Public Space as the Space of Collective Consciousness

By Matthias Schamp




Before asking what art in the public space is or has the potential to be, one should consider what actually constitutes the reality of public space. In general it is understood as physical space, and in most cases as common (for the community) accessible empty space between buildings. Art considered in this context - drop sculptures or installative - becomes as object, slotting into the ensemble of things and the gaps between them that the world is held to represent.

In fact, the reality of our lives is very much determined by factors which cannot be reduced to simple necessity, but which inherit a certain abstract existence.

Take for example any political party. Of course party offices, lists of members, meeting rooms etc. are of necessity, and all are phenomena of an undoubtedly concrete nature. But the party in itself is something which goes beyond the individual elements of its concrete appearance: A social reality - with all interpretative forms included - that consciously forms the virtual content for its party members alone. Or let us take a loophole in the law as an example. Naturally, the circumstances of its existence leads to action, which is visible as such. However, the loophole itself remains abstract - just as laws are written in the form of paragraphs, but come to exist as social edicts. These are acknowledged by citizens as threats of sanction, and therefore they succeed in limiting the actions and behaviour of those citizens. Or take the signs of the zodiac as an example: Indeed there are no interstellar connecting lines in the sky, which make a star sign visible. But by the striking brightness of individual stars, one could consider their positioning in relation to other stars, and combine them together into groupings - a phenomenon of psychological shaping. Signs of the zodiac are constructions which are based on the projective ability of the consciousness. These have been accepted as cultural-historical reality, though they have in fact been passed down over the centuries. Or we could take rumour, as an another example: Though one can not say from where a rumour appears, it evidently leads to a public manifestation, reproducing itself like wildfire. These and similar phenomena which evidently form our world, are in themselves abstract. Their essence is informational or social. They are based on orders or on punctuation. They could also be models of thought - large figures of thought set into space. The space where they exist is the collective conscious. Inasmuch as they go hand in hand with their concrete manifestation in physical space, they do not comprise the phenomena themselves, but form sort of entry hatches into those mental constructions which represent the phenomena.

These phenomena as such arise in and through communication. But since communication does not happen without any means, a connection between physical space and the space of collective consciousness is constantly given - after all, the latter is not just the hum of pure apparition. Nevertheless, the two spaces are not congruent but are merely related to each other.

The mental figures set into the space are evidently existent although they are abstract in the sense that their direct physical comprehension in the physical space is not allowed - they are cultural products. And just as they are created, so can they be destroyed - which also could mean forgotten or suppressed. The space of collective consciousness, to which they belong, is not the sum of knowledge of every participating individual. Nor is it some sort of lowest common denominator of a knowledge commonly shared. It is rather constituted by what circulates in the public as an idea. Through this circulation (also because the public is not a closed circle, but is constantly inventing itself) the space of common consciousness never becomes monolithic and secluded. There are mainstreams, branches, class specifications, trends and bubble-like enclosures in the form of sectarian-like whisperings. There is no consensus and non-consensus. Not a single connected brain is equally familiar with all sections in the space of the collective conscious. Therefore it is powered by opinion-making and manipulation, and is based on a mixture of interests. The various sources by which it is nurtured do not flow equally strongly. It is not that everyone makes his own small contribution and somehow out of this muddle jumps the space of collective consciousness as a democratic consensus. The space of collective consciousness is just as little a paradise as the physical space around us. Pressure and tough utilisation interests foster a hierarchical structure, in which there are finely graded access authorisations and secret control elements. There are exclusions, censorings and taboos. With so much disparity, it is almost a wonder that the space of the collective conscious does not disintegrate every single moment. But in a way, it is doing just that: It continuously disintegrates and reconstitutes itself.

The cement that holds the shop together is called an inter-subjective arrangement. It arises from the communicative structure of our society, which is basically founded on exchange - and not only intellectually. As a sort of convergence booster, it leads towards dissipative factors. Ascertainment of the truth plays only a minor role in the navigation through the space of the collective conscious. It is, however, impartial to the fact that reality is constructed in it. And just like the physical space of our cities - its streets, parks and squares - it is evidently a public space, since public consciousness takes place in it and through it.


