How does art create public space?

What kinds of public spaces are made by creative interventions? (What kinds of public spaces are made without creative intervention?) How can we contest the public space? What is the language of that contest? And what comes next?

xCommunicate invited practitioners across all public-facing disciplines to orient their work in relation to some timely provocations: The Local Vernacular, Innovation or Alienation?, and finally, Future Connections. Spanning art, design, architecture, urban informatics, digital literacy, science, technology, urban screens, performance, festivals, ubiquitous computing, distribution systems and community cultural development (CCD), this was a densely inspiring day – with plenty of new collaborations about to emerge.

I had the delicious task of framing our day with a set of provocations that would illuminate the symposium’s curation, creating new connections and new disjunctions between the perspectives of the presenters. In such incredibly diverse disciplinary company, this was quite the challenge. I began with a historical perspective on the first creative interventions in public space – ancient time-keeping monuments; mediaeval town square clocks; late C19th illuminations of the nocturnal city – as well as presenting a personal perspective on the symposium theme through a brief catalogue of my public projects. I closed by offering some tensions at the overlap points: intervention/iteration; situation/irritation; intimate/spectacle.

The symposium presented three key platforms with very chatty breaks in between. Here’s my Storify of the day’s discussion.

In The Local Vernacular, John Kirkman offered ICE‘s work as a solid engagement with suburban stories, while Alexia Estrellado presented dLux‘s grounded approach to CCD. Bruce Ramus wowed us with a practice that spans the intimate and the spectacular like no other I know, while Martin Tomitsch took us from monumental selfie to real meaning through a range of studies. Cindi Drennan closed the session with a timely reminder that the precision work of projection mapping goes hand-in-hand with a strong focus on its local communities and spaces.

In Innovation or Alienation?, Matt Jones took us through the Federation Square approach to  urban screens,  while visiting artist Christine Coulange presented a deeply longitudinal approach through her rich collection of multimedia objects from decades of global travels, composed and recomposed for public presentation. Jacina Leong and Laura Landmann explored digital literacy from the standpoint of the library as public space, and Vicki Sowry offered a set of ANAT projects which were realised or unrealised, offering some very constructive case studies on the precarious nature of highly ambitious public projects that are outcomes-oriented.

And in Future Connections, we delved deeper yet into the day’s themes. Hank Haeusler discussed media façades and transport systems; Troy Innocent offered us an alternative ontology through game-built micro nations; George Khut showed projects of biofeedback that extend the experience of the body into the public sphere; Marcus Foth talked urban informatics and the collaborative creation of the city itself, as well as its potential for digital upgrade.

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A final panel gave several of us the opportunity to lead the many sets of discussions that were about to emanate into the performance space with Christine’s work, as well as the many discussions to follow. A range of themes oblique to the day but constructive to its thread made up my framing of our discussion. Mirrors and mirroring had been a theme, in George’s embodied works and Martin’s  selfies of course, but also, in the aesthetic and the political ways in which individuals and communities have the strong desire to see ourselves expressed in our public spaces, alongside the desire to overcome their alienation. The primacy of context and content over technology: the need to avoid the seduction of the shiny gadget – or the expectations of the client. The role of the designer in the political process and in the political discourse. The role of individual agency in making our place, city, nation, world, time – and the role of the creative practitioner in all of its ethical and political dimensions. Play too emerged as a strong theme, particularly in the very final moment of the closing discussion where – among some very big questions about setting global agendas and making the kind of world we want to live in – we touched on the micropractices of strategic intervention that had characterised each presentation in some way.

How can art create public space? With care, with honesty and with rigour. It takes a great many disciplines to create the public space, and far too few to undermine it. The distributive potential of the work presented was the most powerful element of xCommunicate. The future of the public space is the story of the systems we create for open-ended collaboration. It’s a future we design together.


xCommunicate was a one-day symposium held on Friday 5 June 2015 at UNSW Art & Design as part of the Vivid Ideas program. Curated and produced by UTV with Lubi Thomas. My Storify captures the day’s discussion as shared via Twitter.