[This essay was originally published with the title "For
Hamburg: Public Art and Urban Identities" in the exhibition
catalogue Public Art is Everywhere (Hamburg, Germany: Kunstverein
Hamburg and Kulturbehörde Hamburg, 1997, 95-109), organized
by artist Christian Philipp Muller. Although my critique here
of the conditions of public art and their relationship to
urban reorganization seems outdated, reductive, and too strident
now, I hope the text will nonetheless add to a richer understanding
of the contradictory pressures that impact public art programs
today. Miwon Kwon, 08/2002]
Public art practices within the United States have experienced
significant shifts over the past thirty years. 
The three paradigms can be schematically distinguished:
(1) art in public places, typically a modernist abstract
sculpture placed outdoors to "decorate" or "enrich"
urban spaces, especially plaza areas fronting federal buildings
or corporate office towers;
(2) art as public spaces, less object-oriented and
more site-conscious art that sought greater integration between
art, architecture, and the landscape through artists' collaboration
with members of the urban managerial class (such as architects,
landscape architects, city planners, urban designers, and
city administrators), in the designing of permanent urban
(re)development projects such as parks, plazas, buildings,
promenades, neighborhoods, etc.; and more recently,
(3) art in the public interest (or "new genre
public art"), often temporary city-based programs focusing
on social issues rather than the built environment that involve
collaborations with marginalized social groups (rather than
design professionals), such as the homeless, battered women,
urban youths, AIDS patients, prisoners, and which strives
toward the development of politically-conscious community
events or programs.
These three paradigms of public art reflect broader shifts
in advanced art practices over the past thirty years: the
slide of emphasis from aesthetic concerns to social issues,
from the conception of an art work primarily as an object
to ephemeral processes or events, from prevalence of permanent
installations to temporary interventions, from the primacy
of production as source of meaning to reception as site of
interpretation, and from autonomy of authorship to its multiplicitous
expansion in participatory collaborations. While these shifts
represent a greater inclusivity and democratization of art
for many artists, arts administrators, arts institutions,
and some of their audience members, there is also the danger
of a premature and uncritical embrace of "progressive"
art as an equivalent of "progressive" politics.
(Although neglected by the mainstream art world, artistic
practices based in community organizing and political activism
has been around for a long time. Why is it now that it has
become a favored model in public arts programming and arts
funding?) The shifts in artistic practice, while challenging
the ideological establishment of art, may at the same time
capitulate to the changing modes of capitalist expansion.
What appears to be progressive, even transgressive and radical,
may in fact serve conservative if not reactionary agendas
of the dominant minority.
As a follow-up, I want to address more specifically here the
relationship between art practices and the production of urban
identities. Throughout its recent history, public art has
been defined in part against a (discursive) backdrop of "spectre
of placelessness" and the "death of cities."
Initially described in architectural terms in the 1960s and
70s, the ostensive demise of urban centers and the degradation
of "quality of life" therein are described more
and more now in terms of social problems such as violence,
homelessness, poverty, crime, drugs, pollution, etc. But whether
concerned with the character of the built environment or with
the uneven socio-economic relations foundational to current
urban conditions, "place-making" remains a central,
if unarticulated, imperative in public arts programming today.
Public art participates in the production of a site's distinction,
often a city's uniqueness, which in turn is intimately engaged
in the processes of economic reorganization of resources and
power as they are played out through the rehierarchization
of space in the social structure of cities.
I present two seemingly antithetical case studies here to
address the art-city relationship. First is Alexander Calder's
1969 sculpture La Grande Vitesse in Grand Rapids, Michigan,
the first public art work sponsored by the Art-in-Public-Places
Program of the National Endowment for the Arts' Visual Arts
Program, which was established in 1965. Conceived as a capping
for an urban development program, Grand Rapids, like so many
other American cities in the late 1960s and 70s, wanted to
build a thriving new downtown business and cultural center.
The cultural leaders of the city wanted to "get on the
map" both nationally and internationally, which is to
say, they conceived the city to be siteless. The city solicited
Calder, an artist of international renown, indeed one of the
fathers of modernist abstraction, for a work that could be
hailed as a "Grand Rapids Calder," like the "Chicago
Picasso," which had been commissioned with private funds
for the Chicago Civic Center and installed two years earlier
Despite the initial controversy regarding La Grande Vitesse
over issues of regionalism vs. nationalism, the usefulness
of an abstract sculpture vs. a properly large fountain, and
questions about Calder's allegiance to America (he had lived
in France for most of his adult life), La Grande Vitesse in
subsequent years has apparently been embraced by the city.