The space of the collective offers itself as a playing field for artistic action. But if you want to make an artistic implementation, the methods must differ from a traditional, product-orientated type of approach, which mainly focuses on representational, figurative creation. I 1 ITo avoid any misunderstanding please note that here and following 'representational' does not refer to a reflectional surface (in the sense of 'representational' and 'abstract' art). Instead the term 'representational' refers to the factual existence of the artwork, so that a stone sculpture, for instance, even when expressing a totally abstract form, is first of all a representing object, which means it represents 'a stone sculpture' - as opposed to a project in which the artwork is not given, but can be indirectly experienced and therefore is 'un-representational'. In opposition to this is the project-orientated approach. Communication, participation, action and medial imparting are strategies of art, where the task is: Production of an intellectual figure and its anchoring in the space of collective consciousness. In this case misunderstandings ought to be cleared up from the beginning. We can assume that there is no-one among the makers of figurative art who demand an effect on the space of collective consciousness for his work - apart from the meaning-Minimalists, who find the artistic twist specifically in the plain presence of the art piece: i.e. the pure fact of its appearance. All others insist that there are ongoing content of meaning - such as by transcendental, spiritual or metaphysical means or in the form of political statements or cultural statements - which are derivable from the artwork and which are communicative and are communicated. And of course they are correct in their assumption. But in the very first place, i.e. the immediate level of existence, which is acknowledgeable through the confrontation with an opposite, such an artwork is undeniably a representing object. And everything that exceeds this representational state is interpretation.

It is different with the 'project'. The actions, of which execution in the physical space is necessary, do not constitute an artwork in themselves, but rather create a type of field, which as such the artwork only represents. Because the real material of artistic work - orders, social processes, notations - is difficult to gather, the method is necessarily indirect. All actions necessary for the production of the field must be considered regarding their effects. However carefully and thoughtfully one proceeds, the airiness of the material makes any kind of procedure unpredictable and conditional. Therefore there is some openness, which basically is a special quality of the project-orientated way of working. It can, in any case, can be stated that here the production and communication of the artwork are inextricably linked, compared with a sculptor for instance, for whom the artistic act is completed after the production of a sculpture and everything else - such as the printing and distribution of invitation cards - is not understood as part of the real artistic work.

No judgement is intended by what is stated above. By no means is it the intention of the writer to evaluate a priori any object implanted in the space of collective consciousness as art projects in contrast to objects which are realised in the physical space. An excellent drawing is certainly better than an amateurish project. Especially in regards to the over-inflated use of project terms is it rather necessary to come up with measuring criteria that distinguish between successful and unsuccessful projects. At another occasion I 2 IPlausibilität generieren, jetzt! Maßgabe zur Qualitätssicherung projektorientierter Kunst. In: Oberwelt, eine Gebrauchsanweisung, Stuttgart 2003 someone put forward the term 'plausibility' for categorising such distinctions. A project succeeds provided that it is plausible. All cogs must be carefully balanced and interlocked, both at the statement level and in its immediately affected surroundings, in order to transport the project form as a whole into the consciousness of potential recipients. (In contrast one can use the term 'troublesome' to describe any faults in the conception or procedure of projects).


'The space of collective consciousness' - as a site for agitative 'art in public space' projects - is not without its problems, due to the fact that certain claims are made of the artwork, such as representation, city enhancement or economic utilisation. This is related to the immaterial character of the artworks and the distributive assignment of spreading intellectual entry hatches.

In opposition to this I would plead for art to reason that the space of collective consciousness should not be left to its own devices, since - due to the expansion of media in the past centuries - it has developed a mastery of its domain. This art is open for any artistic effort, which I would define as a generally purpose-free structure. From this structure, content of meaning can be derived which cannot be dissolved into common utilisation patterns and therefore remains fit to release any experience or surplus of feeling. Therefore such artistic interventions can set free those particular moments of disturbance necessary to break up the attitude toward absoluteness within this manifested 'second reality' to which the space of collective consciousness has transformed. Yet, this space is less and less formed and therefore less and less experienced as man-made. Instead, this cumulative mass is increasingly assumed as a virtually natural and immovable fact.

Even in their first case, i.e. on the level of its immediate appearance, project-orientated art takes a reality concept into account, which understands the world not only as a constructed ensemble of things, but as an infinite complexity of merging orders, organisations, systems, hierarchies, symbols etc. The mentioned factors are not art, but serve as working material for the artist, because they are shape-able. We tackle it.


As a little delicacy to end with, however, I will tell an anecdote proving that it is not always artists who automatically achieve the best results. There are times where certain events pop up spontaneously in the space of collective consciousness which feature all the criteria of a good artwork without ever intending to be one. Since in this case the mechanisms become especially apparent, the following story will prove the potential of informational structures for great beauty and impressiveness to evolve - at least partially and for a short duration - within the space of collective consciousness. This ought to be an incentive for every artist to achieve the same.

The following happened not long ago in Lübeck: A sausage dog had crept into a sewage pipe and had got lost in the sewage system. The search lasted for several days. The dog was called 'Anton' - and one would agree that this was an excellently chosen name promising something touchingly old-fashioned, such as the fact of keeping a sausage dog, so that one's emotions would be immediately stirred.

