Climbing the irregularly set wooden stairs to greyworld’s London studio, I felt I was entering a workshop of practical delights. Director Andrew Shoben and I embarked immediately on a fast-paced, wide-ranging conversation spanning the ethics, the aesthetics, the hostilities and the joys of art in the public space.

Politics and the practical

What does public art do? How does it work? Andrew’s work is not on a mission to reprogram a city’s distributions and flows; rather, greyworld aims to engage as many people as possible in a creative act. Their work has been presented all over the world, including in Australia, and play is at its core. “We’re always looking for easy-to-understand metaphors that need no explanation for interaction, like the Clockwork key, and the Tail.” Didactic texts are not right for public space; they risk talking down, rather than opening the possibility for connection and play. “Our work has to operate for the people who are on their way to buy a can of beans. They’re not there for my art, they’re there to do something completely different, so I have to capture them in a millisecond.”

Giving people the choice to opt out is just as important as trying to capture them – a lesson greyworld learned the hard way via The Layer in the Greenwich Foot Tunnel. The Layer was a long blue carpet that translated people’s footsteps into sound as they walked through. It was an experiment in articulating the transit space, one of the many urban voids we experience daily. Unexpectedly, however, Andrew and his team found themselves watching people trying to sidestep the work by using the only available option: a 10cm clearance at its edges. The last thing a public space work should do is arouse hostility or generate tension – apart from the artistic tension that the work is there to inspire you to resolve.

Joy and hostility

A hostile response is the last thing Andrew wants; he is sensitive to work’s relationship to the public space in which it is sited, and which it plays a part in developing. A moment of individual joy that sparks a connection with another, with a stranger, with the possibility for more such encounters, with a sense for a public space that’s not alienating, congested and commercial, but a place of community and belonging. This necessitates an orientation to the work and to its audience that’s open and generous, rather than an obstruction or an imposition on space and time.

Gallery work does not simply transpose into the public space; the public space is never a blank slate. “If you want to do something utterly and completely personal, without any reference to anything else, you can do that in a gallery – and they’re designed for that. To create a work without any reference to the environment in which sited in the public space, I think is an act of complete arrogance.”

Negotiation and process

Andrew describes permissions, project management and negotiation as 90% of his work. It’s essential to the outcome, but Andrew doesn’t see this process as part of the work – not in the same way as advocacy, which he sees as essential to each work. The activity of describing, championing and post-rationalising a work is a generative process, both in terms of developing ideas as well as developing audiences. We find that we share a passionate interest in the essential, interconnected role of advocacy.

Works in public space need protection from a range of future events, from property development to the poor placement of a rubbish bin. What if the work becomes damaged, displaced, altered in some way following its completion – even if that’s years later? This was the topic of a lengthy discussion, given the Clockwork Forest pieces in the Grizedale Forest were not being maintained adequately by the Forestries Commission, despite their clear responsibility as custodians. It’s a messy problem that artists are starting to explore legally, for example by ensuring that contracts have juxtaposition and transposition clauses that survive the contract term. “I have a moral right,” Andrew asserts with confidence, but “I certainly don’t have a financial or fiduciary right.” Often the only alternative is to get on the phone and appeal to the conscience, entering the goodwill economy rather than drawing confidently on clearly documented rights. There’s a set of sensitives here that are difficult to codify, because their articulation is as complex as defining the public space itself. By the same token, there’s been a rapid shift in property developers’ understanding of the commercial benefits of public art, to the extent that Andrew was once asked: “How much extra do you think we could charge our tenants for having your work here?” The gentrification loop draws ever smaller.

What’s next for greyworld?

Right now, greyworld are busy creating a Clockwork Forest in Russia for Manifesta 10. And then? “We’re making a fucking awesome installation!” I feel like I’d be giving something significant away if I were to tell you more, but please take my word for it when I tell you that greyworld’s next project is a human-powered work of delight – and of audacious scale. Nonetheless, the work will retain the greyworld values of lightweight impact and camouflaged force. “I don’t want to make a spaceship that’s landed in the city!” Andrew exclaims.

Public space, public voice

“Public space, to us, means owned by the city,” says Andrew, with the historical inclosed land laws “making sure that the common man, without a feudal lord, always had the space to graze his cattle – and it’s been public space since the Domesday Book.” In many parts of the world, land that appears to be public space is actually privately controlled by commercial or retail interests, meaning that art created for such sites remains there only at the whim of the property managers, and the authority to show work can be revoked at any time. As in Australia, it’s most often at the level of local council that the biggest impact can be made, with one good arts officer making all the difference to the possibility or impossibility, success or failure of a work. It’s vital to recognise who your advocates are when you’re negotiating for the public space – the most complex working environment.

Art, of course, creates public space just as determinately as it reframes the public space from which it emerged as a work. Once installed, a work of art gravitates a field of engagement, marking a clear territory around which public anonymity might momentarily be transformed into a meaningful connection. Years ago, two people met at Clockwork Forest, and then years later, returned there to propose marriage… We discuss the psychogeography of the unplanned city (versus the grid): the modes of encounter that are possible in cities like London and Paris (compared to Melbourne) where the urban horizon lacks depth of field, yet more than makes up for that in the rich meanderings it welcomes. The boundaries between public, commercial and private space are blurred, making the placement of the artwork all the more important.

We stop seeing public monuments, despite their intended impact on the city, hoping to tell forever the stories of great leaders past. The static expression of someone else’s values (“Why is he on a horse?” Andrew exclaims. “Why can’t I get on a horse?”) inevitably remains a top-down intervention, an arrogance, a spaceship. A public work needs to be made by and for the site to which it is forever responsive and responsible.

“Your work needs to spring from the city,” Andrew says, “it needs to be derived from the city, it needs to take the piss out of the city, it needs to do something with the city, to reflect the city, to reject the city – but it cannot ignore it.”


Image: Andrew Shoben in mid-thought in greyworld’s London studio. Photo by Esther Anatolitis.