Outdoing the Picasso sculpture in its emblematic function,
the sculpture has been incorporated into the city's official
stationery and its image is even stenciled onto the city's
garbage trucks. To the extent that a work of art has become
a symbol of the city, La Grande Vitesse, as the first public
sculpture to be installed under the auspices of the NEA, is
still considered to be one of the most successful public art
projects in the United States.
Considering the site as a physical entity, Calder's large
red sculpture was to become a centralizing focal point, a
powerful presence that would visually and spatially organize
the space of the plaza, which was modeled somewhat superficially
on European piazzas. In addition to providing a "humane"
reprieve from the surrounding modern glass-steel office architecture,
deemed brutal and inhumane, the sculpture was to function
as a marker of identity for the plaza. At the same time, La
Grande Vitesse was to create an identity for the city at large.
On the one hand, the city thought itself to be lacking in
distinctive identity, without unique features, a city whose
site was unspecific. With an itinerant inferiority complex
economically and culturally, Grand Rapids wanted to find a
place for itself "on the map." On the other hand,
Calder had established himself as a pedigree artist of strong
identity and signature style. The function of La Grande Vitesse
was to infuse the sense of placelessness of the plaza with
the artist's creative originality, to literally mark the plaza
site as a singular, "specific" location. By extension,
the sculpture was to mark the uniqueness of the city as a
It is important to note that Calder never saw, nor did he
feel it necessary to visit, the plaza before the sculpture's
installation. Like a good modernist, he operated under the
assumptions of an art work's autonomy. The site, in the case
of this project, then, was conceived as a kind of abstract
blankness awaiting some marker (i.e., art, sculpture) to give
it what could be claimed an authentic identity, even if that
identity was created through the logic of a logo. The insertion
of an art work functioned like an inscription, giving the
site a voice. Calder's "voice" as an artist was
joined together with Grand Rapids' perceived lack of one,
as La Grande Vitesse gathered up what surrounds it (the plaza
and the city), to become an emblem for the city, rendering
the city into a sign. In a strange sense, even though the
sculpture was not conceived as site specific, it nevertheless
became site specific--site specificity was produced
here as an effect and not engaged as a method of artistic
Unlike the Calder example, the second case begins with the
general cultural valorization of places as the locus of authentic
experience and coherent sense of historical and personal identity.
Relying on a certain gymnastics of logic in relation to the
site, qualities like originality, authenticity, and singularity
are reworked in recent site-oriented practices--evacuated
from the artwork and attributed to the site. "Places
with a Past," the 1991 site-specific city-based arts
programs organized by independent curator Mary Jane Jacob,
although not conceived as a public art project per se, serves
as an instructive example in this context. The exhibition,
composed of nineteen site-specific installations by internationally
well-known artists, took the city of Charleston, South Carolina,
as not only the backdrop but a "bridge between the works
of art and the audience." .
In addition to breaking the rules of the art establishment
(taking art to the "street" and to the "people"),
"Places with a Past" wanted to further a dialogue
between art and the socio-historical dimension of places.
According to Jacob, "Charleston proved to be fertile
ground" for the investigation of issues concerning
"...gender, race, cultural identity, considerations
of difference... subjects much in the vanguard of criticism
The actuality of the situation, the fabric of the time and
place of Charleston, offered an incredibly rich and meaningful
context for the making and siting of publicly visible and
physically prominent installations that rang true in [the
artists'] approach to these ideas."
While site-specific art continues to be described as a refutation
of originality and authenticity as intrinsic qualities of
the art object or the artist, this resistance facilitates
the translation and relocation of these qualities from the
art work to the place of its presentation. But then, these
qualities return to the art work now that it has become
integral to the site. Admittedly, according to Jacob, "locations...contribute
a specific identity to the shows staged by injecting into
the experience the uniqueness of the place."
 Conversely, if the social, historical,
and geographical specificity of Charleston offered artists
a unique opportunity to create unrepeatable works (and by
extension an unrepeatable exhibition), then exhibitions like
"Places with a Past" ultimately utilize art to promote
Charleston as a unique place also. What is prized most of
all in site-specific (public) art is still the singularity
and authenticity that the presence of the artist seems to
guarantee, not only in terms of the presumed unrepeatability
of the work but in the ways in which the presence of the artist
also endows places with a "unique" distinction.
As I have written elsewhere ,
site-specific art can lead to the unearthing of repressed
histories, provide support for greater visibility of marginalized
groups and issues, and initiate the re(dis)covery of "minor"
places so far ignored by the dominant culture. But inasmuch
as the current socio-economic order thrives on the (artificial)
production and (mass) consumption of difference (for difference
sake), the siting of art in "real" places can also
be a means to extract the social and historical dimensions
out of places to variously serve the thematic drive of an
artist, satisfy institutional demographic profiles, or fulfill
the fiscal needs of a city.
