Looking at Public Art Under The Paving Stones

A Backstreet in Chapeltown

A back street in Chapeltown with the city centre in the distance

I went to a great discussion last night on public art organised by East Street Arts: what public art is, who does it, and how and why. A lot to think about in a couple of hours. Chaired by Roddy Hunter, head of fine art at York St John University, and with thoughtful contributions from Professor Franco Bianchini from Leeds Metropolitan University and artist and educator David Harding (whose Public Art Index is a superb resource on the subject), the discussion aired a number of challenging and important questions, and I was only sorry that I had to leave before the informal conversations which followed in the second half of the evening.

The event took place in the Leeds Ukrainian Club (which I had been driving past and wanting to go inside for years!) as part of the Under The Paving Stones festival of public art taking place in the Chapeltown area of Leeds this week. As the excellent UTPS blog explains it:

Under the Paving Stones, the Beach is a translation of the Situationist International slogan ‘sous les pavés, la plage’ used during the protests of May ’68 in Paris. The slogan refers to both the practice of lifting paving stones by rioters to use against police in demonstration but also the possibility of imagining the city beyond what is obvious in our current social and urban organisation. Both ideas are relevant in Chapeltown, a place known both for its incredible – but often overlooked – multicultural and archeological importance as well as its – very well documented – social problems and violent past.

Chapeltown Road, just up from ESA's Union 105

Chapeltown Road, just up from ESA's Union 105

So true. I pass through Chapeltown every day for one reason or another, but I feel ashamed to say that in 20 years I have rarely stopped and ambled the streets. There have been days where I did stop the car, park, and get out to wander around and about just to “see”. Just to get a sense of a place I only experienced through a car windscreen. It’s fair to say that Chapeltown’s continual bad press at one time did not encourage lingering around on street corners. It was, for example, a haunt of the Yorkshire Ripper thirty years ago. Then there were the Chapeltown riots. And up to a decade ago, I knew people who had been car-jacked at one particular traffic junction.

Anyway, things have changed a lot in recent years. Chapeltown’s recapturing of its identity has been wonderful to see, and this week’s festival reflects the changing vibes in the area.

ESA: Under The Paving Stones

ESA: Under The Paving Stones... the discussions

Which brings me back to public art. One of the interesting observations made by Franco Bianchini referred to the role of the artist in the public realm in revealing and discovering the complex layering of a place: mapping its identity in a way designers and city marketing people just don’t do. I liked the phrase ‘cultural cartographer”. It resonated with the way I perceive and respond to places I encounter.

But it was a couple of comments from David Harding which really set me thinking. First, he observed the lack of opportunity for serious critical feedback for art in the public realm. I agree; the all-too-frequent loud public feedback is response of a kind, but usually too emotional and unconsidered to substitute for real critical evaluation with the artists. And when significant public funding is involved, it is not good enough. But Harding also dared to diplomatically question the success of a great deal of community and socially involved art: I was left wishing he had been less diplomatic because I would have liked to have heard more of a response to this. Art in the public realm cannot afford to be bad too often. Someone quite fairly pointed out that even a poor piece of community art may depending on the criteria be judged a huge success, but the fact remains that once in the public realm for any significant length of time, an artwork cannot avoid being judged on its intrinsic worth as art.

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