25 Mar

Spatial Engagement’s Chronotope in Electronic Art and the Public Sphere

The received notion of the public sphere in fact melds an array of narrative and structural elements into a domain of expressive possibility whose center of attention serves both aesthetic and intersubjective concerns. This commingling entails two dynamic affordances that have been especially open to manipulation through new media art: the presence of architecture as sculptural object, and the use of projective strategies for pluralistic communication. The latter works as a new branch of street performance, not for actors, but for media. The sense of novelty here is more than mechanical; it compacts the distance between human and machine, the latter increasingly assuming roles played by the former, but organizes both in a new coordinate space that is neither entirely physical/real nor virtual/technological.

New media sculpture’s appropriation of architecture’s physical affordances utilizes those as a support for the kind of overlay that emerges naturally on the computer screen but not in three dimensions. For media artists Holger Mader, Alexander Stubli?, and architect Heike Wiermann the perceptual superimposition of one geometric structure over another makes a contrasting statement of this kind. Here, the felt directness that inheres in the stationary physical authority of a building or sculptural object is embedded into and within the dynamic projection of a moving grid, lattice, or framework, presenting itself as objective in its own plane within three-dimensional virtual space. And although the projected imagery congeals into position and reconfigures the physical into what would seem a “physical+virtual” compound, addition is not the precise operator to summarize the conceptual result. We can see in the resulting image-object evidence for how the categorical nature of image sequences, namely animation, is distinct from that of event sequences, namely, narrative; it is more accurately a progression of geometrical reconstructions whose logic destroys the confluence of order that a viewer expects when space and non-space collide and collude. It is the corollary of this distinction that Bakhtin finds in the literary novel’s relationship to temporal and spatial categories – a coordinate relationship that he terms the chronotope – and which is distinct for particular circumstances. In the romance, for example, Bakhtin locates narrative’s reliance on a space-time characteristic that is distinct from that which he terms “adventure-time”.1 But in my present argument, the chronotope of spatial engagement is very particular to new media’s supplementation of subjective experience in architectural or real space.

This attribute is evident in Façade for example, a work originally designed for projection onto the Reykjavik headquarters building of Orkuveita Reykjavíkur, Iceland’s energy purveyor. The otherwise unremarkable, understated postmodern regularity of this structure is rendered unstable through a trans-axiality of non-Euclidian proportion. Abstract geometric forms appear in patterned unison, then, together, blend, meld, and transform into others equally rectilinear, with the unlikely flow of shifting desert sand. Depth against surface, figure against ground, edge against point, the primacy of spatial perception is subsumed under the polytonality of objects anchored in two separate coordinate systems within a single space.










Mader, Stubli?, Wiermann, Façade. Electronic Projection, 2007. Images courtesy of the artists.

This is not to say that projective space, as distinct from real space, obviates the social dynamic and function of spatial use as traditionally determined in the polis, or notion of the state as a representative layer over collective presence in a boundaried space. Rather, the character of projective space, which is already naturally transformative over architecture, is of a kind with what the notion of a dynamic democratic presence represented from the outset. It is, for example, in the early Habermas3 that full awareness of public sphere (Oeffentlichkeit) is first given, both as theoretical source of critique and empirical support for social transformation. As the historical roots of this term date back to the practices of the first democratic forum of ancient Greece, ‘public sphere’ has long been surrendered almost exclusively for political discourse. But it also operates elsewhere, in an art context, perhaps more openly, in ways that distinguish themselves from relations of power between humans and institutions. Here it would differentiate, for example, between perceptual provocation and moral persuasion.  But the public sphere’s immutable relevance and power, equally resonant with politics and with art despite their diverse agendas, lie in its potential for motorizing consciousness. Using the idea of the public sphere as the main analytic bludgeon in a sweeping critique aimed directly at the crisis of modernity, Habermas expanded previous thinking, constrained as it too often was, by the often longwinded pirouettes necessary to reduce the manifold reality of contemporary conditions down to Marxist or protest polemics. Inspired nonetheless but not constrained by such ideological biases (he owes much, for instance, to Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment) Habermas’s concept, perhaps theory, of the public sphere draws on more than history and philosophy, but sweeps through economics, architecture, and sociology of communication to expand the opposition first established between private sphere – the arena of domestic concerns – and public sphere up toward something more nuanced and complicated – and can therefore relate art’s response to the encroachment of the public sphere in private life. And in new media, this opposition has grown into a mutual interpermeation, whereby the private self assumes a public sphere through the garb of a web persona from Facebook or MySpace, the bard of the blog, the prolocutor in the chat room, the doppelganger in Second Life. What means public sphere when each of those two words has been so altered by its virtual translation? Simply put, Habermas’s unspoken meta-contribution lies in first offering up an objective, workable, and sustainable distinction between the ideological and the critical, theretofore entirely conflated within Marxist discourse, and one might bear in mind the consequences for new media art criticism.