Significantly, the appropriation of site-specific public
art for the valorization of urban identities comes at a time
of a fundamental cultural shift in which architecture and
urban planning, formerly the primary media for expressing
a vision of the city, are displaced by other media more intimate
with marketing and advertising. In the words of urban theorist
Kevin Robins, "As cities have become ever more equivalent
and urban identities increasingly 'thin,'...it has become
necessary to employ advertising and marketing agencies to
manufacture such distinctions. It is a question of distinction
in a world beyond difference." 
Site specificity and public art in this context find new importance
because they can supply distinction of place and uniqueness
of locational identity, highly seductive qualities in the
promotion of towns and cities within the competitive restructuring
of the global economic hierarchy. Thus, site-specific public
art remains inexorably tied to a process that renders particularity
and identity of various cities a matter of product differentiation.
Indeed, the exhibition catalogue for "Places with a Past"
was a tasteful tourist promotion, pitching the city of Charleston
as a unique, "artistic," and meaningful place (to
visit).  Under the pretext
of their articulation or resuscitation, site-specific public
art can be mobilized to expedite the erasure of differences
via the commodification and serialization of places.
It is within this framework, in which art is put to the service
of generating a sense of authenticity and uniqueness of place
for quasi-promotional agendas, that I understand the goals
of city-based art programs in Europe as well, such as "Sculpture.
Projects in Münster 1997." (It should be noted that
the 1987 Sculpture Project in Münster served as one of
the models for "Places with a Past.") According
to co-curator Klaus Bußmann's press release,
"The fundamental idea behind the exhibitions was to create
a dialogue between artists, the town and the public, in other
words, to encourage the artists to create projects that dealt
with conditions in the town, its architecture, urban planning,
its history and the social structure of society in the town.
[....] Invitations to artists from all over the world to come
to Münster for the sculpture project, to enter into a
debate with the town, have established a tradition which will
not only be continued in the year 1997 but beyond this will
become something specific to Münster: a town not only
as an "open-air museum for modern art" but also
as a place for a natural confrontation between history and
contemporary art. [....] The aim of the exhibition "Sculpture.
Projects in Münster" is to make the town of Münster
comprehensible as a complex, historically formed structure
exactly in those places that make it stand out from other
towns and cities." 
Which is to say, the ambitions of programs like "Places with
a Past" and "Sculpture. Projects in Münster 1997" ultimately
do not seem to veer very far from those of the city officials
and cultural leaders of Grand Rapids, Michigan, thirty years
ago. For despite the tremendous differences in the art of
choice among these three events, their investment in generating
a sense of uniqueness and authenticity for their respective
places of presentation remains quite consistent. As such endeavors
to engage art in the nurturing of specificities of locational
difference gather momentum, there is a greater and greater
urgency in distinguishing between the cultivation of
art and places and their appropriation for the promotion
of cities as cultural commodities.
 See my "Im Interesse
der Öffentlichkeit...," in Springer (December 1996-February
 See Places with
a Past: New Site-Specific Art at Charleston's Spoleto Festival,
ex. cat. (New York: Rizzoli, 1991), 19. The exhibition took
place May 24-August 4, 1991, with nineteen "site-specific"
works by artists including Ann Hamilton, Christian Boltanski,
Cindy Sherman, David Hammons, Lorna Simpson and Alva Rogers,
Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler, and Ronald Jones, among others.
The promotional materials, especially the exhibition catalogue,
emphasized the innovative challenge of the exhibition format
over the individual projects, and foregrounded the authorial
role of Mary Jane Jacob over the artists.
 Ibid., 17.
 Ibid., 15.
 My comments here are
from a longer essay on this topic. See my "One Place After
Another: Notes on Site Specificity," October 80 (Spring
 Kevin Robins, "Prisoners
of the City: Whatever Can a Postmodern City Be?," in Erica
Carter, James Donald, and Judith Squires, eds., Space and
Place: Theories of Identity and Location (London: Lawrence
& Wishart, 1993), 306.
 Cultural critic Sharon
Zukin has noted, "it seemed to be official policy [by the
1990s] that making a place for art in the city went along
with establishing a marketable identity for the city as a
whole." See Sharon Zukin, The Culture of Cities (Cambridge,
MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1995), 23.
 Klaus Bußmann,
undated press release for "Sculpture. Projects in Münster