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Borders Are for Crossing: Dr Mel Jordan on the Public Sphere

As a new pathway focusing on the Public Sphere launches as part of the School of Fine Art’s Contemporary Art Practice programme, RCA Blog talks to Dr Mel Jordan, Reader in Art and the Public Sphere at the Royal College of Art and leader of the new Public Sphere MA pathway, which addresses the changing debates around public art and the public realm. 

Art & the Public Sphere Journal
Art and the Public Sphere Journal
RCA Blog: I think what you mean by the public sphere is different to the common conception. Could you elaborate?

The important thing to point out is that the public sphere is a discursive as opposed to a physical space, where values and opinions about society are discussed and developed through collective dialogue. Juergen Habermas’ 1962 publication, The Structural Transformation of the Bourgeois Public Sphere, charts the transformation of the public sphere, looking at the way liberal democracy was established, the breaking down of the monarch and church’s hold on society and the rise of the middle-classes – at that time, of course, dominated by white men. Habermas is one of the last of the Frankfurt School; he worked with Adorno. So the history of the public sphere is really the history of liberal democracy and European politics – and it tends to be rooted in Western democracy, but the processes of the public sphere can be used as a way to unpick any political system.

RCA Blog: So it’s less about artefacts that are created for public spaces and more about a mindset that wants to consider audience, political participation and social impact in relation to artistic practice?

Yes, art in or for public spaces might have been a straightforward concept when we had a nation state (when spaces were state-owned and controlled), but the minute you start to problematise the concept of the public – and ask what is public? who are the public? – then public art becomes immediately a much more complex construct. At the same time, things like relational aesthetics, the rise of social, dialogical and participatory practices, are now part of the conversation. Primary and secondary audiences, through mediation and documentation, complicate the viewing of artwork; meanings are not static, so maybe the manifestation of artworks shouldn’t be either?

The public sphere suggests that through dialogue we establish our values. If we can publish to each other, or in simple terms tell each other what we think, it changes our values and we go forward with new values. Thinking about art as a public sphere is interesting because it enables us to talk about and think about art as a way to establish our values, as opposed to responding to a manifestation of dominant values.

RCA Blog: So not the monumental sculpture in the town square?

Exactly. Although I do think we are seeking to understand what that type of public art does? Who it is for? What it announces, etc.? I would assert that art used to be a product of an apparent collective value that you could put in a plaza, and it’s cultural value would ‘rub off’ on the passer-by! But it’s more interesting to turn that round and say that public art is an enabler of values. It’s about all art and every artist’s approach to their own making. Art Historian Robert Garnett observed in the 1990s that public art is weirdly anomalous, because it’s the only art that doesn’t have a defined public. A public space is still a place for a public sphere to happen, but equally you can still be thinking and acting publically in a commercial space – the coffee shop is the original site of the public sphere, as a place to sit outside the private family home to speak and discuss the needs of the day. A public sphere is anywhere you can get together to meet and exchange ideas. 

Most of the students joining the pathway will be working in the public realm in some way, and to do that they have to understand what democracy means, not as an Oxford English Dictionary definition but as a nuanced complex idea; this will be the critical underpinning of their art practice. Our students are all contemporary artists. We’re not trying to turn them into political scientists just better, more politicised artists!  I’ve got some working in Peckham with ideas of community and publics, and one student is making sculptural installations using the internet as content, and investigating that type of public space.

Turner prize-winners Assemble, with their engagement with the public in the Liverpool Granby Four Streets project, for example, are representative of practices that have emerged in the UK and Europe since the 1990s. This work raises questions about who the participant is, where the democracy is. There are a whole load of ethical, moral questions and therefore political issues to be delved into, even if you’re dealing with interpersonal relations, you still need to understand the conditions of your practice in order to be able to reflect upon it.

RCA Blog: And reflecting on practice will change its relationship to society and politics?

I think art and politics needs to be revisited. There are some traditional ideas about artists’ engagement with the political – for example being a type of social realism or that the artist’s role is to reveal hidden information to a bigger audience or public. These ideas are usually suppressed by those keen to keep ideas of art more situated in the formally beautiful, therefore the social realist becomes the propagandist and the artist that critiques is the investigative journalist.

Artists can engage with politics in many ways. Our new course aims to support the questioning of art’s relationship to politics. Students will lead their own debates, and I’m certain that I will be surprised by their endeavours – they are sure to come up with ways to think about this that we haven’t imagined yet.

