With the alleged imminent prospect of a recession and the current languished monetary state of the British cultural sector, one might expect Nottingham’s artists to exhibit dispositions as sorrowful and empty as the Arts Council’s pockets; disillusioned as a capitalist fat cat staring down the barrel of economic crisis. On the contrary, spirits seemed remarkably high the evening of the 28 January when an eclectic bunch of artists, curators and members of the general public came together for Hinterland’s event, Art on the Big Track.
The event acted as a unification between Hinterland, an organization focusing on the commissioning of artists projects taking place principally along the banks of the River Trent and The Big Track, ten miles of car-free scenic serenity traversing both the rural and urban landscape of Nottingham and its neighbouring boroughs; a spoke of Nottingham’s new transformative transport initiative The Big Wheel.
After an introductory talk from one of Hinterland’s founding members Jennie Syson, artists Marcus Coates, John Newling, Neil Cummings and curator Sophie Hope gave individual presentations on their own work and around some of the pivotal ideologies of public art. Coates spoke of the subversive implications of plonking a billboard in the middle of a publicly frequented forest and illuminated the potentially beneficial repercussions of such controversial interventions. John Newling contemplated the importance of social and political permanency in public art and talked of his ongoing work The Preston Market Mystery Project in which shoppers at John’s stall were invited to exchange their experiences of mystery for insurance certificates.
Following this the unsuspecting attendees were divided into four separate discussion groups and were asked to assume the roles of archetypal artists, curators, commissioners and local residents, irregardless of their actual categorical placement within one of these factions. From the standpoint of their respective groups people were asked to consider what, for them - or at least for their appropriated persona, would constitute successful public art. An exercise that at first seemed somewhat futile in fact transpired to be quite engaging and elucidated personal considerations regarding public art that many may not have previously acknowledged.
So what, you might ask, is public art? Well, to my mind the answer lies in the question. Public art is just that, art that exists within the public realm or the public domain, free from the constraints of the conventional white cube, hailing inclusiveness and social interactivity as its raison d’être. The impetus of the event was to explore this notion of public art, to consider its pertinence amongst the canon of contemporary artistic practice and particularly to initiate a discourse on the potential of art in public spaces along The Big Track.
The concluding words of the evening came from the recently appointed director of CCAN, Alex Farquharson who poignantly dropped a little gem of profundity borrowed from 1960’s art movement Fluxus exclaiming that, “Art is what makes life better than art”. I think this sums up rather beautifully what I believe to be the central concerns of art in the public domain. A salutary art form – producing good effects – that encourages philanthropy in its curators and commissioners and ultimately works to extend the boundaries of arts reach to encompass the societies which most work would purport to target. Left hanging in the air was a real buzz of optimism, we can only look forward to things to come from Art on the Big Track, Hinterland and all the possibilities that the future of public art in Nottingham might afford.
Art on The Big Track took place at The Boat Club on 28 January 2008