But this is not the only expanded alteration of importance to us. There are two other terms which have been observed operating in semantic equivalence in the work of Habermas, Horkheimer and Adorno: modernity and avant-garde.4 While they may adequately serve the aims of critical political discourse as synonyms there, a difference among them bears retaining, particularly in the language of art, where they relate less through parity than through a kind of coextension of one another. In particular, the complex conditions of modernity extend to relations of production that are directed by divergent lines of interest, lines which often remain faithful to conventions where monetary value is manipulated and accumulates most steadily. In the art world, the gladiatorial venue for this ‘conservative modernity’ is the auction house, in which work from previous generations is traded as never before, applying price scales exceeding those of the diamond industry[1]. One can say, much more recently, that the same now applies to new art as well. But the trade in avant-garde art is much more bipolar, tenuous, selective, than that of prior generations, so that the sentiments that motivate the rules for this new kind of extreme value exchange are not in balance with those which, operating in the same spatio-temporal conditions of modernity, have produced and championed the avant-garde. In fact, the nadir of the modernity versus avant-garde wedge can, uniquely in art and unlike any other industry or discipline, be identified as radiating from one person, in Clement Greenberg, whose value judgments polarized the art world in precisely this way. But for art, the real factor of interest relating modernity and avant-garde is no longer played out in differences between formal abstractions of judgment like those which Greenberg articulated, flatness, for example, intimately tied with painting or sculptural modes of production. This battleground has been supplanted by others, the near-political zone and debates of the increasingly expanded and variegated public sphere is one of them. It is in that particular theatre that the sentiments of the avant-garde appear most poignantly, hold up a mirror to, and even clash with, the assumed framework of modernity in which the populace operates. Public art has come to challenge the public’s understanding of the functions of art and of space.

Richard Serra, Tilted Arc, 1981, Cor-ten steel, 12 x 120 feet, New York City.

Richard Serra, Tilted Arc, 1981, Cor-ten steel, 12 x 120 feet, New York City.

Of course, the infamous case of this challenge, chronicled in the story of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, serves as the icon of a polemic of the avant-garde within and against the assumptions of the public sphere. Commissioned by the U.S. General Services Administration’s Arts-in-Architecture program for the Federal Plaza in New York City, Richard Serra designed and placed a 120 foot long, 12 foot high wall of cor-ten steel so as to cut a previously unobstructed walking space almost entirely into diagonal halves. Serra’s spatial rupture made explicit the subversive use of art and the susceptibility of space to artistic objectification; in perhaps his most explicit remark on the sculpture as a phenomenological function, Serra asserted that “The viewer becomes aware of himself and of his movement through the plaza. As he moves, the sculpture changes. Contraction and expansion of the sculpture result from the viewer’s movement. Step by step the perception not only of the sculpture but of the entire environment changes.”2 But this polemic of art and public sphere played out in the reconfiguring use of space – and in ferocious arguments in legal and critical circles – proved unequivocally tense, and art lost. Nine years after being erected in 1981, the sculpture was ordered destroyed. In its own arc of construction, “use”, and destruction this one work therefore responded both to the assumable notions of modernity – an unquestioning, uncritical avowal of art in almost anesthetic echoes of decorative art – whose (literal and figurative) position ultimately realized a necessary and conscious attack on those assumptions for art, space, and style that defines avant-garde as the refutation, rather than the Habermasian synonym, of modernist assumption. Through Tilted Arc, historians, political functionaries and the public found that while art of modernity extends the current environmental conditions for contemporary adaptation, avant-garde art confronts and redirects them, the literal case of which became the public sphere-as-experience of the sculpture’s plaza visitors. For when Serra stresses the engagement aesthetic, the explicit goal of transforming of viewer into the subject (“space becomes the sum of successive perceptions of the place. The viewer becomes the subject”7), he also makes that viewer into a proxy for the public sphere. As the avant-garde will, to quote the formalist phrase, make the familiar strange, the previous absence of even the vaguest reflection on space, destination, goal, and time that each pedestrian could afford to not-experience in Federal Plaza became replaced by the hyper-consciousness of those aims that Tilted Arc, as art (or obstacle) brought to inescapable awareness.

While one’s initial impression of avant-garde art comes to view as something abstract, formal, removed, and intellectually inscrutable, it is in the public sphere that what is an innocuous lout in this figure inexplicably becomes the threatening menace of corrupting value. Serra’s rightful anger found the crux of this turning point in the mind-numbing aesthetic judgments of political critics and pundits, whose diatribes for American freedom and democracy encountered no contradiction in their equally vociferous arguments for censorship of works which offended their own myopic sensibilities.8 Moreover, as Serra’s lawyers discovered, laws protecting copyright offered no protection on grounds of moral right of an artist to claim legal protection from distortion, defacement, or in this case, destruction, of a work once it is sold. A work, once sold, could be (and was) destroyed if the owner didn’t like it. This is problematic enough when it applies to a single individual (such as when a Japanese bank president destroyed a Noguchi sculpture that was not deemed worthy of artistic interest) but when the owner is the public, the work of art speaks in the public sphere, and the de facto executor becomes the bureaucratic public administrator.  Conservative arguments, like those overbearing dismissals of Hilton Kramer, refused to acknowledge the responsibility that necessarily accompanies the modes deliberative engagement and expression that the public sphere has historically afforded the populace and upon which democracy itself depends. Instead, the problem becomes restated as one of offensiveness to the public. What originates as the engagement aesthetic of Serra’s wish to make the implicit explicit, to bring to conscious awareness the function of space and art in it, distorts into an attack on the part of the artist against the public.  Consider Kramer’s misrepresentation of Serra:

What proved to be so bitterly offensive to the community that “Tilted Arc” was commissioned to serve was its total lack of amenity indeed, its stated goal of provoking the most negative and disruptive response to the site the sculpture dominated with an arrogant disregard for the mental well-being and physical convenience of the people who were obliged to come into contact with the work in the course of their daily employment.5

When engagement is recast as obligation, art judged by the extreme adjective of “decency” (burdening art with the impossibly subjective and historically transient definition of decency) no work in the public sphere can survive, for what work of art has the option to appear and disappear at the whim of a member of that public unable to critically reconsider his own conservative sensibilities? How in fact can the public sphere operate at all when it can be censored, shut down, controlled by rules of order defined by any single group whose umbrage is first or most virulently provoked? An historically, the effect is amplified; the avant-garde in this kind of public sphere is afforded no bottom or anchor.

If materially originated avant-garde art like Tilted Arc can find such little protection in the public sphere, what of art in the hyper-contemporary spaces of the virtual sphere, most of which is by definition avant-garde? Critiques that first looked at contemporary artists and works through the lens of their response to and relevance with ideological and counter-ideological statements ought to be extended in correspondence with the augmentation of the public sphere into virtual dimensions, particularly as this also-contemporary octave of the public sphere provides an empirical platform for dialogue on the same matters of substance that consumed the 18th century salons of which Habermas wrote3. There is no doubt but that the participatory characteristics of that environment are increasingly corroborated by empirical research that should also enter the discursive spaces of art criticism in contemporary engagement, because destruction of art is not in the interest of that public sphere. It is within art, in fact that the public sphere can voice distinctly, uniquely, autonomously, single poles of oppositions that cannot be separated or stated apart from their mutual antagonism in the political forum alone. In its many provocations, contemporary art can and does address themes of money (or not), of violence (or not), of coercion (or not), of tradition (or not), of class and stratification (or not). Naturally, this capability for voicing one side in exclusion of the other predates new media art, and is so clearly the prerogative of the artist that even within highly specific strategies of production – for example, text art –an entire oeuvre articulates either ideologically, as does that of Barbara Kruger, or not, as relates to that of Lawrence Weiner, or,alternatively, can ambiguously fringe the margin throughout, as does the work of Jenny Holzer, or projectively, that of Krzysztof Wodiczko.

This is not to disavow the real political character of much new media art, which turns to the conventional uses of the public sphere – the examples of Kanarinka, Jane Marsching argue this explicitly. And, offered up not merely less as an art-political than art-prophylactic intervention, Paul Notzold describes his aptly titled TXTual Healing as an SMS-enabled interactive street performance, as another case of spatial engagement whose own chronotope is more than imaginary.


Paul Notzold, TXTual Healing. SMS-enabled interactive projection. 2006. http://www.txtualhealing.com/

Cambridge, March 2010


Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Form of Time and Chronotope in the Novel.” In The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, edited by Michael Holquist, 84-258. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Buskirk, Martha and Weyergraf-Serra, Clara, ed. The Destruction of Tilted Arc: Documents. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeios Society. Cambridge: Polity, 1962 (trans 1989).

Hohendahl, Peter and Russian, Patricia. “Jürgen Habermas: ‘The Public Sphere’ (1964).” New German Critique 3, Autumn, 1974: 45-48.

Kramer, Hilton. “Is Art above the Laws of Decency?” New York Times, 2 July 1989.

Sandler, Linda. Christie’s 2007 Auctions Rise 25%, Boosted by Contemporary Art (Jan. 18, 2008) Bloomberg.com, translated, 2008 [cited Jan. 24 2008]. Available from http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601088&refer=home&sid=anpsAqCmYD_M.

Serra, Richard. “Selected Statements Arguing in Support of Tilted Arc.” In Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc”, edited by Clara Weyergraf-Serra and Martha Buskirk. Eindhoven: Eindhoven, 1988.

Serra., Richard. “Art and Censorship.” Critical Inquiry 17, no. 3 (Spring, 1991).

[1] This is hardly an overstatement. Bloomberg.com confirms that “Christie’s International said auction totals rose 25 percent last year on soaring sales of contemporary art. The London-based company, which is owned by the French billionaire Francois Pinault, sold 3.1 billion pounds ($6.1 billion) of art in 2007 at auctions and in private sales, according to an e-mailed statement. Sotheby’s drew level with its rival last year, reporting $6.2 billion in sales at auctions and in private sales, up 51 percent from 2006.”Linda Sandler, Christie’s 2007 Auctions Rise 25%, Boosted by Contemporary Art (Jan. 18, 2008) (Bloomberg.com, 2008).