So the new pathway is not a technical introduction to public art practice and the pragmatics of commissioning public art – I just think there’s a much more interesting conversation to be had, that’s future facing. There are problems with public art as an art-historical term, because we don’t know what a public is and we don’t know what art is…!

RCA Blog: Jeremy Deller is the artist I can think of whose practice sounds closest to what you’re describing.

Yes, his practice is very interesting, as art that engages with recent political and historical events. I like to think of the pathway as ideas-led: the students who come to us are artists, not theorists. They are encouraged to understand ideas, histories and practices in order to support their practice, or even reject dominant ideas and propose new ones. We’re trying to get to grips with different ideas in order to inform and direct what new artists might produce. So we’re thinking about theories, not as totalising or as justifications for artwork, but as a springboard to think ‘I didn’t realise democracy operated like that, and that’s given me an idea for a work.’ Or even to be reflexive. There’s a student who is joining the pathway who’s spent two years running workshops for education spaces and galleries, and she wants to reflect on what happens when you work with people, and what are the types of exchanges that take place with different groups and communities?

RCA Blog: It sounds like you’re describing a shift, from artists coming to do a community workshop to artists thinking ‘This is my practice, this is what I do.’

Yes, exactly. And if that becomes your practice, you then have to think about the politics of what you’re doing. In the contemporary art world, because of the rise of biennales, all this work is been going on for over 20 years. In the UK there’s a longstanding tradition with artists like Artist Placement Group. The Mayday Rooms have a huge archive of different social and political British practices, for example the Poster Film Collective, who were working in the 1980s with, for example, women’s groups who were working for equal rights.

RCA Blog: It sounds like the right time to be introducing this pathway.

Yes, surprisingly there is not much provision for this type of practice. These ideas tend to be considered as part of Fine Art conditions of display rather than a dedicated specialist way of working. Our course recognises the types of knowledge that you need to produce and reflect on this type of practice.

There are a lot of networks, formal and informal that are moving towards an interest in this area. We’re part of the Nine Elms Tate Exchange project – they want to bring people together from the regions – Gas Works, Beaconsfield, Battersea Power Station, Nine Elms Regeneration Group. The activities were curated by Tate Learning, using things like socially engaged art practice with the collections, to interrogate collections, and the next stage is that Tate Exchange partners from all over the country will curate exhibitions and events at Tate, London.

I’ve been working with the Learning Department there to develop a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership to work with Tate Exchange, so our work on the public sphere will be in collaboration with a strong partner. We are presenting at the AHRC Common Ground event in June this year.

I think the sector knows that there’s all this work’s been going on for a long time now, and is becoming interested in how you think about it, reflect on it, provide for it. There’s a really important shift, based on Kester and Bishop’s arguments about antagonism and agonism, and who the participant and the public is. And the continuing discussion – since Dada even – about what art is for, what its function is, who’s its audience, who’s the viewer, spectator, onlooker, and what do they do.

There’s 20 years of thinking and structures like biennales utilising these ways of working. When Artist Placement Group were thinking about this in the 1970s there was less infrastructure. They were the ones who brought the artists in schools project to the Arts Council… It came from artists working in social ways. There’s been a lot of critique about that. What are we doing when we help someone socially? Who do we think we are? There’s been enough work done for people to extend that debate art historically and formally within art practice.

RCA Blog: And presumably into presentation and interpretation too?

Yes, there’s a growing concern with interpretation in museums – who is your public, what’s your voice, and even in terms of artefacts, technology and evaluation, which is usually ethnographic and anthropological. You can ask someone whether they ‘enjoyed’ a work of art, but that’s limiting, and problematic for practices that don’t have object-based outcomes.

I’m really interested in interpretation with regard to action in the public realm, and addressing what is the role of the body, action, act – because the history of social art practice is about action not interpretation, it’s not pictorial, it’s not concerned with interpreting visual meaning. There’s a different relationship to doing something in the public realm that is action-based and doesn’t come out of a post-structuralist, linguistic decoding of images. Dissensus and consensus are interesting too. People find dissensus challenging, but conversations are better and longer when people disagree! 


Mel Jordan is an artist who works with Dave Beech and Andy Hewitt as the Freee art collective, and principal editor of the journal Art & the Public Sphere.

Find out more about the Public Sphere pathway in the Contemporary Art Practice programme and how to Apply.