screen for somebody out there. But, that is, at the same time, a closely related and a completely different story…