I must confess that I am jealous. Jealous of the event of which I am not the author. I really would love to have invented this story with the sausage dog. In my inner eye I see myself kneeling and yelling into the channel shafts: 'Anton! Anton!' and roaming through Lübeck until my friendly fellow men, to whom I would hastily have explained my dramatic situation, would have taken pity on me and joined my search. Following the snowball effect, the event grows in size and influence until the entire city ends up in a delirium. Just imagine: All citizens wherever they go, are walking at a slight tilt, because they constantly have one ear on the sewage system listening out for a bark - what a sight for the gods!

And this is exactly what happened in Lübeck. The only difference is that no artist had made it up. The event was no fake, but a so-called true incident. The inevitable happened - the newspapers took over. A prize was set up for his rescue. An interest in Anton's destiny took over the entire republic.

It was not the frenzy of media hype which caught my envy, but the shallow poetry that lay in the incident itself. The intellectual image must be right and in this case it works in an amazing way. Anton functions perfectly as a projection of our fears and wishes. Withdrawn from the bourgeois life - the sedate lifestyle of a lap dog - and suddenly left to one's own devices and thrown into a wild world full of dangers and adventures. In this hostility, what literally opened up was an abyss within the old familiarity, Anton was now forced to lead his pitiful - and also enviable - substitute life. For in a world that has erased the unknown white spaces from the map, one can gain some comfort in catching sudden glimpses of the strange, which yet also means new experiences and fulfilments. However, certainly there is a great deal of horror in such an experience. The darkness and humidity and the cold eyes of the rats...


The fact that a sausage dog originally was used in foxhunting to chase the enemy/fox through narrow tunnels makes the Anton story open for any sort of projection of the primary instinct. In the civil consciousness there is always this lonesome figure, who ends up throwing off the chains of civilisation and turning towards an original and authentically-experienced way of life.

It may sound a bit far-fetched, but evidently the special success of the Anton story - his enormous popularity - can be explained by a strong sympathy towards all the mentioned factors of engaging with Anton's destiny. Certainly the least conscious reflected this, but mostly it was a subconsciously associative rustle, a sort of flicker of meaning.

If the Anton-work had been an artwork, it would have received prizes for perfection in the staging of a media event that affected the physical space to such a degree with a placed intellectual formation. Because the massive change took place within the physical space, the direct urban surrounding of Lübeck was not powered by something set into the space, but instead an awareness was shifted. This happened through a shift in the attitude of the population. It was specifically in regards to hearing that the shift occurred. People suddenly listened more intensely. And they also looked at things differently and thought differently about what they had seen. A complete city beneath the city - a network of canals like a labyrinth, filled with rubbish and mud - which is normally cancelled out in our awareness of our living-space and therefore is a perfect synonym for everything subconscious, slowly formed in their awareness. Generally you can state that people's daily movements through the streets happened with less thoughtlessness, so that the way from A to B was no longer an irksome bridge between places of event, but became an event in itself. And is there anything more beautiful for an artwork than achieving an enhancement of living in such a way?

Assuming that this was an art project, the input of artistic means was rather poor compared to the gigantic effect of its outcome. This is not necessarily a criteria for a successful work, but it is proof of a certain elegance. A little bit of performance, a few chats, interviews, distribution of leaflets. However, this should not mislead one regarding artistic competence, which is necessary for the realisation of such a coup. Not only does the invention of such a well-appointed and effective event which rattles the bars of our unconscious require an extremely high degree of know-how, but also every single action demands accuracy in order to achieve maximum authenticity.

Regarding artistic competence, the artist should never appear too cool in interviews - a bit of stuttering and stumbling precisely proves that one is no media professional. Maybe a small gamsbart hat would be effective. But don't overdo it! Even the designing of the leaflets, which are to be stuck on lampposts as a cry for help to the population, must be made with a sense of proportion.


Concerning the ending, I am uncertain. In real life the whole incident ended tragically and the sausage dog passed away in the underground canal system. A few days later the delirium came to an end and the citizens of Lübeck could drop back into their old traditional way of life. Naturally everyone would have enjoyed a happy ending: Suddenly the sausage dog would appear wearing a laurel wreath and happily barking. Or one could have put the whole incident aside, allowing the ravages of time to do its part, since it is certain that such a story would not captivate mankind for all time. Eventually other news would make its way into the foreground, and interest would vanish. From then the unappeared Anton could have continued leading an untroubled existence in the underground canal system of Lübeck, where he would have dissolved into a ghost in the duration of time. But this is pure speculation - better stop!

However this should adhere: Probably there are stone sculptors who bow to a stone at some cliffs and praise the carving made by the surf, whose perfection no artistic hand may complete. In this way I bow to this treasure which the flood of information has washed to my shore, and I praise its form and its engraving.



↑ top of the page



Copyright: You can read hints for copyright on the page → Legal Notice



deutsch I english