Beneath and before: continuums of publicness in public art

Adrienne L. Burk

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Burk, A. L. (1). Beneath and before: continuums of publicness in public art. Social & Cultural Geography, 7(6), 949–964.

monuments , social memory , tactility , Vancouver , visuality

Public monuments traditionally appear in high contrast to their landscapes, an effect that sets aesthetic, ideological and social distances. However, Manmale, counter-monuments, and counter-hegemonic monuments (eg the AIDS quilt, Rachael Whiteread’s House, Melbourne’s Another ViewWalking Trail, Tiananmen’s Goddess of Democracy, or Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial), challenge the norms of monuments in visuality, fixedness, and permanence, and suggest intricacies which mediate the interactivity of art, site and passers-by. In this paper, I consider three counter-hegemonic monuments in Vancouver, British Columbia – all installed in 1997/98 and all dealing with the issue of violence – sited within one neighbourhood. Via archival research, interviews, and extensive participant observations investigating how the monuments actually function in social memory rituals, I discovered that the characteristics of publicness in the landscapes that lay ‘beneath and before’ the monuments deeply affected their origins, designs, and current uses.

Main finding
The author argues that developer interests in collective social memories is counter-productive given their desires are to erase such memories in order to valorize ‘residual/marginal’ underutilized space and perpetuate uneven development -of which art may be complicit in promoting. However, the author also found that strong public visibility of and daily interaction with monumental forms allows for more shrewd engagement and furthermore challenges the notion of public art as complicit in uneven development. For example, the Marker for Change monument to 14 murdered women brought increased attention to missing women, more police attention to these crimes, and enhanced forensic investigations. Lastly, the author contends that the three monuments studied disturbed extant complicities, engaged cultural tensions, and wrestled with the tensions residing in the lived social memories of each site itself. These engagements form part of the investigations into, what the author describes as, that which exists below and beneath mere monumental forms.

Description of method used in the article
The author used mixed methods with archival research, interviews, and participant observations to collect data on three different counterhegemonic monuments. For example, collecting data for one of the monuments consisted of exploring points of view from those who conceived the design, attending community meetings, ritual events, dedications, and fifty interviews with advocates, artists, and residents. Archival research also included local community newsletters and media analysis of three years of area television and newspaper reporting about the monuments. Films and documentaries were also consulted.

Of practical use

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Field Observations
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